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How Taiwan Can Help to Deter a Chinese Invasion

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.

Missile Launcher in Taiwan. Image: Creative Commons.
Missile Launcher in Taiwan. Image: Creative Commons.

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.

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Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.