Thursday, March 4, 2021

Why a Taiwan Conflict Could Go Nuclear


Here are key points from Defense Priorities fellow Mike Sweeney:

As discussion intensifies over U.S. policy toward Taiwan under the new Biden administration, nuclear issues should be at the core of that debate. Various proposals have been put forth for and against abandoning the concept of strategic ambiguity, and it is an important discussion to have. But unless nuclear stability between China and the United States is at the forefront of that discourse, it misses the central question regarding how and whether the United States should defend Taiwan.

  1. Questions about nuclear use should be foremost in U.S. defense planning debates over Taiwan and policy discussions on maintaining strategic ambiguity.
  2. If China moves against Taiwan, the stakes will be life-and-death for China’s leadership, given the potential political and personal consequences should an invasion fail.
  3. In the face of battlefield defeats or setbacks, China could find itself more willing to use nuclear weapons, even if it had not intended to do so before the conflict.
  4. China’s nuclear arsenal is significantly outnumbered by that of the United States, but China maintains sufficient strategic forces that it could still inflict unacceptable damage on some U.S. cities.

  5. China currently has two types of land-based ICBMs, the DF-5 and DF-31 variants, capable of striking the contiguous United States, with a third, the DF-41, developed but not yet operational.

  6. The U.S. style of warfare, coupled with China’s co-mingling of its conventional and nuclear missile forces, creates the opportunity for inadvertent escalation if U.S. forces were to unintentionally strike Chinese strategic assets.

Entanglement issues are far from the whole of the problem. There is still a fundamental misreading—perhaps on both sides—of the ability to manage escalation in Taiwan contingencies for reasons beyond strict operational matters. The very fact of China attempting something as complex and challenging as an amphibious invasion of an island of 24 million people would show an unwelcome tolerance for risk. For that matter, U.S. efforts to defend said island—halfway around the world on another nuclear power’s doorstep—also shows a fair amount of audacity. Put differently, the act of aggression against Taiwan and the effort to repel such an attack both demonstrate that each side is willing to take actions which could be viewed as inherently risky.

Through that lens, the additional step to unwanted nuclear escalation is not a great leap. States act rationally, right up until they do not. In considering how a Taiwan contingency would play out, it would therefore be prudent to assume that nuclear use is more viable than cold assessments of each side’s pre-conflict intentions suggest. If academic surveys of Chinese strategic literature are correct, overoptimism on the ability to manage escalation once hostilities commence is not confined to the U.S. side.

The summation to the thus not a traditional list of hard policy recommendations but more the urging of a specific mindset moving forward. While all those attempting to think through U.S. policy on Taiwan should be commended for contributing to the debate, the starting and end point for such discussions must be strategic stability between the United States and China. Nuclear issues—more than any other aspect—have to be foremost as the United States reexamines strategic ambiguity and debates defense planning options for Taiwan. To do otherwise is ultimately faulty policymaking.


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