Experts estimate that Taiwan might have its own nuclear weapons within a decade, Foreign Affairs reported last month, but the nation must develop its strategy based on whether its goal of a “resolute defense” is enough to deter a Chinese invasion and whether the US would come to its defense. If Taiwan is unsure about either of these, or wants to lock in the right to decide its own fate, it must develop an “effective and independent deterrent.”
The US is maintaining its long-time stance of “strategic ambiguity,” rather than “strategic clarity,” and the possibility that Taiwan might have to go to war without US support still looms.
During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army deputy chief of general staff Xiong Guangkai (熊光楷) said that the US would not defend Taiwan because “Americans care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.”
While the statement was an indirect threat to use nuclear weapons against the US, China still has fewer than 100 nuclear missiles capable of reaching the US, but the number is expected to increase. In light of China’s hypersonic missile test in July, is the US truly prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles for Taiwan?
China’s defense budget is 15 times bigger than Taiwan’s, and the military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait is working against Taipei.
Taiwan’s strategies over the decades have all followed the logic of “deterrence by denial” and “counterforce strategy.” Taiwan’s adoption of “inter-war deterrence,” which means deterring attacks while engaging in warfare, signifies that it is prepared to engage in a drawn-out battle with China. The official goal is to “disrupt the enemy’s agenda; obstruct, undermine or paralyze the attacks of the enemy.”
However, if China made an offensive move, it would not stop until it had conquered Taiwan. Otherwise, Taiwan might use the opportunity to create a new constitution, change its official name and seek recognition from the international community.
Any Chinese leader, including President Xi Jinping (習近平), would face a blow to their authority and credibility, and might even lose in a subsequent political power struggle.
Would an authoritarian like Xi be willing to give up power — or would he sacrifice people’s lives by a relentless advance that threatened 23 million Taiwanese?
Even if Taiwan managed to defeat an attacker, it would be left in ruins. The population and industry are concentrated in the west, which would be devastated in a military onslaught.
With doubts about Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and the US’ willingness to join in a fight, voices in support of Taiwan becoming a nuclear power come as no surprise.
If Taiwan hopes to retain the right to determine its own future, then it should adjust its strategic thinking and shift from “defense and deterrence in the wake of an outbreak” to “deterrence prior to an outbreak.”
The strategy of “effective deference” should also become “deterrence by punishment,” with the aim of inflicting “intolerable damage” on the enemy.
In the face of China’s growing threat to Taiwan in 2004, then-premier You Si-kun (游錫堃) said: “Deterrence is the easiest thing. To achieve absolute peace across the Taiwan Strait, all we need is the balance of terror like the past. China has the power to destroy Taiwan, and vice versa. This brings the balance of power, in which there would be no war. If China strikes against Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan can hit back at Shanghai. If we have such a means of countermeasure, then Taiwan will be safe.”
I will leave the topic of impact and predicament for another day.
Chen Shih-min is an associate professor in National Taiwan University’s political science department.
Translated by Rita Wang
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