The Taiwan Question: How to Think About Deterrence Now
(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Keith B. Payne, The Taiwan Question:  How to Think About Deterrence Now, No. 509, November 15, 2021

The Taiwan Question:  How to Think About Deterrence Now

Dr. Keith B. Payne is a co-founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, professor emeritus and former Department Head of the Graduate School of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and former Senior Advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 


A prominent deterrence challenge now confronting Washington is how to deter China from resolving the Taiwan Question forcefully.  There are many nuances to the Taiwan Question and the U.S. deterrence challenge involved, but the fundamental deterrence question is: can the United States now deter the Communist Party of China (CCP) from deciding to forcefully change the status quo on Taiwan, i.e., from removing the current democratically-elected governing authority and installing the CCP’s own repressive governing authority instead?  China’s recent harsh repression in Hong Kong in violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration looms large in the background.

Deterrence success in this regard is not to end in any definitive sense China’s desire to unite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland; that is a much heavier political burden than deterrence can or should be expected to bear.  But, effective U.S. deterrence in this case is for the Chinese leadership to conclude, when considering its options for Taiwan, that the risks/costs of moving against Taiwan forcefully are intolerable compared to the relative greater safety of deciding, “not this year.”  Deterrence surely cannot solve all geopolitical problems, but it may be able to accomplish that much.

Numerous commentators and academics present their competing opinions on how the United States should pursue deterrence in this case—there seems to be a daily publication on the subject. In most cases, however, this advice is derived from jargon and principles taken from America’s Cold War deterrence experience.  That is understandable, but a mistake.  The current deterrence challenge posed by China and the Taiwan Question is unprecedented and much Cold War-derived thinking about deterrence, including extended deterrence, is now of limited value.