The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the U.S. and China continue to posture, the key will be Taiwan

Veterans raise the Taiwanese flag in a ceremony at a former military post on Kinmen, Taiwan. (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman had joined other scholars and advisers in calling on the United States “to declare that it will not defend Taiwan from an invasion by Beijing.” Freeman’s view is that the United States should maintain its longtime policy of “strategic ambiguity,” in which it does not declare whether it will or will not defend Taiwan. The article has been corrected.

In terms of its potential for triggering a major conflict, the most dangerous place in the world today is undoubtedly Taiwan.

Recent books such as Josh Rogin’s “Chaos Under Heaven,” Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game” and my own “The World Turned Upside Down” have argued that, contrary to the assumptions and practices of most U.S. and free-world China policy for the past 40 years, communist China is pursuing a long-term strategy to displace, if not replace, the U.S.-led global democratic order by a Beijing-led global authoritarian order. Those of us who hold this view foresee increasingly open competition and conflict, potentially including nuclear war, between Communist China and the free world.

Others, such as former U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich and Australian scholar Hugh White, note that in recent Pentagon war games focused on Taiwan, the U.S. team consistently loses to the Chinese team. Since such an event would have the potential to expand into a major U.S.-China nuclear ­exchange, these voices have called for the United States simply to declare that it will not defend Taiwan from an invasion by Beijing. They argue that since Washington long ago agreed that “there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it,” any mainland invasion would simply be a civil war in which America has no right to intervene. Because of this, they say, a Beijing occupation of Taiwan would have no broader impact on the U.S. ties with its treaty allies including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand and would in no way weaken their security.

In “The Strategy of Denial,” former deputy assistant secretary of defense Elbridge A. Colby agrees that any hot conflict between China and America is most likely to arise in Taiwan. But unlike Bacevich and White, he maintains not only that the United States must defend Taiwan but also that, together with its allies, it can both win and prevent the conflict from escalating beyond the South China Sea.

He begins by acknowledging that while the United States is militarily far superior to China on a global basis, it certainly is not so in the South China Sea, where Taiwan is located. Nevertheless, says Colby, if America and its allies play their cards properly, they can not only prevent a takeover of Taiwan but even perhaps trigger the downfall of Beijing’s communist regime, despite America’s relative weakness in the region.

He emphasizes that although it has no formal mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, Washington must defend it for two key reasons. First, whether they know it or not, the United States and its allies are locked in a global struggle with China over the future of the global order. Second, whether Washington has a formal defense treaty with Taiwan or not, failing to defend it would signal that the United States cannot be relied on. Countries such as Japan, with whom the United States does have formal mutual defense treaties, would then move to make whatever deals they could with Beijing, shifting the global balance of power in ways that would dramatically disadvantage America without a fight. Far from being an unimportant bye that Washington could easily take, not defending Taiwan would, according to Colby, lead to the worst kind of disaster.

While this argument might suggest that mutual defense treaties aren’t meaningful, in this case it has credibility, because in the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. Congress stressed American opposition to any effort at changing conditions in Taiwan by force. Thus, if the United States made no effort to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, it would be seen not to be upholding its own long prevailing law.

Leading analysts such as Harvard’s Graham Allison argue that the vast majority of historical struggles among states for global hegemony have ended in devastating wars. In reply, Colby notes that all those conflicts arose before the nuclear age and points out that the Soviet Union and America conducted a largely peaceful struggle for global hegemony precisely because they knew all-out war would destroy them both. In this context, says Colby, far from being a minor conflict that can easily be avoided, the fight for Taiwan would be the decisive battle.

Because of China’s relative military superiority in the region, Colby thinks, Beijing’s strategy will likely be to attempt a large invasion of the island but without striking others in the region whom it won’t want to antagonize. To counter this, Washington must obtain the assistance of its formal treaty allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. But even they, together with U.S. forces, would be insufficient. In addition, India, which has been fighting its own battles with China, must also play a role. That still is not enough. Further support from some among the likes of Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand will be necessary. This support does not have to come in the form of direct military involvement. It could consist, for example, of opening airfields and harbors to the U.S.-led coalition while denying the same to China. That combination of power, says Colby, would be greater and reach farther than China’s.

The strategy that Colby outlines doesn’t aim to take anything away from China, only to deny it a takeover of Taiwan by force. Hence the title of the book. The first priority would be to stop Chinese forces from occupying any part of Taiwan. However, if they did manage to gain a foothold, then it would be necessary to push them back into the sea at all costs. In Colby’s telling, timing would be crucial. The allied forces must always let China make the first move. Indeed, they should do everything possible to ensure that the onus of starting and continuing a war falls on Beijing, which would serve to strengthen the binding between the allies. Colby cites Abraham Lincoln’s genius in maneuvering the South Carolina rebels into firing the first shots at Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. This put the onus of war and destruction on the Confederacy and vastly strengthened support for the war in the Northern states. As Napoleon enjoined, “in war, the moral is to the material as three to one.” Just so, China must be put in the position of first to fire and invade. Such aggressive behavior would bind the allies more tightly together and thereby widen and deepen the front Beijing must conquer.

Of course, the potential of a nuclear exchange always exists between nuclear powers, but since such a step could very well mean the end of Xi Jinping’s reign and even that of the Chinese Communist Party, the probability is quite low. By the same token, a failure to successfully invade and hold Taiwan could well mean the end for Xi and the party. For this reason, Colby believes the very adoption of his “deny and bind” strategy will be sufficient to keep the People’s Liberation Army at home in its barracks and Taiwan safe and prosperous.

Colby’s argument proceeds logically and convincingly despite some awkward prose. It does not, however, address the emotional and philosophical differences between and environments of the key players. Should Xi Jinping succeed in returning Taiwan to the fold of the motherland, his status would top that of Mao Zedong himself in the Chinese Communist hierarchy. Would this fact tempt Xi to take risks he might otherwise shun? In the wake of humiliation in Afghanistan, would Washington be overanxious to demonstrate America’s continuing strength? Are both sides convinced of their own propaganda? Do Washington and Beijing even have a common language by which they can meaningfully communicate? Colby leaves these unknown unknowns as they are — unknown.

The Strategy of Denial

American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict

By Elbridge A. Colby

Yale University Press

384 pp. $32.50