Deterrence, China, and the US

by | Apr 13, 2022


The US should not use its military power to deter China from invading Taiwan. It is unnecessary, and anything more than what is already being done is more likely to help provoke a war than stop one. It might even be better to turn down US enthusiasm a notch or two.

The current status of strategic ambiguity serves two important American goals – it keeps the peace and allows for a productive trilateral++ relationship among China, Taiwan, US and the rest of Asia. Those two goals work in lockstep, not in conflict of one another, a key point. Peace serves all masters here. What we have is useful stasis, not some sort of historical fantasy of unfulfilled frustration. And we’ll still keep the focus on US strategic interests, not those of Taiwan or other allies. You can’t expect more than that.


During the entire 73 year existence of Taiwan, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from a military dictatorship to a democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars, development of nuclear weapons by China, the fall of the Soviet Union (and Donald Trump) the Mainland has not invaded. US posture has varied from garrisoning the island to strategic ambiguity and the Mainland has not invaded.

The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy backed by ICBMs and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from the agrarian isolation of the Cultural Revolution to a fully-integrated if not essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Putin got away with Ukraine and the Mainland has not invaded. That is not going to change in our lifetimes, so there is not much more to say. The ball keeps bouncing, history remains. I’ll be at the bar. Thank you.

OK, OK, a little more detail. Taiwan has not invaded China, either. You laugh but that was indeed Chiang Kai Skek’s plan, with US help of course, in the early years. Though we don’t think of it much, the current policy of strategic ambiguity keeps Taiwan in line as well. Nobody expects the ambiguity to stretch as far as Taiwan launching military force. Or proclaiming independence. You would hate to have some sort of strategic clarity embolden independence “trouble makers” on Taiwan, one of those unintended consequences.

A couple of points to establish. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve worked in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that.

Focus is important; this is about preventing war. It is not about China being mean to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai, never mind in Riyadh or other allied places. And often left out of the discussion is the United States worked closely with the Nationalists on Taiwan to make it a very undemocratic place until about 1989.

For the lawyers here tonight, everything I say represents merely my own views and not those of my past or present employers. Nothing in my talk tonight is even remotely classified. If that disappoints, you might still be able to get your money back. A version of my talk is already posted on my website at with all the links to data cited, so you can fact check me in real time, or for those with babysitters on the clock at home, read ahead.

Provocation: Deterrence is Dangerous

Deterrence is a funny word. What looks like deterrence from one side — forward deploying an aircraft carrier — might look like provocation from the other. What looks like deterrence against American hegemony in Asia — overflights — might look like provocation from the other. The concept of deterrence itself is not without its uses, and in the end likely kept the Cold War a lot cooler, but military deterrence as argued for here holds the risk of accidents and misinterpretations.

More importantly, there is little need for the military deterrence many advocate for, such as Professor Galston this evening. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftovers from the creation of the PRC in 1949.

About that deterrence versus provocation thing. China has four overseas military bases, to include a small logistics operation in Djibouti, a listening post on Great Coco Island (not near the Bahamas, it’s off Myanmar), navy outpost in Gwadar (it’s in Pakistan) and of course a military post in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. I’m going to guess a lot of people who consider themselves informed on this topic could not have named more than one of those.

In contrast, the US maintains 750 bases across the globe, a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea alone. The US maintained troops on Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. That many of those American bases predate the founding of the People’s Republic, and all have survived the fall of the Soviet adversary they were built to, um, deter, tells the real story.

Let’s look at the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways.

Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the US ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the US was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

At various points in history some American bases stored nuclear weapons, and may do so today. Forward-deployed US warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, certainly do. No matter; nuclear-armed aircraft are available direct from the US mainland within hours. Pretend you’re from Mars and just visiting earth and tell me who seems to be provoking. Deterrence as practiced by the US is a dangerous thing.

For deterrent threats to be credible, they ‘do not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge’ but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer ‘is likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war’

The key element of the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act over Professor Galston’s “strategic clarity” is a conditional response, call if flexibility if you like. The more specific your response is ahead of time – say in writing like Article 5 – the more your hands are tied. Remember deterrence worked in Ukraine, for Russia; it stopped the US from more actively intervening.


What Do They Want?

When I was a diplomat we were taught that trust was always a nice thing, but what was better was to understand the other side’s goals and intentions. If you knew those, or could make a decent guess, you could predict their actions and poke effectively at their asks a lot better than hoping they would just do what they promised. The number of affairs inside marriages where monogamy was the opening promise supports my argument.

So what do China and Taiwan want? There may be someone who is listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principle players, but absent that simply looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty good.

China and Taiwan do not want war. Absent some scraps back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone. The US and China only sent shots at each other when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Korea in that war, and on a lesser scale when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Vietnam in that war. There’s kind of a pattern. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the US purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. How many American embassies has China bombed?

The fact that through all of the massive changes of the last 70 years — the end of Mao, those two wars with the US, the handover of Hong Kong, the entire Cold War itself, and the list is long, there has been no invasion. Scientists call that a steady state, and something bigger than Mao, the Cold War, etc. would have to appear and change it. I’m not sure what that could be. Does anyone seriously believe some rogue statement in the Taiwan legislature would qualify, or some five-way disputed rock outcropping in the South China Sea? And by the way, speaking of the historical record, there’s the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over 200 some years of very non-democratic colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk.

My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The US mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

Follow the Money

China and Taiwan do want economic benefits. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics.

There’s also the US to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations. Not counting Hunter Biden (I kid) the total Chinese investment in the US economy is over $145 billion. US investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. China is the second largest foreign holder of US government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success and continued economic engagement.

Ignore (Most of) the Rhetoric

Oh, the rhetoric, all that stuff about reunification that tumbles out of Beijing. History is again our guide, as Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears.

Taiwan is a “wanderer” that will eventually come home and not a chess piece to be played with, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said recently.

Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but also understands the time between now and forever is long.)

Some Housekeeping

As for the funny arguments in favor of deterrence, one of the most hilarious is that the US has to maintain its posture over Taiwan as a signal to the rest of the world about commitment or we’ll lose our global credibility. Of course the neo-neocons are saying the same thing about Crimea, um, sorry, Ukraine. I’m still waiting for those who make that argument to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

And yes, China is building its military. They now have one real aircraft carrier (same number as India; China also sort of float an old Soviet model) and three high-end Type 075 amphibious landing ships with Type 071s coming soon online. In comparison, the US has 11 carriers and eight high-end amphibious landing ships. There’s a long way to go before we talk invasion or steeled threat, never mind parity.

As for the idea China is building out its fleet and therefore must somehow ignore all the other points I made here tonight and thus must attack someone, I can only point to the Cold War where the Russians despite in about 1972 having at least parity with NATO and with the US tied down in Vietnam never attacked in Europe. Now if you wanna simply credit deterrence go ahead, but there’s also the idea that other things I’ve tried to touch on tonight plays a role in all of this. We act sometimes like our adversaries are all suicidal hegemonic Bond villains instead of calculating nation-states with complex goals. Any connections to Putin-mania and the Ukraine are purely coincidental.

But don’t believe me, believe the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power report. It stated “China’s significant investment in its amphibious fleet does not necessarily portend an invasion of Taiwan. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.”

Never spoken of is what would happen to President Xi and the Chinese system if his invasion failed, with or without US involvement. Where are the Marines tonight? I know Professor Galston was in the Corps, thank you for your service. Aren’t massive amphibious landings considered the hardest of military moves to execute, especially for the untested PLA? And this isn’t Normandy, Chinese ships would be under Taiwan’s indigenous missile defenses almost as they left their harbors (known as area denial.) If Xi fails, he is done for and perhaps with him the current political system. Needless to say a Chinese military which felt it had been misused and blooded unnecessarily would not be a healthy thing for the Beijing government to have around. I think the word for coup in Mandarin is Jūnshì zhèngbiàn.

Win or lose, an attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, an attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi.


An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities and thus no need for deterrence. My fear is the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific, or at least a new and profitable arms race. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication. I worry deeply we are looking for a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us, using the cloak of deterrence to prepare for war. America’s current China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous.

America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. It plays out as if US foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

And with that settled, the Professor will now go on to resolve the situation in Ukraine and fix the NY subway system. What, no more time? Sorry friends, next time.

Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yīrì zhī hán — It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.

Nándé hútu — Ignorance is bliss.

BONUS I: Taiwan is not Ukraine

I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was for any member of the military, or federal civilian employee, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two places only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the US created (the “liberal world order” as long as the US is in first place) are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

While Putin‘s invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe.

We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the newly independent states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders, something now doable because Russia has been allowed to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fail to understand the mindset time after time. We believe instead when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

Geo-politically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s 2014 proof-of-concept in Crimea assured him NATO would not intervene. About the only real obstacle was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off and not spoil the Olympics.

Taiwan is another Cold War relic. While the US propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism, the island grew into an economic powerhouse. In that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous bounty of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, and other ties signifying a growing relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

Any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. Chinese investment in the US economy is over $145 billion. US investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of US government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is into the world economy after so many years of sanctions. What’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers show much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the US or its allies’ banking systems anyway. The oft-discussed SWIFT international banking system is run as a neutral entity out of Belgium, and Russia cannot be blocked from it by any US “sanction.”

Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. And if US sanctions drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

China on the other hand is deeply vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing US ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would scale beyond the Normandy landings. Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Tactically there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are likely to lose.

An invasion of Taiwan would leave China isolated and economically crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia clearly outweighed the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

BONUS II: Deterrence in Ukraine and Taiwan

The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question is, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the US-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for US support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the US switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the US’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the US doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long.)

The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the US fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the US from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the US would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the US would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the US, but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the US has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

Reprinted with permission from


  • Peter van Buren

    Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well.

    View all posts