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How to Ensure China Doesn’t Try to Invade Taiwan

Taiwan
F-22 Raptors assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. arrives at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England Oct. 5, 2018. The Raptors will train with U.S. allies and partners as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to European regional security. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The debate whether Washington should preserve its policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan or shift to “strategic clarity” lurched onward this week when Ely Ratner, the Pentagon assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, went before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Ratner called for bolstering Taiwan’s defenses, pronouncing it an “urgent task.” According to Reuters, however, he also opined that explicitly committing the United States to defend the island wouldn’t meaningfully strengthen deterrence.

That is passing strange. Deterrence involves issuing a threat. If I want to deter a hostile actor from taking some action its leadership might like to take, I issue a threat while exhibiting the capability and resolve to make good on my threat. If successful I make the hostile leadership a believer in my national power and my resolve to use it. My prospective antagonist refrains from the action I’ve proscribed. By contrast, strategic ambiguity leaves everyone wondering. I have neither issued a clear threat nor yoked power and purpose to it. I have consciously created a gray zone—and recent years have shown that gray zones are playgrounds where the Chinas and Russias of the world romp.

That being the case, Xi Jinping & Co. might gamble in the Taiwan Strait if they come to deprecate American steadfastness, martial prowess, or both. Meanwhile, the island’s inhabitants might despair of American succor rather than stand up for themselves against aggression. Morale in Taiwan could collapse.

But there may be another way to deter. Not all threats need be public. Remaining noncommittal in public, speaking candidly in private, and displaying military might be sufficient to prevail in the Strait and could be a winning formula for deterrence.

It has happened before. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the U.S. Navy battle fleet to the Caribbean Sea to shadow an Anglo-German fleet blockading Venezuela. The Venezuelan government had defaulted on loans taken out from European banks, and—as was common practice for the day—European capitals sent warships to collect. By levying sufficient economic pressure, and perhaps by bombarding the Venezuelan coast, they hoped to prompt Caracas to pay its debts.

Yet debt collection often meant temporarily occupying the customhouse in a debtor country and using tariff revenue to repay the bankers. And indeed, when committing itself to the Caribbean expedition, the German government had explicitly countenanced “the temporary occupation on our part of different Venezuelan harbor places.” But Roosevelt fretted that Europeans might keep the land where the customhouse stood after they had wrested it away. This wasn’t much of a stretch on TR’s part. European empires, including Germany’s, had spread across Africa and Asia through such stratagems. German leaders openly coveted naval stations in Brazil. Opportunism might tempt them to build one in Venezuela.

Once in possession of strategic real estate a great-power navy might construct a naval station there—and use it to harry Caribbean shipping lanes to the United States’ and its neighbors’ detriment. Moreover, ships of war based there could menace the approaches to the Panama Canal once it opened. If this happened Germany or Great Britain would have breached the Monroe Doctrine, the longstanding policy whereby Washington forbade outsiders to establish new colonies in the Americas.

This would not do.

But how to fend off aggression? Dealing with Kaiser Wilhelm II would prove especially nettlesome. The German emperor’s conduct was alternately bellicose and conciliatory, making it tough to forecast what he might do on any given day or to manage relations with him. TR didn’t relish calling out Wilhelm in public by, say, demanding that the Anglo-German fleet desists from grabbing coastal ground or withdraw from regional waters altogether. As a rule, in fact, Roosevelt preferred to play power politics in private. In so doing he spared foreign rulers’ vanity and reduced the chance of goading them into rash actions.

TR had a reputation for bombast. Deserved or not, it did not apply to his conduct of diplomacy. Biographer Edmund Morris depicts Roosevelt as “a commander in chief who accomplished much of his grand strategy in silence and secrecy.” His credo in stressful times: “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

The pattern played out in the Venezuelan crisis. German ambassador Theodor von Holleben visited the White House on December 8, 1902. President Roosevelt took him aside to confer privately about the blockade: “I told him to tell the Kaiser that I put [Admiral George] Dewey in charge of our fleet to maneuver in West Indian waters,” deploying under the guise of peacetime exercises. He went on: “the world at large would know this merely as a maneuver, and we should strive in every way to appear simply as cooperating with the Germans, but . . . I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary, if Germany took any action that looked like the acquisition of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere in the Caribbean.”

The president gave Berlin ten days to disclaim any design to occupy Venezuelan soil, after which Admiral Dewey would go south with a mandate, in TR’s words, “to observe matters along Venezuela.” Caracas called for U.S. arbitration after the blockade turned violent on December 9, when German mariners seized four Venezuelan gunboats and sank three of them. William II foreswore land-grabbing after a flurry of clandestine diplomacy between Washington and Berlin, decreeing that “we will allow our flag to follow the lead of the British.” Yet he also rejected the Venezuelan entreaty for arbitration. In a subsequent meeting with Ambassador von Holleben, consequently, TR advanced his ultimatum by twenty-four hours. War would follow unless the German monarch relented.

Holleben left the White House shaken by this latest exchange, and the record went silent at that point. As Morris recalls, White House staffers “saw the ambassador go, but . . . made no record of his visit. Neither did clerks at the State Department or at the German embassy. It suited everybody concerned that the diplomatic record of this matter be blank from thenceforth; Wilhelm would be free to end the crisis without evidence of having been coerced.” Berlin concluded that Roosevelt was not bluffing, and it bowed to realities of naval power, namely that only a fraction of the German Navy would face off against the concentrated might of the U.S. Navy in the U.S. Navy’s backyard. German prestige would suffer a massive blow if German commanders fought and lost. On December 17 the kaiser’s government accepted American arbitration, and the crisis subsided.

So circumspect was Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of the Venezuelan affair that it took a century for historians to conclude that the affair had actually happened. Despite the normal workings of deterrence, declining to publicly commit oneself to execute a threat may have merit. Some pointers from TR vis-à-vis the standoff in the Taiwan Strait. One, American diplomats and spokesmen could comport themselves in his spirit in public communications, neither committing to nor distancing themselves from strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity. Through tact they can grant General Secretary Xi the sort of graceful exit from a crisis that TR granted Wilhelm II in 1902. If Xi can climb down without sacrificing his standing with the Chinese people, that improves the likelihood that he will climb down.

Two, U.S. emissaries must speak with utmost candor in private interchanges with Beijing (and, for that matter, with Taipei; giving Taiwanese hope is the reciprocal of deterring Chinese). They must leave no doubt that the United States will defend Taiwan from cross-strait aggression, much as TR left no doubt that he would order Dewey’s fleet into battle should the Anglo-German squadron seize territory. Convince Chinese Communist prelates of American fortitude and deterrence might yet carry the day.

And three, the Pentagon must field war-winning military forces while the U.S. politico-military apparatus convinces Beijing that these forces would prevail if sent in harm’s way. Now, Roosevelt had it easy by contrast. His fleet was massed and operating relatively close to home, with all the advantages the homefield advantage confers and facing off against a dispersed potential foe; Xi and the People’s Liberation Army will be operating on their home field, against dispersed American forces, should war come to the Taiwan Strait. And yet there is no substitute for fashioning forces, operations, and tactics able to make their weight felt on the far side of the Pacific. That is the mission of our time.

On Taiwan, the path forward seems clear: Speak softly in publicly, speak plainly in private, and carry a big stick.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

More about Dr. Holmes: A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Slack

    December 11, 2021 at 12:32 am

    Hmm, one has far better chances hitting first prize in lottery draws than china invading taiwan. It has not even bothered to seize kinmen, penghu and other tiny ROC rocks just off its coast; (becuz) it is no uncle sam.

    Xi belongs in jail, or at least in the lockup of nearest courthouse or police station. Really amazing the people still haven’t chucked him inside that.

    During the ‘boat people’ saga, some refugees fled to taiwan and landed on one of the outlying rocks (Lieyu?) and got whacked by ROC soldiers. A mainland boat sailed over to check the bedlam and was wiped out as well but no invasion still happened.

    China will only invade taiwan if some ‘invisible’ force gives a shove from behind or kicks it in the backside. And this ‘invisible’ force could well be like SEAL team 6 or USMC or special forces people deciding to play cops and robbers or hide and seek games in the taiwan strait.

  2. Ed Trimble

    December 11, 2021 at 4:08 pm

    It has been proven in History that military action although sometimes essential, is not the answer for improved relations. Economic strength looms as a better tool to convince your neighbor that you can share mutual interests to help not only your people but theirs also.

  3. Bankotsu

    December 12, 2021 at 2:41 am

    “…Remaining noncommittal in public, speaking candidly in private, and displaying military might be sufficient to prevail in the Strait and could be a winning formula for deterrence…

    …Convince Chinese Communist prelates of American fortitude and deterrence might yet carry the day…”

    I’m afraid that is wishful thinking.

    It is going to be all out war, even thermonuclear war.

    China has 1.4 billion people, U.S. will dump its load of nukes on China.

    U.S. has 330 million people, China will dump its load of nukes on U.S.

    If this is what U.S. wants, then so be it.

  4. Ebaldo

    December 13, 2021 at 10:24 am

    The speak softly but carry a big stick analogy only works when a nation obviously has the ability to project power into a potential operating theater. In the example Mr Holmes used Germany was attempting to project its power across the Atlantic while America was operating in its own relative backyard. The exact opposite is true with the China Taiwan face off. America is now required to project power against China who is operating in its own backyard. While I agree in principle with Mr. Holmes point I am uncertain that the present administration and our military commanders can convince China that we have the will, behind the scenes or otherwise, to project the power required to maintain the status quo.

  5. El B

    December 13, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    Uhm, Taiwan is right off the Chinese coast. The Chinese fourth brigade, or whatever those communists call their missile force. The PLAAF I think? Have steadily built an enormous stockpile of missiles.

    And, though we have a superior fleet, they have superior numbers backed up by said missiles. If it were not for the fact that the CCP has owned most of our politicians over the years, it would not have gotten this far.

    But it did. And now, Taiwan may pay for it. Because as usual, our politicians’ greed is forcing us to play catch up. Instead of spending time performing their actual jobs.

    China will attempt to make Taiwan fall, and they own Biden, vis a vis his son Hunter. Biden is NO Teddy!

    He will capitulate, unless his other masters in Europe’s banks tell him to threaten.

    Pre-WW1 Germany was a vastly different animal than modern day CCP led China. They are MUCH more likely to revolt against any wish, and are actually preparing for us.

    This article is making a false equivalency. We need another Teddy. We had one. But his election was stolen.

  6. Constance

    December 13, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    Militarily? For the US to deter either China or Russia without risking escalating war, deliver 10’s of thousand MAAWS rockets. Cost-effectiveness and a force multiplier. The threat of one guy taking out a tank, or armored personnel carrier with dozens of troops? That’s Marc Antony’s fly to the elephant. Neither would stop the aggressor, but the calculated cost could be a factor when it considers the fact that no offensive plan, no matter how meticulously complete, can account for 1 guy with a rocket. Thousands of 1 guy attacks might not change the outcome, might not deny the victor the victory, but the factored cost might now change the equation.

  7. Joe Comment

    December 13, 2021 at 5:09 pm

    The best way to ensure the Mainland does not attack Taiwan is to show them that it isn’t a right thing to do. Mainland leaders should think about what they want China to become. Do they really want it to be a Mainland-Taiwan hybrid? If so, they need a political and not military solution to create power sharing. Or do they really want to use force to try to stamp out what exists in Taiwan today and impose the Mainland’s systems over it against the people’s will? That would be devastating for China.

  8. mrmusterstone

    December 13, 2021 at 8:25 pm

    Dr. Holmes, another enjoyable and instructive post. Thank you.

    I don’t want to try to refute your points in detail but I think Taiwan is a lost cause. I’ve recently posted about what Taiwan might do to defend itself but then on the other hand how the CCP through faints could in the end ‘gulp down’ the island as a frog deals with a mayfly.

    My impression from reading is that the military and political side of the house in Taiwan are “putzing” around about making the really hard decisions on defending the island: sorta like the French/Brits in 1940, made noises like, looked like fighters… …but not really. Clausewitzian, eh, a mask of military ardor without political commitment.

    Moreover I have to believe that the political and military of the island are shot through with CCP operatives causing endless delays and misdirection and much of the reason the island isn’t more committed to defense.

    If this is all Taiwan will offer, why should we offer more?

  9. Mb

    December 13, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    First, assume a ladder…

  10. Bankotsu

    December 14, 2021 at 4:18 am

    “Pre-WW1 Germany was a vastly different animal than modern day CCP led China. They are MUCH more likely to revolt against any wish, and are actually preparing for us.”

    China is not like WWI Germany or Nazi Germany. Those two regimes did not see America as no.1 enemy. Their militaries were not designed or trained to fight American military. WWI Germany saw France and Russia as main threats while Nazi Germany saw France, UK and USSR as main threats. They didn’t see America as main threat.

    China sees America as no.1 enemy and the PLA is designed and trained completely and totally to fight U.S. military. China doesn’t see Russia, India or Japan as main threats.

    China sees America as the main threat.

    All Chinese military wargames are all focused on fighting U.S. military. Chinese weapon systems are designed to fight U.S. military.

    That is the difference between Germany of the past and China today.

  11. Matthew Jacobs

    December 14, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    Sell Taiwan thousands of sea mines

  12. Joe Comment

    December 15, 2021 at 1:44 am

    What happens if the Mainland gets its best case scenario, Taiwan capitulates easily with not much fighting and no other country comes to their aid? First, it would completely wreck China’s relationships with the US, Japan and Europe for a long time to come. Second, they would have to rule a completely unwilling population that has been loyal to a different vision of China for generations. Third, there would be a refugee crisis by sea, air and land around China. Fourth, China would take a big economic hit due to all the turmoil. Fifth, this would inspire a lot of pushback from the US and China’s neighbors on other issues China cares about. The US would openly take the other countries’ sides in China’s many disputes and offer them strong support. Basically it would be like the Tiananmen Incident all over again but on a much larger scale, but to make matters worse, the Mainland’s style of developmental dictatorship has no prospects of offering economic benefits to a place like Taiwan that is already developed. Do those sound like great outcomes for China?

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