Variable 5: What is the degree of U.S. commitment to Taiwan?

The people who are saying with certainty that China is going to invade Taiwan in the next two decades seem to be discounting a lot of factors that would indicate that China would not do so, regardless. For example, I would guess that there is at least a 50% chance that the Chinese economy would stagnate or slow down in the next two decades. This most likely precludes them taking a step as drastic as invading Taiwan. Then there is the current leadership of China, which tends to be careful and cautious. I do not think the current leadership of China is likely to invade Taiwan. They may well be in power for the better part of the next two decades. So, one could make the argument that there appears to be a least a 75% chance that China will not invade Taiwan in the next two decades, regardless of the degree of U.S. commitment.

Now, I have heard some people talk about this invasion as almost a certainty. To bring me on board with their thinking they would have convince me that: 1) Xi Jinping and the current politburo are ready to take such a gamble, 2) that the Chinese economy will be continually stable and  growing for the next two decades, and 3) that they have built up their air and naval capability to ensure such an effort. I don’t think one can make a rational argument that it is almost a certainty. Still, it is a possibility and a very real possibility, which leads us into examining U.S. commitment.

The degree of U.S. commitment is a significant variable, and perhaps the most difficult element to predict. There does some to be some sort of “conventional” wisdom that the United States is hesitant to commit troops to fight in far off places. Yet, the actual track record is the reverse. So, for example, it appears that some people (including Joseph Stalin) assumed that the United States would not intervene if there was an invasion of South Korea. So North Korea rolled across the border in 1950 with their T-34s, the U.S. responded, and my father ended up fighting there.

Then there is Vietnam, where we had a large military assistance program of tens of thousands of people and the South Vietnamese government was still losing the war. So we then decided to send hundreds of thousands of troops there to engage hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese guerillas and even some North Vietnamese troops, putting us into the fourth bloodiest war in U.S. history. My father ending up fighting there twice.

Then there is Kuwait, where the United States had no political, legal, alliance, or defense obligations; yet when they were invaded in 1990 by Iraq, we sent over hundreds to thousands of troops and drove the Iraqi’s out in the 1991 Gulf War. None of my family were involved in that one, although Trevor Dupuy did some estimates for congress that are worth noting (see: Forecasting the 1990-1991 Gulf War | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org) and Assessing the TNDA 1990-91 Gulf War Forecast | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org) and Assessing the 1990-1991 Gulf War Forecasts | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

Then we were attacked on 9/11. In response in 2001 we invaded not only the country that was housing Osama bin Laden (Afghanistan), but in 2003 we also invaded Iraq. Threw both governments out of power and occupied both countries. My brother was in Afghanistan a half-dozen times. None of my family were involved in Iraq, although I did do an estimate of casualties and duration for a guerilla war in Iraq: See America’s Modern Wars, Chapter 1.

And then there is also the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Invasion of Grenada (1983) and the Invasion of Panama (1989), among many other interventions. My father was deployed in the first one as part of a projected amphibious invasion force. We have no direct connection to the other two events.

So, if you have smugly adopted the “conventional” wisdom that the U.S. won’t commit troops to fight in far off places, well you probably should re-evaluate the basis for your smugness. It does not match with my personal experiences.

The real discussion:

So, will the United States intervene to support Taiwan? Well, that does not have to be answered with a definitive “yes.” A simple “maybe” is probably enough. It is a case of deterring the Chinese from determining that this could be a successful course of action. If it is uncertain, will they then undertake it? 

The main thing is that it needs to be clear that the answer is not “no – we won’t intervene.’ We also have to ensure that the Chinese do not make the mistake of assuming that it is “no” or calculating that if they move quick enough, it can be presented as a fait acompli (much like Stalin tried with North Korea in 1950). So, the most likely U.S. strategy is that they will continue to make it clear that they are willing to support, able to support Taiwan. The problem is that not only do they need to make it clear, but they need to make sure that China believes it.

Now, the actual level of support for Taiwan in the U.S. may decline over the next twenty years. There are three major factors driving this 1) the U.S. does not have strong ties to supporting Taiwan, 2) the current Republican Party appears to be leaning towards being anti-interventionist, 3) the Democrats have traditionally not been interventionist (although WWI, WWII, Korea, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam occurred on their watch). Lets address each of these:

  1. Are the U.S. as willing to defend Taiwan because it was a democracy as they were when they were “anti-communist?” The PRC is still one of four communist countries in the world, but the policy of containment and anti-communism is not what it once was. Do we care as much about supporting democracies as we did about containing communism? Probably not. There is not a track record to strongly indicate otherwise.
  2. Elements of the current Republican Party appears to be anti-interventionist. This is not the first time. They were very much that way in the 1920s and 1930s and there have been significant isolationist and anti-interventionist movements in the party in recent times, including Pat Buchanan’s runs for president in 1992, 1996 and 2000 and Ron Paul’s campaigns for president in 2008 and 2012. The last Republican president appeared to be instinctually an isolationist and anti-interventionist. Is this the future of the Republican Party going forward? Hard to say. I saw Liz Cheney tweeting this week about defending Taiwan, but she is kind of on the outs with a lot in people in the party (they voted her out of her leadership position in the House). So, it may well be. As it is, I suspect they will be out of power more often than they are in power for the next 40+ years (See: Is the United States on the Verge of Becoming a Single Party Democracy? | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org))
  3. Then there is the Democratic Party, which has been anti-interventionist since the Vietnam War (they were not before the Vietnam War). Still, since the Vietnam War we have seen intervention by Democratic presidents in places like Kosovo, Syria, Libya, etc. So, they are not completely anti-interventionist, but this is a strong tendency in the party.

So, we are staring at a situation where the vast majority of the electorate, many congressmen and many senators don’t really have a strong opinion on this. This creates an environment where there is not a lot of clear underlying support for Taiwan.  

The key then becomes who is president. That seems to be driven by whoever is randomly in office (and sometimes it does seem random). Would we have sent over a couple of hundred thousand troops to liberate Kuwait in 1991 if Michael Dukakis was president instead of George Bush Sr.? Would the United States have invaded Iraq in 2003 if Al Gore was president instead of George Bush, Jr.? It is clear that who is in charge makes a big difference in these types of decisions. So, the question is: who will be in charge of the United States from 2029-2036 (assuming the current president serves for two terms, which is the most likely scenario) or 2037-2044? That is a pretty tough guess at the moment, although I do believe it will most likely be a Democrat. Will that individual be willing to intervene to protect Taiwan? Keep in mind, they actually don’t have to intervene, just have to appear to be willing to.

While I don’t think the U.S. policy on Taiwan will officially change over the next twenty years, the issue will be whether the United States has a credible deterrence. The key adjective is credible. As long as the Chinese believe there is a good chance that the United States will intervene, then there is deterrent value to the policy. If they do not believe we will, then that deterrence is gone. 

Now, the one thing we could do to maintain a credible deterrence is to base troops there (like we do in South Korea). I don’t think that anyone senior in the last or the current administration is recommending that. I also don’t think that this is likely to be U.S. policy going forward. Still, it is an option worth considering, for even if the vast majority of Americans are not interesting in supporting Taiwan, having troops there serves as a trip wire. It almost guarantees U.S. involvement and therefore serves as a very credible deterrent. Still, I suspect this would be a very hard sell for the American people. Also, if the U.S. did deploy troops to Taiwan, there would certainly be an outcry and some kind of response from China. That may not be worth the pain.

Now, in the past, deterrence has worked. Obviously, it has not always worked (Korea 1950), but in the case of the cold war, western Europe was not invaded by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union and the United States did not fire nukes at each other. So, in those cases deterrence did work for 40+ years. The question is: can the U.S. maintain a credible deterrence against China in the decade after next. I do have my doubts. Of course, this does not automatically mean that Taiwan gets invaded, but it does open the door to that possibility.

This entry was posted in China, National Security Policy, Net Assessment by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. ... Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. ... His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024). ... Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

24 thoughts on “Variable 5: What is the degree of U.S. commitment to Taiwan?

  1. Then there is the strategy of reminding PRC about the nuclear option!

    It wouldn’t be necessary to convince PRC that Americans would be willing to put boots on the ground to stop an invasion of Taiwan, just convince PRC that Americans wouldn’t be too squeamish about once again employing nuclear weapons. That might be a hard sell, because Americans do seem to be psychologically squeamish about again using nuclear weapons (even though the firebombing of Dresden and the like hasn’t made non-nuclear bombing of cities to be off limits). Would it be possible to convince PRC that Americans would accept the relatively few casualties from a PRC nuclear-counterattack following a targeted use of nuclear weapons against PLA forces staged for the second wave against Taiwan (obviously, not using nuclear weapons against already-landed forces in Taiwan) and that Americans wouldn’t be too squeamish about using nuclear weapons in a first-strike response (even though it would be the second strike in the war)? As suggested by Chris, already having boots on the ground as a tripwire would make any deterrence strategy (nuclear or non-nuclear) seem to be more credible/believable.

  2. Oh, the US also would have to debunk the myth of nuclear winter in the minds of Americans (another hard sell given the current perception by many about the fragility of global climate and ecosystems).

  3. Well, the use of nuclear weapons to defend the islands of Quemoy (now called Kinmen) and Matsu was discussed in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, but I don’t think the use of nuclear weapons would ever be seriously considered now. In the end, it appears that nuclear weapons only deter other nuclear weapons.

    • Chapter 5 (“Nuclear Deterrence and Compellence”) in The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy by Matthew Kroenig (Georgetown University), contains compelling logic and data suggesting that nuclear weapons also deter non-nuclear threats (by looking at the other side of the coin, i.e. by looking at the targeting and targeted countries and the resulting outcomes of militarized compellent threats):

      Militarized Compellent Threats (1945-2001)

      Superior Nuclear-Armed Challengers made 49 threats (10 succeeded, 39 failed) against nuclear-armed countries having fewer nuclear weapons (7 threats, with 3 succeeding) and against countries having no nuclear weapons (42 threats, with 7 succeeding)

      Inferior Nuclear-Armed Challengers made 0 threats against countries with more nuclear weapons

      Nonnuclear-Armed Challengers made 69 threats (16 succeeded, 53 failed)

      Compellent Threats by Nuclear-Armed Countries

      United Sates (of course, who had more nukes than USA?)
      0 against superior nukes and 17 against inferior/no nukes

      Soviet Union (remembering that this refers to 1945-2001)
      0 against superior nukes and 7 against inferior/no nukes

      United Kingdom
      0 against superior nukes and 9 against inferior/no nukes

      France
      0 against superior nukes and 3 against inferior/no nukes

      PRC (remembering that Korean War was before PRC had nukes)
      0 against superior nukes and 3 against inferior/no nukes

      Israel
      0 against superior nukes and 3 against inferior/no nukes

      South Africa
      0 against superior nukes and 6 against inferior/no nukes

      India
      0 against superior nukes and 1 against inferior/no nukes

      Pakistan
      0 against superior nukes and 0 against inferior/no nukes

      Even though nuclear-arms superiority is highly correlated with conventional-arms superiority, nuclear-inferior countries have been subjected to compellent threats by nuclear-superior countries (23 threats) while nuclear-superior countries have never been threatened (of course, Prof. Kroenig is referring to militarized threats by countries rather than by terrorist groups or state-sponsored terrorists or to threatening rhetoric without an explicit threat to use military force if compliance wasn’t forthcoming).

      It does seem that having nuclear superiority deters militarized compellence threats by countries having fewer nuclear weapons; so, it is not likely that PRC would compel USA to abandon Taiwan (if USA maintained a position of nuclear superiority over PRC and if USA maintained a position of “no invasion allowed” in the case of Taiwan).

      Chris, I wonder whether Prof. Kroenig at GU might make for a good collaborator with you at TDI on some research project of mutual interest (with DoD or some other patron of GU paying the bill : – )

  4. I did not see any mention of the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty. Did I miss it or do you think it is not a real deterrent?

    • The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty ran from 1955-1980. It was replaced in 1979 by the Taiwan Relations Act. The Taiwan Relations Act does not promise Taiwan direct military assistance in case of an invasion.

      The U.S. does not have a legal obligation to defend Taiwan. This is also the case with Israel, was the case with Kuwait in 1990, is the case with New Zealand, was the case with Korea in 1950.

      We do have a legal obligation to help defend Estonia (and the rest of NATO), South Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Australia.

      See: https://2009-2017.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/index.htm

  5. By the way, just wondering whether the U.S. combat deaths in the graph include C.S.A. combat deaths during the American Civil War and Tory combat deaths during the American Revolutionary War.

    Also, I’m thinking that non-combat deaths (camp disease deaths, POW deaths, etc.) would be relevant for the earlier wars. I guess, leave out the civilian deaths because we’re contrasting deaths in wars on foreign soils as well as in America.

    Not that that those questions are relevant to your point that Americans have been willing to die help foreigners (and not just to help themselves to foreign lands or to defend the land of the free and the home of the brave : – )

    • Oh, this is a long discussion that I am not going to have right now. The chart shows combat deaths in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate. The total deaths from the civil war is at least 620,000. So World War II is America’s bloodiest war if you count combat deaths. If you count all deaths, then the Civil War is.

      I do not know if Tarleton’s Dragoons are included in the U.S. casualty totals for the American Revolutionary War. According to Wikipedia the U.S. suffered 6,800 dead in battle (do not know if this includes died of wounds), the Loyalists suffered 1,700 dead in battle, and the American Indians lost at least 500 died fighting for the British.

    • Yes, this is fairly typical of some of the discussion. The biggest difference here between what they are saying and what I am saying concerns president Xi Jinping. They state “He warns that he will use any means necessary, even force, to achieve. Xi cannot afford to back down.” This is a somewhat different interpretation than I have. Xi has been around for a while, even living with Americans in Iowa. So there are certainly experts on Xi who can evaluate this. They then reference four recent events to justify their arguments.

      1. Suppressing the Muslim Uyghurs.
      2. Hong Kong
      3. Disputed border with India
      4. South China Sea

      Of course, the South China Sea and the argument over the Spratly Islands predates Xi. China did fight a naval battle with Vietnam over the Johnson South Reef in 1988.

      The establishment of tighter controls over Hong Kong is not all that surprising. The suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs is also not that surprising. There was the Falun Gong movement that was also suppressed. The China government is not comfortable with religious movements nor with ethnic minorities with religious ties (for example Tibet). I think they consider them a threat to stability and order. Is suppression of students in Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong movement, the Tibetan Buddhists, the Muslims Uygurs and Hong Kong a sign of strength or a sign of weakness? Who is next, the Christians?

      Finally, the Indian border fight was a controlled and limited response where people used bundled of sticks to fight and attack each other, as opposed to opening fire with the vast array of kinetic energy weapons available. This is very much in line with the limited and restrained responses that China has done in the past with some of its border disputes.

      So, I guess it depends on how you choose to interpret the events, and of course, what your understanding of what Xi and the politburo want to do, are willing to do, and what risks they are willing to take.

      Later in the article they state that “China is certainly much stronger today than [five years ago]…and the United States has been weakened.” This is a mysterious statement, as China is spending less than 2% of their GDP on defense while the United States is spending over 3%.

      • “Who is next, the Christians?”

        It has varied by time and place. At the national level, there has been some back-and-forth about suppression of Christians. At the regional level, some region’s officials don’t read the latest e-mails and aren’t “reigned in” by whatever is the current mood at the national level. This is a sign that national control isn’t as strong as one normally would expect within a communist dictatorship. However, for the topic in question, the loose control over regional authorities hardly matters since it would be the PRA that would invade Taiwan.

  6. “China is certainly much stronger today than [five years ago]…and the United States has been weakened.”

    IMHO this is an intuitive feeling expressed by a number of media commentators I have read, although I have not seen an evidence based argument for this such you have been advancing for the opposite view. It seems however to be a wide-spread feeling. For example,

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-09/china-taiwan-aggression-fallout-for-united-states-australia/100056942

  7. Cooption is a key variable for both the United States and China.

    Just as the U.S. limits its future options by involving itself in endless mini-wars, the Chinese themselves may get themselves involved in conflict over other issues which put the invasion of Taiwan on the back burner.

    The same type of calculus that says the Chinese might/would take the risk of invading Taiwan, could very well have them getting aggressive elsewhere: India and South Chinese territorial disputes in particular come to mind.

    • Clinton, those reporters did “sweat the details.”

      The crucial statement from the report is the following (unless the psychological taboo against using nukes prevails or unless Chris’ point about factoring in the trade effects is considered and thus the US is predicted to loose the conventional conflict while winning the strategic campaign): “I think the US now accepts it may lose a conflict – at least at the conventional level – with China.” — Australian National University Professor Stephan Fruehling

      Still seems to me that the PRC will factor in the strategic factors (military factors and economic factors). Pres. Biden’s recent comments concerning Hong Kong at least remind the PRC that actions by the PLA wouldn’t be ignored by the US.

      • HI Neil,

        Yes I expect China will factor in the strategic issues, but they can cut two ways. US refusing to buy Chinese goods and services and vice versa, both can loose economically. They may not be a sufficient deterrent.

        The opinion that China will probably win a war fought around Taiwan may mean that the PRC will attack in an attempt to intimidate Taiwan, followed by a longer term pacification war. A US military response would be fought on Taiwan to a large degree thus devastating the island. So a fight looks like a Pyric victory for the US and Taiwan which means China will win. On balance an attack would probably be worth doing for the PRC.

        • Unless it is a nuclear war!

          Prof. Matthew Kroenig (Georgetown University) estimates the following damage:

          USA looses 45 cities and 47,640,704 people if the PRC launches the first strike on USA during (or as the prelude to) the invasion of Taiwan.

          USA looses only 5 cities and 7,942,986 people if the PRC launches the second strike after the USA launches the first strike in response to the invasion of Taiwan.

          During a first strike by the USA, with the USA’s current counter-force (as opposed to counter-city) doctrine, PRC looses it’s entire ICMB force except for those that cause the 5 detonations above 5 cities (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Seattle). Having 2,000 nuclear warheads, USA uses 300 warheads to destroy PRC’s stationary ICBM system (including command centers and production centers in addition to nuclear weapons) and then uses the remaining 1,700 warheads to destroy PRC’s 25 mobile missiles and all of the PLA troops staged to invade Taiwan. Of course, it would be prudent to not launch everything (since one would still want to deter Russia).

          During a second-strike response to a PRC first-strike prelude to (or simultaneous attack while) invading Taiwan, USA destroys any nuclear reserves as well as whatever conventional forces hadn’t yet landed on the shores of Taiwan. Conventional forces of Taiwan would then defeat already-landed invaders (who would no longer have supplies coming from the mainland).

          Dr. Kroenig took a conservative approach to his simulations in order that he not be accused of being overly optimistic. Still, the question is whether or not the PRC would believer that the USA would be willing to launch a first strike (given the psychological aversion to nuclear war) and then suffer the loss of even five cities and 8 million people in defense of Taiwan. There wouldn’t be much doubt of an American second-strike if the PRC launched a first strike as part of invading Taiwan. So, the trick is to make the USA first-strike option seem to be a credible deterrence.

    • Clinton,

      Read this article with interest. Have a few comments on it:

      “Yet if China wanted to conquer Taiwan, the outcome could be different. Possibly completely different.”

      Have they been reading our blog?

      “The Chinese defence budget reached $324 billion this year…US spending remains miles ahead at $759.”

      Uh-huh.

      They look at budget, then discuss ships then discuss airplanes. Kind of the same order as I did. Have they been reading our blog?

      “US military spend 3.5% of their GDP, for China it is 1.5% of their GDP.”

      Kind of the same points I have been making. Have they been reading our blog?

      “The last time Chinese troops saw direct action was 1979 when China launched a costly month-long war against Vietnam…”

      Funny they should mention that. Now I am convinced that they have been reading our blog.

      “What determines victory, loss or stalement between the US and China is likely to be determined by the murky calculus of how much risk and how much pain and loss both sides could endure.”

      Conclusion noted.

      By the way, I still have a couple of more blog posts to do on this subject, just haven’t gotten around to it.

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