Guest Post: Steve Heffington on “A More Wholistic View of U.S. Options for Taiwan”

If you haven’t been following America’s rising tensions with China over Taiwan, now is the time to focus on what is an extremely dangerous (indeed, perhaps the most dangerous) situation in the world today. 

Today’s guest post by Steve Heffington, an Air Force colonel who is currently an assistant professor of strategy at the National War College, will help us do just that. 

Writing in his personal capacity, he’ll not only assess various options for the U.S., he’ll also provide some ideas as to how to prevent conflict.


Why all the concern?  As the BBC puts, it “Chinese government sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will, eventually, be part of the country again.”  Taiwan came into existence as a self-governing, democratic state after World War II when “a civil war broke out in China, and the then-leader Chiang Kai-shek’s troops were beaten back by Mao Zedong’s Communist armies.”

Chiang Kai-shek and his remaining forces fled to Taiwan, and the resulting stalemate has existed since then.  In recent years China, equipped with a modernized military and a determined leader in President Xi Jinping, has made ever more aggressive moves that make it clear it is willing to use force to regain Taiwan.  Recent Chinese air and sea provocations around Taiwan have underlined that willingness.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post described the U.S. position:

In a statement, President Biden  said that he and China’s Xi Jinping have agreed to follow the “Taiwan agreement,” appearing to be referring to Washington’s long-standing policy under which it officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, and the Taiwan Relations Act, which makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing instead of Taiwan rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.

Importantly, the Post added that since taking office “Biden has emphasized that United States will defend and support Taiwan.”

How serious is the potential for conflict with China over Taiwan?  

In an article last week (“Starting a Fire’: U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan”), the New York Times observed that Taiwan “has moved to the heart of deepening discord and rivalry between the two superpowers, with the potential to ignite military conflagration and reshape the regional order.” (Italics added.)

If that weren’t enough, the Times also reported a military assessment:

“To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of if,” Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, the director of intelligence with the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, said in a July talk, about the possibility of armed conflict over Taiwan.

Steve’s essay

Steve is the right person to help us think through the situation.  Among other things, he is a co-author with Adam Oler and David Tretler of the National Security Strategy Primer, which is, in my view, the best introductory text on the topic available anywhere (and you can get access to it online here).

By taking into account the proverbial ‘bigger picture’ – a “wholistic” view to use his word – Steve counters the idea that the U.S. ought not defend Taiwan.  (Coincidentally, a new poll finds that for the first time a majority of Americans – 52% – support using U.S. forces to defend Taiwan if China invades.)

What makes Steve’s analysis especially interesting is that he looks at the issue from the Chinese perspective and gives us an assessment in terms of their interests (and he also give us his view of the best/worst outcomes for the U.S.).  I think you’ll find his approach extremely interesting!

A More Wholistic View of U.S. Options for Taiwan

by Col Steven Heffington, USAF

Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Daniel Davis recently argued that war with China, to defend Taiwan, was not in the interest of the U.S.. The 19FortyFive contributor asserts flatly that the U.S. “must decide to take the only course of action that will ensure the security of our country, and that is to refuse to fight a war with China over Taiwan.” 

Davis made many thought-provoking observations in this article; however, he looked at options solely through a U.S. lens. Additionally, he balanced the costs and risks of the conflict against only the benefits of defending democratic values.  A more complete analysis—one that incorporates Beijing’s options—yields substantially different results.     

In weighing the costs of losing Taiwan, the U.S. must consider more than just the value of defending a democracy.  Taiwan is a critical element of first island chain containment, losing it to China would facilitate China’s complete break-out from behind this critical line of defense.  China’s breech of the chain would pose a direct threat to Japan, and dramatically reduce the credibility of future U.S. deterrent postures. 

Taiwan’s President recently wrote, “Should this line be broken by force, the consequences would disrupt international trade and destabilize the entire western Pacific…In other words, a failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese; it would overturn a security architecture that has allowed for peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.” 

This reasoning is echoed by then Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso who stated Japan views Chinese control of Taiwan as a vital threat, indicating Japan would likely intervene against an invasion, and perhaps acquire nuclear weapons to deter further Chinese aggression.    

Currently, there is a reasonable chance of blockading Chinese shipping and containing Chinese naval and air power behind the first island chain.  The U.S. is actively working to reinforce this line of defense, as is Japan

At the very least, U.S. control of the first island chain requires Beijing to assume that a sustained breakout into the Pacific would be uncertain and costly.  This increases the credibility of U.S. threats and China’s perceived costs and risks, both key aspects of a successful U.S. deterrent strategy. 

In other words, the best chance the U.S. has of preventing Chinese aggression, both against Taiwan and beyond, is by increasing the potential cost of that aggression and decreasing the likelihood of its success.  America’s enduring defense of Taiwan does both.  This is the benefit Davis did not weigh in his cost benefit analysis.      

But one’s analysis ought not stop there. More significantly, Davis presents an exclusively American best and worst-case assessment.  While his reasoning is instructive, extending the best / worst case options to assess Beijing’s perspective in comparison to U.S. options is more instructive. It also yields a very different conclusion.  From the Chinese perspective, one might assess Beijing’s options in the following manner.     

    • Best Case Using primarily non-military, gray-zone options, gain control of Taiwan without the application of force (win without fighting), covered internationally with something that may look a bit like the Crimean “vote” to join Russia.  Then use control of Taiwan to completely break the potential of first island chain containment while also gaining control of intact Taiwanese infrastructure (TSMC for example).
      • ASSESSMENT:  This option would strengthen the CCP significantly, strengthen China, and significantly weaken the U.S.  However, given China’s handling of Hong Kong, its increasingly authoritarian domestic policies, and its somewhat ham-handed “wolf-warrior” international stance, this option is becoming increasingly unrealistic for China.
    • Good Case: Take Taiwan (win) using a combination of force and non-military instruments. This could include regional conflict with the U.S. and would accept significant infrastructure damage. Differentiating this option would be Beijing’s successful avoidance of large-scale economic sanctions and flight of global investment, likely facilitated by a portrayal of the U.S. as the aggressor or at the very least as an equally responsible belligerent.  
      • ASSESSMENT:  This option would strengthen the CCP, do little damage to China, and see the U.S. significantly weakened.  Given the somewhat disunited U.S. domestic context, the leverage BRI has given China especially in the UN, and the recent examples of successful Chinese and Russian information operations, this option is potentially quite viable for China.  
    • Status Quo Case: Do not take Taiwan, maintain status quo situation — (U.S. Best Case
    • Bad Case: Take control of Taiwan (win) without substantial U.S. / foreign involvement but do so as the recognized aggressor. This would require substantial force, thus increasing global negative perception of China, destroying or substantially damaging key infrastructure, and likely leading to a guerrilla conflict in Taiwan after victory over the Taiwanese military.  This path would include substantial, globally supported sanctions and a rapid flight of foreign investment. 
      • ASSESSMENT:   This option would strengthen China’s military position but hurt the CCP domestically as sanctions and reductions in investment damaged the economy, China would be substantially damaged, U.S. comparatively would be neither better nor worse off.
    • Really Bad Case: Take control of Taiwan (win), but only after a protracted regional fight with the U.S that bleeds China’s military strength while destroying foreign trade. This would also paint China as an aggressor state, likely leading to a global depression blamed on China, and a near total shift away from China as a commercial / manufacturing hub for a large portion of the developed world. Add to this, long-term global economic sanctions targeted at China.  
      • ASSESSMENT:  This could pose an existential or at least major threat to the CCP, it would do long-term major damage to China, and it would see the U.S. weakened but in a stronger comparative position. 
    • Near Worst Case: Forcibly attempt to take control of Taiwan and lose, with China viewed as an aggressor state responsible for causing a global depression. This, as with other negative scenarios would drive a near total collapse of foreign investment in China along with significant economic sanctions targeted at Beijing.
      • ASSESSMENT: This would pose an existential threat to the CCP and do long-term major damage to China. The U.S. would be significantly strengthened by comparison (Maybe CCP’s Worst Case).
    • Worst Case: Conflict over Taiwan leads to nuclear exchange with the U.S.
      • ASSESSMENT:   This would pose an existential threat to all involved.  (U.S. Worst Case)    

The most interesting aspect of this analysis is the suggestion Beijing could win militarily in Taiwan but still emerge worse off than the current status quo.   The key factor here is that despite military success, China may face large scale flight of investment and widely supported sanctions. 

If the CCP assumes it can prevent this negative economic outcome, then war to retake Taiwan is probably a better than status quo option…unless Beijing loses.  If the CCP assumes it cannot prevent investment flight and sanctions, then war, win or lose, is a worse than status quo option. 

If accurate, this means the most valuable deterrent strategy the U.S. can undertake is the construction of the largest possible coalition of states willing to threaten broad sanctions should Beijing conduct any offensive actions against Taiwan. 

Thus, it is the cohesive application of the non-military instruments of power, backed by credible threats of force, that has the greatest chance of preserving a democratic Taiwan and preventing war.        

Davis clearly believes the preservation of a free, democratic Taiwan in not a vital U.S. interest, and thus not worth using force to defend. 

However, failing to account for the security benefits of first island chain containment and not considering Beijing’s own interest calculus constrains Davis’ analysis and results in a dangerously narrow prescription: accommodation.  Considering other levels of analysis clarifies the stakes and demonstrates that war or accommodation is not the strategic choice most immediately in front of the U.S. 

Taken together, the benefits of defending democracy and preserving first island chain containment raise to at least the level of a major U.S. interest, and probably break across the line to vital.   This level of interest suggests that force should remain an option. 

However, the most crucial strategic assessment currently facing the U.S. is the viability of building a sufficiently strong coalition of states willing to counter aggression from Beijing with punishing and sustained economic sanctions and the redirection of investment. 

If the U.S. believes this coalition is viable, then coalition development paired with the continued threat of, and willingness to use, force is the path most likely to keep the peace and preserve U.S. interests. 

Critically, without such a coalition, neither the threat nor application of force has much utility–unless the U.S. and Beijing are confident the U.S. can defeat Beijing militarily and sustain that defeat over the length of time needed to change the CCP’s policy preferences.

About the author:

Colonel Steve Heffington is an assistant professor of strategy and the Joint Professor of Military Studies Chair at the National War College, National Defense University, in Washington, DC.  Colonel Heffington has spent twenty-eight years in the U.S. Air Force, serving tours in Europe, South America, and the Middle East. At the National War College, he instructs on national security strategy design and implementation and is the co-author of “A National Security Strategy Primer.” 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and are not an official policy or position of the National War College, National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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