There are strong indications that the Biden administration intends to continue strengthening U.S.-Taiwan ties. The Biden team invited Taiwan's representative Bi-khim Hsiao to the presidential inauguration, supporters of Taiwan now hold senior roles in the administration, and officials have pledged "rock-solid" U.S. commitment to Taiwan, warning that PRC military pressure against Taiwan threatens regional peace and stability. But Cross-strait deterrence is arguably weaker today than at any point since the Korean War, according to Chinese military and security expert Oriana Skylar Mastro, FSI Center Fellow at APARC.
On February 18, 2021, Mastro testified to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing on Deterring PRC Aggression Toward Taiwan. Her testimony on the political and strategic dynamics underpinning deterrence across the Taiwan Strait is available to watch below.
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Beijing has turned to increasingly hostile and combative rhetoric and actions since the democratic election of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. PLA air and water operations around Taiwan, particularly in the Taiwan Strait, have increased significantly in the past year, and concern is growing that the Chinese Communist Party is imminently planning to use force to compel Taiwan to accept unification with mainland China.
Drawing on her expertise in both policy and military security, Mastro explains why deterrence in Taiwan must be based on military capabilities rather than signaling through policy.
Catalysts to Conflict
Foremost, Mastro argues that the basic circumstances of aggression towards Taiwan have changed. In years past, it was accepted that China would launch military operations against Taiwan in response to actions or policy positions taken there or in the United States. However, Mastro believes that China is now primed to force a campaign of reunification regardless of either Taiwan’s or the U.S.’s policies moving forward.
By Mastro’s assessment, China is now in a position where it could prevail in cross-strait military contingencies even if the U.S. intervenes in Taiwan’s defense. The reform overhaul and modernization of China’s military have vastly improved the quality it equipment and confidence in its capability. China now possesses offensive weaponry, including ballistic and cruise missiles, which if deployed, could destroy U.S. bases in the Western Pacific. Sophisticated cyber attacks on domestic infrastructure both in Taiwan and the United States are also a credible threat and viable form of retaliation.
As long as President Xi is confident that the PLA can successfully back a forced unification in Taiwan, Mastro argues that action of some kind against Taiwan is not a matter of if, but of when, and what severity.
Types of Escalation
Failure to reunify Taiwan is too high a political and military cost for the PRC to risk, but there is also growing agitation amongst the mainland Chinese population for a resolution on the half-baked status of the island and its governance. Mastro believes that this pressure will ensure that action will be taken on Taiwan in the next 3 to 5 years.
Since Taiwan cannot withstand a sustained, active assault from China on its own, the deciding factor in when and how China moves against Taiwan is largely dependent on the signals the U.S. sends. And since China is increasingly confident in its own military, the signals the U.S. sends must likewise be ground in military capability, not policy, says Mastro.
If China believes there will be little or no intervention or support from the U.S., it is likely to follow a graduated plan of attack, using economic blockages and targeted military action to bring about capitulation. If, however, it appears the U.S. will intervene, China is much more likely to move quickly and escalate violence and force rapidly to maximize damage before a full U.S. defense response can be coordinated.
To effectively counter China on Taiwan, Mastro recommends crafting policy that creates doubt over China’s ability to successfully absorb Taiwan through military means. To do this, the United States needs to focus forces and develop operational plans that credibly off-set China’s goals while not triggering a panicked response from Beijing that could escalate into rapid conflict.
Mastro also urges the allocation of more resources toward intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), base development, and firepower in the Asia-Pacific region. Investing in these signals U.S. commitment to determent and the capacity to follow through if need be.
Finally, Mastro urges additional research into U.S. war termination behavior. Any involvement in Taiwan must be as limited and without the possibility for escalating levels of violence and long term unsustainable, unwinnable commitments. In preparing to potentially fight a war, she reminds policymakers that they need to know how to end one as well.
A recording of the full hearing is available courtesy of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.