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Strait of Emergency?
Strait of Emergency?
Debating Beijing’s Threat to Taiwan
By Rachel Esplin Odell and Eric Heginbotham; Bonny Lin and David Sacks; Kharis Templeman; Oriana Skylar Mastro
Don’t Fall for the Invasion Panic
Oriana Skylar Mastro’s article “The Taiwan Temptation” (July/August 2021) is one of many recent articles that warns of the growing risk of Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait. Such articles have become so common that they have created something of an invasion panic in Washington—one that is damaging to both the United States’ and Taiwan’s interests. Anxiety about impending Chinese aggression was part of what drove Washington in recent years to weaken its long-standing “one China” policy by lifting some restrictions on official interactions between it and Taiwan. It also undergirds recent calls for Washington to abandon its policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
Although Mastro does not explicitly endorse these policy changes, she does suggest that the United States has no good options for preventing a Chinese assault on Taiwan, implying a false equivalence among the various approaches available to Washington. In reality, the risks are less imminent and more manageable than she suggests. The United States can maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait by bolstering Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities and adopting a lighter and more distributed—and thus less vulnerable—force posture in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, Washington should strengthen its “one China” policy, reinforce strategic ambiguity, and refrain from making unconditional commitments to Taiwan.
Mastro rightly observes that if China were to take military action against Taiwan, it would have several options, ranging from an invasion to a blockade to the occupation of small offshore islands or strikes on selected economic or political targets. Although some of these options are more realistic than others, all would carry immense risk. Contrary to what Mastro suggests, Beijing is unlikely to attempt any of them unless it feels backed into a corner.
China’s most decisive option would be a cross-strait invasion. But its chances of succeeding today—and for the next decade at least—are poor. Moreover, failure would produce a wrecked fleet and an army of prisoners of war in Taiwan, an outcome that even Beijing would be unable to spin as a victory. If, as most China analysts believe, regime security is the top priority for Chinese leaders, an invasion would risk everything on dim prospects for glory.