The US and China: Deterrence in the Danger Zone

When U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said in October that China might imminently invade Taiwan, it shocked the national security community. Just a week later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed and reaffirmed these concerns, stating that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s plans for reunification with Taiwan are on a “much faster timeline” than previously expected. Conventional wisdom previously held that the earliest timing for China’s invasion of Taiwan would be in the latter half of this decade, but these comments suggest that such aggression could actually take place in 2023.

Indeed, recent record-breaking Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and reckless Chinese aerial activity in the South China Sea demonstrate the distinct possibility of a looming conflict. Thus, the world finds itself in a security environment that some experts have called the “Danger Zone.”

The U.S. national security and defense strategies provide a strategic path of success through the perils of this year and this decade: integrated deterrence. This concept utilizes the principles of Cold War-winning deterrence employed across the whole of government and alongside the United States’ broad and trusted network of allies and partners.

Integrated deterrence hinges on a contest of capabilities and wills, with perceptions at its core. Success in this competition depends on decreasing the perceived likelihood that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would succeed, minimizing the perceived benefits of such aggression, and increasing the expected costs of it. Increasing uncertainty, sowing seeds of doubt, and boosting perceptions of risk make Chinese aggression less likely. Specifically, U.S. and allied leaders need to make clear to CCP leaders that the risks and costs of an invasion may cut to the heart of their ultimate objectives in modern day China.

Diplomat Brief Weekly Newsletter N Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific. Get the Newsletter

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has largely shaped his message according to these principles, stating that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would entail an “excessive amount of risk” that would “end in a strategic debacle for the Chinese military.” Such words likely amplify the anxiety of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and should factor 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 untested military, against a capable coalition force, and in light of Russia’s own recent debacle.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Yet U.S. and allied leaders should fully connect the dots for CCP leaders in the most impactful way possible to best deter aggression.

While reunification with Taiwan is a high priority for Xi and the CCP, it is not their highest priority. Their ultimate objective is maintaining a monopoly on power in China and retaining their firmly entrenched position as the unquestioned ruling class. Therefore, those intending to prevent Chinese aggression must prompt Xi and the CCP to fully consider the costs, the benefits, and the risks of aggression in light of this paramount priority. The key to deterrence, then, is for Xi and his CCP leaders to understand the extreme danger that would come from pursuing a secondary priority – when their primary priority may suffer as a result.

Milley’s comments about military denial, properly packaged, can exert oversized leverage into a posture of integrated deterrence. But prompting concerns about a strategic debacle for the Chinese military is only a means to an end in this competition of perception. Whenever discussing such topics, U.S. and allied strategic leaders must explicitly emphasize that the likely failure of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would not only be a strategic debacle for the Chinese military, but more importantly for Xi and the CCP. Aggression toward Taiwan would risk undermining and undoing their exclusive hold on power.

By targeting communications to the heart of CCP insecurity and priority, strategic leaders can magnify its effectiveness. In 2023 and beyond, preventing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will require a careful calibration of capability and will to manage the CCP’s perception about costs, benefits and risks. Elevating communication about these factors to the highest level of significance in the minds of the CCP’s ruling class is pivotal to a deliberate campaign of successfully navigating the Danger Zone.