Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis

Michael D. Swaine and Zhang Tuosheng with Danielle F.S. Cohen
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Chapter 13: Conclusion Pages 437-443

[A] future crisis over Taiwan, once under way, could prove very difficult to manage effectively.

First and foremost, the Taiwan issue presents very high stakes for both governments, particularly the Chinese. For China’s leaders, the Taiwan issue is associated with issues of territorial sovereignty, regime legitimacy, social and political order, and personal and political survival.

Although Taiwan does not involve such vital interests for the United States, it is clearly associated with issues of alliance credibility and defense of freedom. Washington has held a strong and long-standing policy commitment to a peaceful resolution of the issue and faces clear obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act and the three communiqués with China. In addition, Taiwan is a high-stakes issue for Chinese elites because the issue resonates significantly with a large segment of a nationalistic public. U. elites also regard Taiwan as a high-stakes issue because it is viewed by many observers as being closely associated with political debates over the larger issues of China’s “strategic threat,” the overall state of U.S.-China relations, and the mission of protecting freedom and democracy.

Leaders in both countries would feel a very strong incentive to communicate enormous resolve in a major crisis over Taiwan (10) in ways that could make it difficult to set or sustain limited objectives, exercise self-restraint, and maintain flexibility. The Chinese government would likely feel very strong pressure to resist any actions that might suggest capitulation to U.S. pressure or a weakening of China’s claim to sovereign authority over Taiwan. Beijing would likely find it extremely difficult to adopt a tit-for-tat approach in a major crisis or to trade closer cross-strait political contacts for even a perceived loss of sovereignty. Similarly, Washington would want to avoid any behavior that might be viewed as giving in to Chinese coercion, which would reflect a weakness in U.S. determination or capacity to uphold its commitments. Each side would be strongly inclined to view the issue in uncompromising, zero-sum terms, which would make it difficult-in the context of a major crisis for either side to accept even short-term losses via initial or partial concessions.

Moreover, such rigidity would likely be reinforced by strong domestic political pressures. Such problems and the dangers they pose for crisis management could be accentuated by China’s apparent belief that Washington would be more likely than Beijing to back down during a Taiwan crisis, especially if a long and bloody conflict appears probable. These factors could lead China’s leaders to mistakenly believe that they might prevail in a showdown over Taiwan by communicating their allegedly stronger resolve clearly and credibly through major threats. Alternatively, US decision makers might accept the view that China must eventually concede to U.S. military superiority, thus justifying robust efforts at coercive diplomacy.

Overall, this situation could increase the chances that one or both countries, especially China, would fall into a classic commitment trap. (11) Once in a serious crisis over Taiwan, China and the United States might have great difficulty controlling escalation. Indeed, such a crisis could threaten to explode into a larger war. China might use relatively high-risk strategies because of its desire to communicate a high level of resolve, intensified by a sense of relative weakness vis-à-vis the United States. The dearth of nonmilitary means of showing resolve and China’s imperfect knowledge of U.S. military capabilities also increase risk. High-risk strategies include extreme coercive pressure or the use of ultimatums.

Worse yet, China might attempt to establish a military-political fait accompli through a rapid decapitation attack on Taiwan. The United States would find it difficult to reverse such an attack without escalating the crisis to the point of all-out conflict, perhaps by attacking mainland targets in many areas. Such a scenario would provide little opportunity for either side to pause, assess options, and engage in careful negotiations.

Moreover, such actions might become particularly likely if China were faced with the need to compel Taiwan to alter its behavior rather than to deter actions that had not yet taken place.

Of even greater concern, China’s leaders might decide to initiate a range of major military actions, even with high risks, if its leaders believed that the opportunity to control or resolve the Taiwan situation was disappearing or if its leaders viewed the United States as acquiescing in efforts by Taiwan to provoke the situation to intolerable levels.

For the United States, the fear that China might dangerously intensify the crisis early on to demonstrate resolve or to preempt a U.S. attempt to assist Taiwan, combined with the U.S. confidence in escalation dominance through superior military capabilities, could result in rapid and decisive military moves designed to deter or shut down Chinese coercive actions. Moreover, the tendency to escalate early and rapidly might become even greater if U.S. decision makers believe that Chinese leaders assume the United States is less committed than they.

The tendency to escalate quickly might also increase if deterring China requires a significant display of military superiority, as some U.S. analysts apparently argue.

Such vigorous U.S. actions could contribute to an escalatory spiral, particularly in the absence of clear and credible communication between the two sides. China, for example, might view strong U.S. military assistance to Taiwan in the opening days of a crisis as equivalent to a first-shot escalation supportive of Taiwan that requires a vigorous response.

Even more serious, in an escalating crisis, China might interpret possible limited U.S. attacks on key Chinese command-and-control facilities or military assets relevant to the PLA’s prosecution of strikes against Taiwan as a threat to Beijing’s larger conventional and strategic capabilities and respond accordingly.

The dangers of this situation are increased even further because of the offensive orientation of both militaries and the internal complexities of the civil-military decision-making process. Because of such factors, the involvement of the military as a key player in an intense Taiwan crisis could short-circuit or distort diplomatic or political options and thus affect efforts at escalation control.

Another factor that would make a major crisis over Taiwan particularly difficult to manage is the presence of two important third parties with independent interests and policy options, that is, the governments and citizens of Taiwan and Japan. The involvement of such autonomous actors could produce significant instabilities and misperceptions, possibly resulting in unwanted escalation. Taiwan’s political leaders might send provocative diplomatic signals to Beijing that undermine U.S. attempts to deescalate an emerging crisis. Of even greater concern, in the early stages of an intense political-military crisis, Taiwan might use offensive weapons without the consent of the United States to retaliate against a mainland attack. Such a response might be mistaken by China as a U.S. strike and would thus invite retaliation against U.S. forces, regional bases, or even the U.S. mainland. Conversely, China might miscalculate the risks of a Taiwan crisis by assuming that it could apply pressure on Taiwan to deter U.S. military intervention.

Japanese involvement in a Sino-American crisis over Taiwan could significantly complicate or destabilize the situation, given Tokyo’s alliance relationship with Washington, its formidable maritime military capabilities, and the intensely emotional aspect of the turbulent Sino-Japanese relationship. Japanese military assistance to the United States during a crisis could harden the Chinese position and provoke an over reaction by Beijing. This, in turn, could generate further destabilizing responses by Washington and Tokyo, thus creating a dangerous downward spiral of mutual suspicion and confrontation. On the other hand, efforts to establish close consultations between Washington and Tokyo could significantly slow down and complicate the management of a Sino-American crisis. Decision-making within the Japanese government would most likely involve more internal consultation and coordination than in the U.S. case. Even if consultations were relatively smooth and efficient, Tokyo and Washington might still disagree greatly over how to handle a serious crisis with Beijing. For example, Japan’s leaders might riot place as high a priority on displaying resolve in a crisis as American leaders apparently do.

Despite the difficulties of managing a major Sino-American confrontation over Taiwan, one should not assume that such a crisis is highly likely to occur or that, once initiated, it would almost certainly lead to a large-scale military conflict. The above negative features are counterbalanced to some extent by a range of other factors that argue against initiating or escalating a major Taiwan crisis. First, the position of China and the United States as nuclear powers would instill an enormous level of caution on both sides, especially concerning any decision to cross the threshold and initiate direct military action against the other. Despite the many troublesome characteristics of Chinese and U.S. perceptions and behavior relevant to crisis management, there is little evidence that elites in either country today view their nuclear arsenals as safeguards against attack and, hence, a license to escalate dramatically. To the contrary, the existence of considerable uncertainties regarding each side’s nuclear-use doctrine and the vulnerability of Chinese strategic assets to a U.S. conventional attack suggest that the threshold between conventional weapons use and nuclear weapons use might be less clear than some might think. This reality would induce enormous caution in any leadership.

Second, the absence of a charismatic and clearly dominant leader in China argues in favor of significant levels of caution toward precipitating or escalating a crisis. Unlike Mao and Deng, leaders of China today have less ability to survive major policy errors and, hence, would presumably treat any crisis over Taiwan with significant caution. Such caution would be reinforced by the huge economic and social damage that could result from a perceived failure to manage a Taiwan crisis, given China’s extensive involvement in the global economic order and its heavy reliance on the U.S. trade and investment markets for the maintenance of the high growth regarded as essential to China’s future stability.

Third, for China, high barriers likely exist to the success of many deterrence and compellence strategies toward Taiwan involving the threat or use of limited force. China would find it extremely difficult to attain clear local superiority in a Taiwan crisis because of the geography of the area and the nature of the adversary. China’s tactical and strategic assets are likely to be highly vulnerable to U.S. conventional standoff weapons.

Moreover, the barrier presented by the Taiwan Strait, combined with U.S. command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets, would make it extremely difficult for China to achieve deception and denial and, hence, act decisively to gain the initiative. It is also difficult for China to anticipate the effectiveness against U.S. forces of key weapons such as ballistic missiles or information warfare because they all remain largely untested in combat.

Fourth, for the United States, a major crisis over Taiwan would present enormous uncertainties despite the likely superiority of U.S. military capabilities in key areas. U.S. decision makers could not be fully confident that U.S. forces would possess the speed, power, and accuracy to deter or shut down all possible Chinese military action against the island.

Moreover, any serious crisis over Taiwan would almost certainly produce significant damage to U.S. interests in other areas, especially vital issues such as the slow-motion North Korean nuclear crisis, that require cooperative relations with China. Military conflict with China would likely destabilize the entire Asian region and would almost certainly result in a prolonged cold war detrimental to long-term prosperity and stability.

These factors impel both sides to exert their utmost effort to avoid a major crisis over Taiwan. On balance, any political-military crisis, including a crisis over Taiwan, can be thrust upon both powers by an external event, such as the actions of Taiwan. Moreover, crucial contextual factors, such as mutually hostile images, the preexisting state of Sino-U.S. relations, problems in signaling, incorrect assumptions regarding ROE, improper control over military forces, and the complexities of the decision-making process, can propel both sides into an increasingly dangerous, escalating confrontation despite intentions to the contrary. In short, once begun, even a small-scale crisis over Taiwan could overcome the desire for caution on both sides and prove extremely difficult to resolve peacefully. This would especially be the case if one or both parties attempted to use a Taiwan crisis to create a new status quo largely unacceptable to the other side. In general, however, such a dangerous crisis would probably only occur against the backdrop of a badly deteriorated overall Sino-American relationship, in which both sides harbor a far greater level of distrust and antagonism toward the other than is evident today.

(9) Much of this section is adapted from Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Crisis Management: Framework for Analysis, Tentative Observations, and Questions for the Future,” in Andrew Scobell and Larry M. Wortzel, eds., Chinese National Decisionmaking Under Stress (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2005).

(10) A major crisis over Taiwan would presumably involve actions by any side that were perceived by China or the US as altering, or potentially altering, the status quo in unacceptable directions, thus requiring a vigorous reaction. For example, this would involve the crossing of one or more so-called red lines by Taiwan, such as an attempt to form a new constitution that eliminates the Republic of China as the legal name for Taiwan, or it could involve an attempt by Beijing to resolve the entire situation by coercing Taiwan into accepting Chinese terms for reunification.

(11) The Taiwan issue is particularly susceptible to hard-line leadership viewpoints, especially on the Chinese side.

Copyright 2006 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace