The challenges of trying to successfully defend Taiwan against an overwhelming Chinese attack have done much to propel the long-postponed (and still anemic) project of US defense modernization in the post–Cold War era. If Taiwan is to survive a savage opening salvo, it will be up to the United States to intervene rapidly, effectively, and directly.
“Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger.”
This quote, often attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower and said to be a favorite of the late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, deserves consideration in shaping any US military response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Looked at as merely a cross-Strait problem, the defense of a tiny island within minutes’ range of Chinese missile barrage and air attack and at the extreme limit of American power projection is, if not insoluble, a very difficult problem.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has spent decades building a Taiwan-centric force—a giant stick that is already intimidating to Taipei, Washington, and much of maritime East Asia—capable of inflicting immediate, widespread, and severe damage on the island. And although “great-power competition” and a “Pacific pivot” have become accepted US strategy and military doctrine, no administration has taken concrete steps or made serious investments to give much reality to this rhetoric.
While the first order of business in the event of an attack by Beijing is to ensure there’s still a Taiwan left to defend—and one that is independent, de jure and de facto—it is imperative that the United States aim for more than a simple cessation of hostilities and return to the status quo ante. That’s more easily said than done, but the Cold War literature on horizontal escalation may offer an eye to today’s near-blind presidents and generals. Ike’s aphorism has a certain Sun Tzu–esque ring that resonates in the context of the current China conundrum.
The mainstream understanding of all forms of escalation in warfare has been shaped by two factors, beginning with political scientists’ studies of nuclear weapons’ effects during the Cold War and treatments of the prelude to and early phases of World War I. The classic example of the former is Bernard Brodie’s 1965 Escalation and the Nuclear Option, a RAND Corporation monograph and later a full-length book.1 And probably the most broadly influential rendering of the latter is Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Guns of August, published in 1962, also the year of the Cuban missile crisis.2 Fear of runaway nuclear arms races was an essential element of the geopolitical zeitgeist of the time.
Yet the focus on the logic of new and poorly understood weaponry has tended to obscure a deeper and more historically resonant understanding of escalation: Truly revolutionary developments in military technology have been predicted far more often than they have been realized. Conflict, particularly among rival great powers, is perhaps more likely to expand in scope than intensity, a phenomenon especially prevalent during the Cold War and in the presence of nuclear weapons.
Secondly, escalation, like deterrence, is best understood subjectively, through the eyes of the contestants—that is, escalation must “cross [a] threshold considered significant by one or more of the participants.”3 In other words, strategic signaling counts.
Thus, the traditional metaphor of an escalation “ladder”—introduced in another seminal Cold War study, Herman Kahn’s 1965 On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios, which identifies 44 “rungs”—has encouraged a too-narrow concept of what has most often been a far more complex and ambiguous way of war.4 This vertical paradigm appears to be strongly at work in much of US military thinking about the defense of Taiwan and the larger deterrence of Chinese expansionism: If the PLA can attack Taiwan and US bases or ships at will using ballistic and cruise missiles, we must not only defend against them but also develop a broadly symmetric ability to rocket the mainland.
Responding in kind to the trends in Chinese military modernization is a military and strategic necessity but perhaps not sufficient to produce a satisfactory deterrent or outcome in the event of hostilities. Too little explored are the possibilities for horizontal escalation: expanding the geographical scope of conflict, even to multiple theaters.
Ironically, this approach was a strong influence on the late Cold War thinking of the Reagan administration. Not only was there an attempt to threaten Soviet outposts in Africa, the Caribbean, and East Asia, but even within western Europe, the centerpiece of the AirLand Battle doctrine was a powerful counterattack into Warsaw Pact states. This threatened to unravel the Soviets’ Eastern European glacis, the strategic depth Moscow had won from World War II and for which it paid a terrible price. Both escalation and deterrence are best understood as multidimensional balances. The horizontal spaces—the boundaries of conflict, locations of targets and bases, elimination of sanctuaries, and even violations of neutrality— deserve more attention in the geostrategic competition with Beijing.
For decades, the United States has been the dominant power in East Asia and globally. This position of preeminence creates a wealth of opportunities for potential horizontal responses to Chinese actions against Taiwan.
Japan. Principal among them are the many facets of Japan, long a treaty ally and home to 50,000 US Forces Japan troops and an extensive network of logistics nodes and operational bases, including those on Okinawa, just 500 miles—tiny on a Pacific scale—from Taiwan. Indeed, the centrality of these facilities to the US Pacific military posture makes it a near certainty that the Chinese would target them in a serious conflict over Taiwan. It also would compel the United States to escalate horizontally from the outset.
Japan’s public strategic posture is, like that of the United States, intentionally ambiguous, though increasingly antagonistic toward China. While in 1972 Japan recognized the Beijing regime as the “sole legal Government of China,” Tokyo has not acknowledged China’s claim to Taiwan.5
In the summer of 2021, as cross-Strait tensions rose and Chinese incursions into Taiwanese and Japanese air defense identification zones mounted, Taro Aso, a controversial and “gaffe-prone” 80-year-old politician but also deputy prime minister and a stalwart of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democrats, described a Chinese attack on Taiwan as an “existential threat” to Japanese security interests. “If a major incident happened,” Aso said, “it’s safe to say it would be related to a situation threatening the survival [of Japan]. If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together.”6
While expert opinion is divided on Japan’s willingness and ability to contribute to Taiwan’s defense, Aso’s statement reflects a powerful strategic logic: If Taiwan were to become a Chinese outpost, it would control the southern approaches to Japan and truly threaten Japan’s commercial and military sea lines of communication. Aso’s statement also reflects the historical enmity between China and Japan, embodied in the still-raw attitudes over Japan’s killing of millions of Chinese during World War II and expressed in continuing disputes over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu, as they are known in China) islands in the East China Sea. In a 2016 poll, Pew researchers found that 81 percent of Chinese had unfavorable views of Japan, while a full 86 percent of Japanese had negative views of China.7 This ingrained animosity has important consequences for a strategy of horizontal escalation: For China, the prospect of a war with Japan would evoke powerful and painful memories.
Moreover, Beijing has, since the end of World War II, relied on the United States to suppress the traditionally strong Japanese sense of racial superiority and aggressive nationalism. A successful Chinese conquest—or even a peaceful absorption—of Taiwan could well induce Tokyo to uncouple itself from its American alliance, taking, in the context of a changing and more threatening Asian balance of power, its security into its own hands. And one of the first likely Japanese responses in such a situation would be to acquire an independent nuclear capability, something well within Tokyo’s rapid reach.
From Beijing’s point of view, the only thing worse than having Japan as a nearby American outpost might be to have Japan as an independent and—if history is a guide—potentially anxiety-ridden actor. This unknown but potentially great risk might even outweigh the anticipated benefits of taking Taiwan.
The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) is a small but serious military. Although Tokyo retains constitutional restrictions on the use of force, the previous prime minister, Shinzo Abe, pushed through a package of new defense laws in 2015 permitting the JSDF to cooperate with other militaries. And though Japan spends just 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense, that adds up to $51 billion per year, the eighth most in the world—enabling, for example, the purchase of at least 100 F-35 fighters.8 And China, rather than North Korea, is regarded as the pacing threat for the JSDF.
Finally, the high probability of Japan’s involvement in a Taiwan Strait conflict will shape any negotiations for a cease-fire or more durable cessation of hostilities. While it is impossible to predict precisely what Tokyo would want in such circumstances, China and the United States would have to take Japanese interests into account. Among those interests would be the continuity of American guarantees of Japanese security and sovereignty and the reliability of any renunciation by Beijing of territorial claims. In sum, any substantial Taiwan Strait conflict is almost certainly a three-way affair.
Korea. The Republic of Korea is a second “jewel in the crown” of America’s East Asian military posture; no more in the 21st century than in 1950 can the United States avoid that the Korean Peninsula lies within its defensive perimeter. Indeed, the security of the first island chain—running from Japan through the Ryukyus and Taiwan to the Philippines—begins in Seoul, as Dean Acheson would be forced to admit.9
Although a formal end to the Korean War may or may not be on the horizon, and the strength of US Forces Korea has, for the first time since 1950, dipped below 30,000 troops, the US position on the peninsula remains crucial to America’s military posture in the Pacific. As with Japan, it is highly questionable that a Taiwan conflict—which we can now see is inherently a war for maritime East Asia—could sidestep Korea or that South Korea could sidestep such a war, however a government in Seoul might wish. And the likelihood of a Korean connection would only increase were Japan involved in the conflict, given the historical connection between security on the peninsula and Japan’s security.
While the United States has been most concerned about the danger North Korea poses to the peninsula, simple geography reveals the peninsula’s operational importance in a Taiwan conflict. Much of the PLA is based in northern China, and its naval and air forces would have to pass through the Yellow Sea to operate farther south. At the very least, the potential of interception from US forces in Korea would tie down some Chinese forces. This is much of the purpose of horizontal escalation, and limiting the PLA’s ability to bring second or third waves of attack to bear will be crucial to frustrating a campaign against Taiwan.
Southeast Asia. Similar uncertainty-creating and cost-imposing gambits might bear fruit in Southeast Asia. While Beijing has gone to great lengths to try to dominate the South China Sea region, its outposts there are inevitably vulnerable, open to US forces operating in the Philippines or Vietnam. This, in turn, suggests the degree to which Beijing suffers from what it calls the “Malacca Dilemma”—that is, the vulnerability of its sea lines of communication that are a pipeline for not only Chinese exports but also energy and other natural-resource imports from the Middle East and Africa.
India. A major Chinese move against Taiwan would also be viewed nervously in India. China and India share what has long been a contested border, and in recent years tensions have escalated, including, for the first time in five decades, fire exchanged across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, part of Kashmir. Delhi believes that Beijing is reprising the “salami slicing” strategy of small but constant land grabs that would, over time, tilt the regional balance of power in China’s favor. Both sides have also engaged in extensive roadbuilding and other infrastructure construction that would allow for larger and more rapid troop movements. And in recent years, the Indian military has begun to develop plans and capabilities to challenge the extensive network of Chinese bases near the entire border region.
While India notoriously values its strategic independence, and any direct or overt support to US or other allied forces in a Taiwan crisis is doubtful, Delhi’s commitment to the “Quad” with Australia, Japan, and the United States has been consistent since the Quad’s inception in 2007. And the group’s commitment to a “shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific . . . unconstrained by coercion,” reaffirmed by the Biden administration in 2021, is based on fears of rising Chinese power and increased aggression.10 If nothing else, India represents a “threat in being” that Beijing cannot ignore. Further, in the border region, the contest is a land-centric one at the other end of the operational spectrum from any Taiwan scenario. It demands that China retain a balance of military capabilities.
Thinking about India’s role in the larger geopolitical competition with China is also useful in expanding American strategic horizons. It is a reminder that Beijing is the capital of a Eurasian empire whose first and principal concern has historically been the security of its western, continental frontiers.
China’s position is not unlike that of Bourbon and Napoleonic France, whose maritime, colonial, and global ambitions were forever limited by the need to protect its land borders. Great Britain’s classic “Whig” response to the French situation was to assemble balancing coalitions of European powers—including lavishing them with subsidies—to tie down French forces and deprive France of the resources needed for power projection abroad. The British also long cultivated ties to French Huguenots (a violently repressed Protestant minority in Catholic France), particularly those who lived near the Atlantic seaboard. The repression of Tibetans and Uyghurs—not to mention the desires of many Han Chinese for political and other forms of liberty—is a strategic weakness for the Chinese regime, a vulnerability that continues despite its crackdown on the Tiananmen protests or the socially repressive policies of Xi Jinping.
Arguably, Beijing has been quicker to realize that the prospects for horizontal escalation inherent in its desire to become a global great power would also frame a Taiwan conflict. As the Pentagon’s recent annual reports on Chinese military power have observed, while Taiwan remains the azimuth-setting strategic direction for the PLA and the driver of its modernization efforts, a host of other missions have landed on the Chinese military’s plate: deterring other regional rivals, from Japan to Vietnam to India; enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims regarding not only Taiwan but also the islands of the East and South China Seas and China’s land borders; protecting China’s growing list of overseas strategic and economic concerns; and guaranteeing the Chinese Communist Party regime against domestic challengers.
A June 2020 report, System Overload: Can China’s Military Be Distracted in a War over Taiwan? by Joel Wuthnow of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, well summarizes the view from Beijing as it comes to grips with the realities of great power in a globalized world. Further, the report offers a rich framework for assessing the prospects for devising a horizontal escalation strategy in response; one might argue that a paralyzing “system overload” would be the principal objective of such a strategy.11 “Handling multiple problems remains a weakness for the PLA,” writes Wuthnow.
Specific deficiencies include difficulties setting priorities due to interservice bargaining, a weak force posture beyond the First Island Chain, a convoluted command structure for multitheater operations, and the lack of a rotational assignment system that would give officers exposure to multiple problem sets. Latent civil-military distrust could also reduce the confidence of civilian leaders that the system will work as intended in a war.12
These are problems well understood by Chinese strategists, who worry about “chain-reaction warfare,” whereby the United States and Beijing’s other antagonists could exploit a Taiwan conflict in ways and places that would put novel strains on military and political decision makers. While a complete summary of Wuthnow’s work is beyond the scope of this chapter, several of its major analyses are worth reprising and should inform consideration of any strategy for horizontal escalation.
The first of these is to understand how Beijing’s obsession with Taiwan has both enabled and distorted its decades-long program of military modernization. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of the Taiwan crises of 1995 and 1996, the Chinese Central Military Commission—China’s senior strategic decision-making body, led by the party’s general secretary and including the PLA’s senior generals— formally shifted China’s main strategic direction away from its northwest land border with Russia to its southeast coastline. In Chinese doctrine, this designation subsumes not only operational planning but also force development, posture, and deployment.
The result has been, in Wuthnow’s succinct formula, an operational focus on “joint firepower strikes on key targets, a blockade, or a full-scale island landing (which would be preceded by a missile bombardment and a blockade).” These concepts have driven the development of “short-range cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced fighters, amphibious units, and electronic and psychological warfare capabilities, many of which were initially deployed in the Nanjing Military Region (MR) opposite Taiwan.”13 These are the trends that have been foremost in the annual Pentagon reports of the past two decades.
However, the list of competing strategic demands has grown, especially under Xi’s rule. The Chinese defense white papers of 2015 and 2019 reference a variety of potential conflict scenarios beyond Taiwanese independence: perceptions of strengthened US alliances in the region, instability on the Korean Peninsula, Uyghur and Tibetan independence movements, so-called Japanese militarization and infringements on East China Sea islands, other infringements in the South China Sea, and Australia’s alliance building.
A further traditional concern, instability in Afghanistan and South Asia more generally, has been downplayed during the years of US involvement there, but recent Chinese actions and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest this, too, might feature in future Chinese doctrinal and planning documents. Wuthnow also cites the 2013 edition of a main Chinese military journal, Science of Strategy, which concluded that the PLA’s ability to respond to conflicts outside its main strategic direction had been historically weak and that current PLA planners needed to better account for “high-intensity military operations and even local wars that may occur in other directions.”14
Indeed, it appears that Chinese leaders and strategists are struggling to adapt to the exigencies of global power, with a resulting loss of strategic focus and a force increasingly optimized for one kind of war—and now with service and procurement bureaucracies deeply invested in the primacy of the Taiwan scenario. And Xi’s “China Dream” ambitions are only making matters more complex, as an article in the journal of the Central Party School suggests.
Entering a new era, with the profound changes in the content of [our] national interests, various strategic directions may have security problems that infringe on national interests, which in turn cause serious harm and consequences to the overall development of the country. This makes any strategic direction likely to be the main strategic direction.15 (Emphasis in the original.)
This paradox will sound all too familiar to American leaders and strategists of the post–World War II and, especially, the post-9/11 generations: The principal direction of strategy is determined by whatever direction you’re already going in. And those defense reformers and strategic “realists” so frustrated by this fact will recognize the hopeless prescription the Chinese have set for themselves in the sentence following: “Only by scientifically coordinating the use of military forces can we effectively respond to security threats in all directions and ensure the balance and stability of the overall strategy.”16 When a nation’s strategy suggests large doses of appetite suppressants for military commanders engaged in conflict, that nation is in trouble.
The challenges of trying to successfully defend Taiwan against an overwhelming Chinese attack—a prospect that also shapes Beijing’s efforts to bully and subvert Taipei into “peaceful” absorption into the Chinese empire—have done much to propel the long-postponed (and still anemic) project of US defense modernization in the post–Cold War era. If Taiwan is to survive a savage opening salvo, it will be up to the United States to intervene rapidly, effectively, and directly.
Yet were such a scenario to play out, it must be clear that these are the first shots in a long conflict and only part of an enduring great-power competition that will take decades to play out; the modern history of similar struggles—be they to contain Hapsburg Spain, Bourbon and Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, or Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union—strongly suggests so. As pressing and immediate as the cross-Strait danger is in itself, it is past time to begin thinking about and preparing for the longer-term defense of the world America made: the peaceful, prosperous, and still-free liberal international order.
No essay on strategy can be complete without a Carl von Clausewitz quote. In this case, it is relevant to recite that the “first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking.”17 This exactly describes what the United States and its allies must do. Even the cursory analysis offered here should make plain that the canonical Taiwan scenario is inherently a larger contest than currently imagined and that horizontal escalation will be baked into the cake from the start.
This fact plays very much to an American advantage. This is true in not just the military and operational spheres highlighted by Wuthnow but the political spheres as well. Assessed globally, China is in a much weaker position than the US by all measures, and those nations with which China has nascent strategic partnerships are likely to be minuses rather than pluses. “If I get in trouble, Vladimir Putin’s got my back” cannot inspire confidence in Beijing. Which domestic polities are most durable: an autocratic, repressive, centralized one-party state or a sprawling herd of liberal democracies? Which side has nine lives?