March 13, 2023
China's Three Roads to Controlling Taiwan
- China seeks to gain full control of Taiwan through three distinct but interrelated campaigns: forceful persuasion, coercion, and compellence.
- American policy’s focus on compellence marginalizes strategies that counter China’s persuasion and coercion campaigns.
- China is more likely to achieve its goals through persuasion and coercion or a form of compellence, such as a blockade of the island, short of an amphibious invasion.
- The US must urgently rethink its defense of Taiwan so that it blocks all three roads to Chinese victory.
US policy to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression is overly focused on the risk that China will attempt an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. The US is not paying sufficient heed to Chinese efforts to regain control of Taiwan through persuasion and coercion, and US strategies to block a Chinese invasion may actually undermine efforts to block the persuasion and coercion roads to Chinese success. Xi Jinping likely prefers to accomplish his aims by means short of war. Those roads offer Xi the prospect of success at much lower risk and cost than fighting a war. The US must develop strategies to defeat these campaigns while deterring an invasion.
Beijing faces a difficult set of choices between military considerations and geopolitical dilemmas that US discussions of a putative Chinese invasion often fail to consider adequately. A militarily optimal Chinese invasion strategy would require that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strike American bases in Japan, a US treaty ally, and Guam, US territory, early in a conflict. Such attacks would bring the US fully into the war and expand the conflict to include Japan and other East Asian states. American strategists may worry that the US would not commit fully even after Guam was attacked or that the Japanese would try to remain neutral, but neither scenario is likely.
Xi has no reason to be confident in outcomes that would be optimal for China. Such attacks, after all, would be even more radical moves than Vladimir Putin’s have been in Europe. American strategists cannot take for granted that the US and its allies will behave optimally, but Xi cannot dismiss the possibility that they would. He will thus face an unpleasant choice once he decides to invade—accept the risk of expanding the war greatly or leave fully operational the bases from which a possibly devastating US military response might come. These considerations, among others, make strategies of persuasion, coercion, and military isolation short of invasion far more attractive to Xi.
China’s persuasion and coercion campaigns target the will of Taiwan, the United States, and America’s allies to support and defend the island. Ongoing Chinese demonstrations of military capability accompanied by “lawfare”—the weaponization of legal arguments for political purposes—and information operations aim to convince the American people, US allies, and the Taiwanese people that the Taiwan issue is a domestic Chinese matter that other countries should leave to Beijing to “resolve.” They also try to demonstrate that Taiwan is not defensible and that any use of force to resist Chinese aggression would result in a catastrophe for Taiwan and any intervening force. China’s persuasion campaign works to rewrite history and convince other nations of things that are not true in order to erode resistance to its aggression against Taiwan. China’s coercion campaign is a form of “violent bargaining” meant to use means short of large-scale war to force other nations to comply with its demands and defer to its interests.
China also aims by persuasion and coercion to set the conditions for a campaign of compellence: the use of force through blockade or invasion. That is why it is vital Washington not allow Beijing to isolate Taipei, push America into a standoff defensive posture that pulls the bulk of its military forces outside the Chinese anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) zones within which US forces are most at risk, and undermine US efforts to build a coalition. A blockade accompanied by other means of isolating Taiwan is an attractive option for China. Beijing could force ships en route to Taiwan to stop for inspections, disrupting the supply of resources to the island. The Chinese Communist Party could then attempt to use the PLA to convince the American people and US allies that a US response to break the blockade would be escalatory. Chinese persuasion and coercion campaigns are meant to induce precisely such responses should Beijing escalate to the overt use of force on a limited basis.
The US must urgently reorient its approach to defending Taiwan against all three of China’s roads to controlling the island. Deterring and ability to defeat an invasion are necessary but insufficient conditions for success in maintaining the status quo: a de facto independent Taiwan. US approaches to those challenges must reinforce rather than undermine US and coalition efforts to defeat China’s persuasion and coercion campaigns. US strategy for defending Taiwan must defeat each of China’s interrelated campaigns separately and all of them together. Policymakers must explain and defeat Chinese information operations aimed at the American and global publics so that they understand and can resist China’s persuasion campaign. The US must demonstrate its commitment to the defense of Taiwan to its own public, Taiwan and potential coalition partners, and Xi himself. America must defend the rules-based international order specifically as it applies to Taiwan against the incremental escalations of Beijing’s coercion.
China has been moving along three roads to fully integrating Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and extinguishing Taiwan’s autonomy: persuasion, coercion, and compellence. American policy has focused increasingly on preventing China from seizing Taiwan by force—blocking the compellence road. But China can still secure its goals through persuasion and coercion.
Chinese General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping likely prefers those roads to the much riskier path of overt military attack on the island. Blocking the Chinese roads through persuasion and coercion is not a marginal task, nor is it inherent in the effort to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The current US approach to blocking the compellence road may in fact increase the likelihood that Xi will reach his objectives by these other two paths. The US must urgently rethink its approach to the problem of defending Taiwan’s autonomy so that it blocks all three roads to PRC victory rather than focusing on only one—at the expense or even to the detriment of defending Taiwan against ongoing persuasion and coercion campaigns.