The greatest act of statesmanship is to recognize the reality of the conditions a country faces and adapt its military and diplomatic posture to advance and defend its interests in a dangerous environment. The strategic conditions that the U.S. faced during the Cold War or post-Cold War period are both similar but also different from those the U.S. confronts today. The most telling example of this change is Taiwan. The conditions that Taiwan faced in previous periods of crisis with the mainland are not what it faces today. There are two major changes to these conditions that have dramatically altered the status quo, to which leaders in Taipei and Washington had falsely believed Beijing would adhere. First, the growth and capability of the PRC’s conventional and nuclear military that threatens Taiwan, U.S. allies Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, and the U.S. military, territories like Guam, and the American homeland. Second, a relatively weaker U.S. deterrent due to decades-long reductions in conventional capabilities and nuclear force structure and infrastructure is not what is needed to deter two major nuclear powers, the PRC and Russia.
To deter a PRC attack against Taiwan, the U.S. must have a deterrent posture that reflects these strategic realities. Deterrence is a function of military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, as well as political considerations such as willpower and credibility. Both military capabilities and political variables are stretched when the U.S. must extend deterrence to allies like Japan or partners like Taiwan. This is because an extended deterrent commitment conveys to our enemies that Japan is like the 51st state and that the U.S. would defend Japan as it would an attack on California or New York. This is inherently incredible because Japan is not the 51st state. The major concern is that the territory matters more to the enemy than it does to the U.S., and so the balance of resolve would favor the enemy.
To address the problem of credibility, during much of the Cold War—certainly by the 1960s, when the growth of Soviet nuclear capabilities caused allies like Charles de Gaulle to doubt the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent—the U.S. labored mightily to ensure that it possessed the conventional and nuclear capabilities to meet an enemy’s aggression at every level of aggression. This is an important fact because it provided assurance that if the enemy chose to aggress at the conventional level, the U.S. and its allies would defeat it without employing nuclear weapons, but Washington always reserved the option of escalating to ensure the enemy knew he would be defeated at any level of aggression, up to a strategic level.
Thus, if the Soviets chose to employ tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. would match them and might escalate to the theater level. If the Soviets chose to fight there, the U.S. would again match them and might escalate to the strategic level. If the Soviets decided to fight at the strategic level, the U.S. was prepared to fight a limited nuclear war or execute major attack options against the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies. The ability to fight at any level was central to convincing the Soviets that their military objectives would be denied to them, and so there was no reason to attack as they would not succeed. Deterrence of aggression would be obtained.
At the same time, U.S. political leadership was acutely aware of the necessity of publicly declaring support for allies and the certainty of a U.S. response, up to a major nuclear war, should deterrence fail and aggression occur. The U.S. worked hard to ensure a tight coupling with NATO allies and other major allies like Japan. The U.S. sustained a credible extended deterrent during the Cold War because it possessed large conventional capabilities, using a two-and-a-half war standard (the ability to fight simultaneously two major wars and a limited conflict like Vietnam) for much of it. It also had a large nuclear arsenal employed by the Air Force, Army, and Navy, and responsive nuclear infrastructure that led the world in nuclear design, testing, and maintenance.
That is not true today. U.S. conventional capabilities are stretched to deter Russian aggression in Europe, Iran and Iranian proxies in the Middle East, and the most formidable challenge of the PRC. Its nuclear capabilities are far weaker than during the Cold War, as it now possesses a small number of tactical nuclear weapons, no theater ones, and its strategic forces are desperately in need of expansion and modernization, as does the Department of Energy’s nuclear infrastructure.
The consequence is that leaders of the PRC might think they could succeed in achieving their military objectives, such as a conquest of Taiwan. To deter the PRC, the U.S. has worked to ensure that U.S. naval and air force conventional strike capabilities remain in theater, supported by strategic nuclear forces. While U.S. conventional capabilities are not what they should be in the Indo-Pacific and U.S. nuclear capabilities are also not what they should be, we are in a period of great vulnerability, what one of the authors has called the “decade of concern” as a state like Taiwan that does not possess its own capabilities sufficient to deter the PRC.
Military capabilities take time to come online, so rebalancing them is the only immediate solution. But this is hindered by competing priorities: the need to reassure NATO, aid allies, and maintain Sea Lines of Communication and freedom of navigation in the Middle East, as well as aid allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. To address this, the Biden administration must ensure that the Indo-Pacific is a consistent priority for U.S. seapower. No matter the value of the Middle East, it pales in comparison to the strategic center of gravity for the U.S. in the 21st century, which is the PRC. In lockstep with its military capabilities, the U.S. needs to recognize the strategic reality of the 21st century. Taiwan is independent and must never be conquered by the PRC without serious harm to America’s own national security and safety.
Hence, the political components of deterrence are immediately relevant. U.S. leaders must consistently support de facto independence by providing military capabilities to Taiwan without delay, but also, in contrast to the Biden administration, speak to all global audiences about the need for Taiwan to be supported so that deterrence may be maximized. This will require the expansion of ongoing freedom of navigation operations employing U.S. allies as a signal to the PRC that Taiwan stands not only with the U.S. but also with many of the U.S.’s European and Asian allies.
Maximizing deterrence requires recognizing the strategic realities of the 21st century and for U.S. presidents, senior officials, and Congressional leaders to speak directly about those realities and enlist U.S. allies and partners like India in this recognition. The realities are: Taiwan is an independent state; it should possess far greater capabilities, including U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployment to the island; and U.S. leaders need to speak openly and often about the need for Taiwan to remain free and never fall into the grasp of the PRC’s Communist tyranny.
James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are coauthors of the forthcoming Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.