The Debate | opinion
Success depends on reducing the perceived likelihood that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be successful, minimizing the perceived benefits, and increasing the expected costs.
When US naval operations chief Admiral Mike Gilday said in October that China could soon invade Taiwan, it shocked the national security community. Just a week later, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken reiterated these concerns, saying that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) plans for reunification with Taiwan are “on a much faster timeline” than previously anticipated. Conventional opinion previously held that the earliest date for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be in the second half of this decade, but these comments suggest that such aggression could indeed occur in 2023.
Indeed, recent record-breaking Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and reckless Chinese air activities in the South China Sea show the clear possibility of looming conflict. Thus, the world is in a security environment that some experts have dubbed the “danger zone.”
US national security and defense strategies offer a strategic path to success through the threats of this year and decade: integrated deterrence. This concept leverages the principles of Cold War-winning deterrence applied across government and alongside America’s broad and trusted network of allies and partners.
Integrated deterrence depends on a competition of skills and wills that has perceptions at its core. Success in this competition depends on reducing the perceived likelihood that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be successful, minimizing the perceived benefits of such aggression, and increasing the expected costs of doing so. Increasing uncertainty, sowing doubts and heightened risk perception make Chinese aggression less likely. In particular, US and allied leaders must make CCP leaders understand that the risks and costs of an invasion may thwart their ultimate goals in China today.
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General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, framed his message largely around these principles, stating that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose “excessive risk” that would “result in a strategic debacle for the Chinese military.” .” Such words are likely to increase the concern of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and should be factored into his decision-making calculus. In weighing aggressive options, Xi must consider the daunting task of conquering a defensible island across 100 miles of open ocean with an untried military, against a capable coalition force, and in the face of Russia’s recent debacle.
Still, the leaders of the US and its allies should connect the dots in the most effective way for CCP leaders to best deter aggression.
While reunifying Taiwan is a high priority for Xi and the CCP, it is not their top priority. Their ultimate goal is to maintain a monopoly on power in China and maintain their entrenched position as the undisputed ruling class. Therefore, those who want to prevent Chinese aggression must prompt Xi and the CCP to fully weigh the costs, benefits, and risks of aggression in light of this top priority. The key to deterrence, then, lies in Xi and his CCP leaders understanding the extreme danger of pursuing a secondary priority when their primary priority could suffer.
Milley’s comments on military denial, packaged properly, can have an outsized impact on an integrated deterrent attitude. But stoking fears of a strategic debacle by the Chinese military is only a means to an end in this perception competition. In discussing such issues, strategic leaders of the US and its allies must make it clear that the likely failure of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a strategic debacle not only for the Chinese military, but more importantly for Xi and the CCP. Aggression towards Taiwan would risk undermining and nullifying their exclusive power.
By targeting communications at the heart of the CCP’s uncertainty and priority, strategic leaders can amplify its effectiveness. In 2023 and beyond, preventing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will require careful calibration of skill and will to guide the CCP’s perceptions of costs, benefits, and risks. Elevating communication about these factors to the highest level of meaning in the minds of the CCP ruling class is critical to a conscious campaign to successfully navigate the danger zone.