Taiwan’s security depends on deterring China from attempting an invasion.
To do this, Taiwan and its friends must threaten Beijing with punishments that will be carried out in the event of an armed attack.
If these threats are severe and credible enough, China’s leaders may yet be dissuaded from pursuing a military solution to the so-called Taiwan Question.
This much, at least, is obvious.
But things get more complicated when it comes to identifying the precise threats that should be made in the service of deterrence.
Clarifying the Argument
Last month, Seth Moulton — a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives — set off a firestorm when he invoked the idea of the United States bombing Taiwan’s semiconductor foundries in response to a Chinese takeover of the island.
To be clear, Moulton did not endorse a U.S. military attack on Taiwan. He said only that others had raised this option as a possible deterrent. His comment was still enough to provoke outrage, with the Taiwanese minister of defense insisting that Taiwan would retaliate against any armed attack by the United States.
It is possible that Moulton was alluding to an article I co-wrote around 18 months ago with my friend and colleague, Jared McKinney. The article attracted significant pushback in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, our argument has been badly misrepresented.
The argument has never been that the United States should threaten the destruction of Taiwan’s semiconductor foundries. Not only would this be a shocking attack on a close friend, but it would also be tantamount to a declaration of war on the People’s Republic of China — a nuclear-armed power with which the United States should do everything possible to avoid conflict.
Nor should deterrence across the Taiwan Strait be based upon the assumption that China wants Taiwan for its chip industry. It does not. To state the blindingly obvious, Beijing’s strong desire for unification with Taiwan predates the invention of semiconductors.
But it does not follow that Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is off-limits to deterrence efforts. On the contrary, it is imperative that leaders in Taipei and Washington develop a better grasp of the strategic considerations at play.
They must cooperate to impress upon Beijing exactly what would happen to the Taiwanese chip industry in the event of war.
It is an empirical fact that, for the time being, the Chinese economy is highly dependent on access to Taiwanese semiconductors – especially cutting-edge chips, which China’s domestic producers are currently unable to match. There is therefore some deterrent value in threatening to deny China access to Taiwan’s chip industry in response to an invasion.
Not a Novel Strategy
The question is how to convince Chinese leaders in advance that their domestic economy is certain to lose access to these essential imports as a consequence of attacking Taiwan. In our article, we argued that Taiwan should threaten the destruction of key nodes of the semiconductor industry if the People’s Liberation Army were to invade and occupy Taiwan.
The United States might support such efforts by laying plans to quickly evacuate key workers in Taiwan’s tech industry. This is a far cry from Washington bombing Taiwanese infrastructure. Such a threat would insult Taiwan, aggravate China, and unnecessarily commit the United States to a conflict that could escalate to become World War III.
In other words, we called for Taiwan to threaten scorched earth (or scorched tech). Far from being a novel strategy, scorched earth is an old way of assuring a would-be invader that they will pay high costs and reap low rewards from conquest. For some reason, critics find it absurd that the logic of scorched earth should be applied to Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. The most common objections, however, do not always stand up to close scrutiny.
Consider, for example, the argument that pledging in advance to disable Taiwan’s chip industry is unnecessary because the United States and its allies would always have the option of cutting off Chinese-controlled factories from global supply chains without any need for their physical destruction. While this observation is true in a narrow sense, it sidesteps the inconvenient reality that just because U.S. allies could isolate China (and Taiwan) from global supply chains does not mean that they will once they face a new set of geoeconomic realities.
Can actors such as the United States and the European Union really commit to depriving themselves of Taiwanese chips if Beijing conquers Taiwan? Perhaps, but nobody truly knows whether, how quickly, or for how long the rest of the world would move to isolate China and Taiwan from the world economy. After all, the war in Ukraine has been raging for 15 months, yet the world continues to purchase Russian oil and gas.
The Role of Scorched Tech for Taiwan
Other critics — such as Michèle Flournoy — recoil at the idea of scorched tech because of the economic costs involved, which Flournoy estimates at $2 trillion within the first year. But this is a chronological misunderstanding of the argument. The point of deterrence is precisely to threaten actions that will be taken after and only if an adversary takes an unwanted hostile action. If Taiwan ever destroys its own chip foundries, it will do so because China has already launched a war of conquest that looks set to succeed.
Under such circumstances, it would surely be Chinese leaders who are to blame from the economic fallout, not Taiwanese saboteurs. Would Flournoy and others prefer Taiwan to promise that its foundries will keep operating in the event of a Chinese invasion so that the world economy can avoid disruption? This, of course, would be the opposite of deterrence, and a flagrant admission that Taiwan’s security is a low priority for the United States.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that a U.S. declaration of war against China would cost the world economy far more than $2 trillion. Yet the prospect of the United States fighting a ruinous war against China is precisely the deterrent that mainstream analysts in the United States seem to prefer. It is a bizarre political climate, to say the least, in which pledges to fight World War III in defense of Taiwan have become de rigueur, while the scorched tech argument is derided as unhinged and “asinine.”
Finally, it is misleading to say that Chinese leaders have already “priced in” the economic costs of war with Taiwan, making threats of scorched tech pointless.
If Chinese President Xi Jinping ever orders an invasion of Taiwan, then he will indeed have revealed a willingness to absorb high costs. But this does not mean that Xi is willing to pay any price for Taiwan, no matter how high. Those who say otherwise are essentially arguing that deterrence is doomed to failure under any conditions and that there is nothing that could be done to stop an invasion. This is unduly fatalistic.
The goal of Taiwan’s leaders must be to impress upon Beijing that the military, political, and economic costs of an invasion are certain to be high — so high, in fact, that war is irrational. Scorched tech has a role to play in establishing this calculus.
Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive. Follow him on Twitter, @PeterHarrisCSU.
May 26, 2023 at 2:14 pm
The author says, “Taiwan’s security depends on deterring China from attempting an invasion.”
Taiwan’s well being, prosperity and self-governing status depends on the United States refraining from sponsoring & defending a formal claim of independence by a faction on the island who recklessly to want independence… encouraged by United States to think that’s a viable option.
It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.
Defense missiles… sure, we’ve sold arms before, but it’s always something else, and then another… loud talk about how the U. S. will defend Taiwan, when does the most recent item, or “sore point” for China become the “last straw” for the Chinese patience?
The last thing the United States should be doing is provoking China to coerce Taiwan through military means… let’s keep the status quo, Taiwan as a self-governing, democratic island.
Give peace a chance.
Calm it down and cool down the war talk.
That’s the best thing the United States can do for Taiwan.
May 26, 2023 at 3:20 pm
China is wise to idle US threats, similar to the sanctions that are placed on numerous countries by the US and our allies interventionist foreign policies.
Hence the BRICS current countermeasures to Western hegemony.
Not sure why we seem to think that Chinese domestic producers are currently unable to match cutting-edge chip technology. China is not North Korea, and has already infiltrated the high tech corporations in America and other Western nations developing these cutting edge chip technologies.
Likely before the plotter ink is dry on their plan sheets, Beijing has been notified with advanced copy, (industrial espionage). Some of the most brilliant tech engineers are graduates from top US engineering universities and citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and likely loyal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members.
The ‘scorched tech’ argument does not have enough bite to be effective against an already highly developed and equal peer. If China wants Taiwan there will not be much the US will be able to do about it. Short of an interventionist war against another nuclear power. China has the metrics in its favor, and Taiwan is literally ’just a shot away’ from Chinese domination.
When the winds of change blow, some people build walls. Others build windmills.
May 26, 2023 at 9:59 pm
Taiwan’s security depends on its inhabitants rejecting outside meddling and not accepting ukraine-style ‘political management’ by US woke administrations.
Recall that when the great commodore perry made his return trip to japan in 1854, he stopped by the island and proposed to annex it as a brand new american territory.
Fortunately for the oriental peoples, his proposal wasn’t taken by the US government which wasn’t as worried about taiwan getting forcefully ‘adopted’ by european powers as he was.
Taiwan should follow the path taken up by austria in 1955, but US politicians and US INDOPACOM generals aren’t ever allowing it to happen.
That’s because after 2024, most likely in 2025, the US is planning to do a number in china with expectation russia would have fallen by then.
The US and allies are pouring massive arms reinforcements into ukraine aiming to crush and defeat russia before tge paris olympics arrive on the scene.
But that won’t happen. A nuclear accident could very likely happen in eastern region, especially at zaporizhzhia, machinated by the ukros aided by CIA. Just like the nord stream incident of sept 2022.
The result would be a massively huge accusation leveled against russia who would have be compelled to smash the neo-nazis with tactical nukes and thus gifting ukraine with the fate of prussia which disappeared from history following the nazi defeat in ww2.
The inhabitants of taiwan better learn fast from ukraine’s most amazing life-changing dalliance with grand US meddling.
May 27, 2023 at 6:14 am
Give Taiwann the means to develope a couple of tactical nuclear weapons, 10 placed in a perimeter around the island would end this nonsense.
May 27, 2023 at 11:18 am
Threats to the PRC’s economy do nothing to deter aggression. Only threats to the CCP can deter.
All decisions by the PRC are made by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its paramount leader Xi. They only protect their economy for as long as that advances the power of Xi and the CCP. Just look at how they have punished big Chinese companies like Alibaba when they were perceived as a potential competitor to Xi’s authority. Look at how they have crushed the property market and then crushed the overall economy with rigid lockdowns. Xi and the CCP will gladly sacrifice economic growth if they think they can gain more power by attacking Taiwan than it will cost them in losses. Xi might already fear that too much prosperity may embolden the Chinese people to seek more freedoms, and Xi will crush that impulse at any cost.
Unless Taiwan can directly threaten Xi’s preeminence there will be no deterrence.