pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue


– 08/15/2022


Honolulu, Hawaii


Executive Summary

Taiwan is already under attack by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) politically, economically, psychologically, and militarily—the latter through more aggressive Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gray zone military operations short of actual direct conflict. This multidimensional threat requires a multidimensional response in ways that complement and enhance military deterrence. PRC behavior represents a global problem that demands a global response.

PRC pressure on Taiwan has increased considerably over the past year, even before Beijing used the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an excuse to further ramp up pressure. The August 2022 PLA military exercise around Taiwan appears aimed at further creating a “new normal” that could reduce warning times should Beijing invade. However, such PRC actions are not “normal.” They are unilateral, destabilizing, and, in some instances, illegal changes to the status quo. Such Chinese pressure tactics, combined with the “wake up call” provided by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have sensitized the citizens and governments of Taiwan, the United States, and the international community to the growing possibility—if not probability—of a PRC invasion and have increased public perceptions about the need and willingness to defend Taiwan democracy.

The PRC’s nuclear build-up is also a great cause of concern. This concern is driven not by the threat of nuclear war (given US nuclear superiority) but by the possibility of nuclear blackmail aimed at discouraging Washington from getting involved in a Taiwan confrontation. Taiwanese are concerned about crisis escalation (especially to the nuclear level) but worry more about the PRC deterring the United States.

The United States, working closely with allies and other like-minded states, should be more proactive and less reactive in responding to increased PRC aggressive behavior. With the US Department of Defense (DoD) in the lead, the US Government needs to better assess Chinese strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis Taiwan with an eye toward countering strengths and exploiting weaknesses, while also examining ways to broaden the challenge along multiple fronts in cooperation with various allies and partners. Think tanks can and should supplement this analysis.

While continued strong support for Ukraine is important to demonstrate Western resolve and prevent more Russian territorial gains, the PRC remains the “pacing threat” and thus should remain the focus of US national security policy and defense procurement strategy.

Key Findings & Recommendations

Responding to PRC Pressure

Finding: PRC pressure on Taiwan—economically, politically, and especially militarily—has increased considerably over the past year. The early August 2022 PLA military exercise around Taiwan appears aimed at further creating a “new normal” that will reduce warning times should Beijing decide to invade.

  • Recommendation: The United States (along with its allies and the broader international community) should reject the “new normal” characterization and brand PRC actions for what they are: unilateral, unacceptable, destabilizing, and, in some instances, illegal changes to the status quo. Beijing should be called upon to honor previous cross-Strait arrangements, including center line delineations, that have preserved stability and helped prevent naval and air accidents in the past.
  • Recommendation: The United States Navy and the navies of like-minded states like Japan, Australia, etc., along with commercial carriers, should continue to transit the Taiwan Strait to invalidate Chinese claims that this broadly recognized international body of water is Chinese internal waters or its territorial sea.

Finding: PLA activities appear aimed, in part, at developing the capability to quarantine or blockade Taiwan. Xi Jinping and the PLA have demonstrated increased willingness to take risks while both stirring up and responding to increased Chinese nationalism.

  • Recommendation: The United States should make clear that attempts to blockade, quarantine, or otherwise boycott or embargo Taiwan are not “gray zone” actions but acts of war that are likely to force a US response. US Navy ship visits to Taiwan would be a logical first reaction to any announced blockade or embargo of Taiwan ports.
  • Recommendation: The United States should assist Taiwan in making its ports and airfields more survivable.
  • Recommendation: DoD and the Taiwan Ministry of Defense (MoD), if they haven’t already done so, should develop plans, both individually and collectively, for how they would combat a Chinese embargo or blockade and how to respond to missile and air assaults or mining operations against Taiwan ports and airfields. Conducting visible training and exercises could help strengthen deterrence.

Finding: Beijing’s military (as well as economic and political) pressure against Taiwan will steadily increase. A failure by Taiwan and the United States to demonstrate their preparedness and willingness to respond will send the wrong signal to Beijing.

  • Recommendation: DoD and Taiwan’s MoD, if they haven’t already done so, should develop plans, both individually and collectively, for how to better respond to PLA gray zone activities.

Helping Taiwan Defend Itself

Finding: Participants from both sides agreed that Taiwan cannot overcome an all-out PLA assault without outside assistance. A lack of clarity regarding the nature and extent of outside support complicates Taiwan defense planning and acquisitions. So does the lack of a common view of the battlefield within the Taiwan military and a lack of awareness in Washington and Taipei of one another’s plans for the defense of Taiwan.

  • Recommendation: DoD should hold private “roles and missions” discussions with Taiwan defense planners to help Taiwan better understand the types of capabilities the United States could bring to bear in the event of a Chinese attack. Such action, while not providing a guarantee of US assistance, would still assist Taiwan defense planners in developing their own roles and missions and defense acquisition plans.
  • Recommendation: DoD and Taiwan’s MoD should develop a common defense plan or, at a minimum, share one another’s plans for the defense of Taiwan. To the extent politically possible, they should train and exercise together in order to more effectively implement these plans.
  • Recommendation: US defense planners should assist Taiwan in developing a common operational picture of the battlefield, given admitted Taiwan shortcomings in developing and employing joint operations. As noted last year, the United States should also encourage Taiwan to produce its own National Security Strategy to better inform its public and to put its own defense strategy in broader perspective.

Finding: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a sobering “wake-up” effect on Taiwan and its international supporters. As a result, Taiwan is placing increased emphasis on asymmetrical warfare and the development of homeland/territorial defense capabilities (as recommended in last year’s dialogue report).

  • Recommendation: The United States should assist Taiwan in the development of its homeland and territorial defense capabilities and, where they fit in the national defense structure, should assist Taiwan’s interaction with other nations that have extensive experience in this area. It should encourage Taipei to increase the length of compulsory military service and assist in making such training more realistic and relevant.
  • Recommendation: While recognizing that the war is still on-going and final lessons and outcomes have yet to be learned, the United States and Taiwan should more comprehensively review, both together and individually, the immediate lessons. They should focus on the manner in which Ukraine has thus far successfully held its own against the Russian military. Identifying what has not worked or what could be improved would be useful as well; this could be the subject of supporting academic research.

Finding: US arms sales to Taiwan have increased but Washington should do more to help prepare Taiwan to defend itself. Procurement lag times remain a serious problem. Time to prepare remains but the window is closing. Many of the assembled US and Taiwan military experts worried that some PRC experts are underestimating PLA capabilities. These experts fear that PLA risk-taking tendencies could lead to an inadvertent or accidental incident that could escalate, or that other events could prompt an earlier invasion.

  • Recommendation: The United States should “fast track” arms sales to Taiwan and examine coproduction and prepositioning alternatives either on Taiwan or nearby to be prepared to respond should Beijing attack plans be accelerated or other events lead to a military confrontation. Participants repeated last year’s recommendations that the United States consider giving selected weapons systems to Taiwan without charge and that Taiwan focus on “large numbers of small things.”

Clarifying US Defense Policy

Finding: Taiwan participants from both government and academia sought clarity as to the details of the otherwise well-received US concept of “integrated deterrence” and its application to Taiwan; few have been provided so far. The absence of unclassified versions of the US National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Posture Review at the time of the 2022 Dialogue added to the uncertainty regarding US defense policies and priorities expressed by Taiwan participants.[i]

  • Recommendation: As recommended last year, the US Department of Defense and/or State Department should consider sending a team to Taiwan, or at a minimum work closely with the AIT team in Taipei, to explain the concept of integrated deterrence and its implications for Taiwan.

Finding: Senior US officials have become increasingly clear in expressing America’s commitment to help Taiwan defend itself while still maintaining strategic ambiguity as to whether and how the US would come to the defense of Taiwan if the PRC attacks it. While voices calling for strategic clarity have grown louder, a more nuanced view seems to have emerged, calling for strategic ambiguity at the policy level but strategic clarity at the operational level. Some experts, domestically and especially among US allies, remain concerned about Chinese reaction to an announced US policy change in this regard.

  • Recommendation: The United States should focus on how (and how much and how fast) to bring strategic clarity at the operational level, even as the academic community continues the debate regarding the benefits, costs, and risks associated with embracing strategic clarity as a matter of policy.
  • Recommendation: The United States should consult closely with allies and partners like Taiwan, Japan, and Australia, among others, before making any policy pronouncements.  The United States should also understand their concerns and to give them advance warning to prepare in the event of official policy changes. Finally, he United States should also keep its allies apprised of the White House’s evolving operational approach to this issue.

Enhancing Deterrence

Finding: Beijing will most likely have factored a US response into any decision to attack Taiwan.

  • Recommendation: The deterrence discussion in Washington and Taipei should focus not on “if the United States will assist” but on how both, individually and collectively, can increase the costs associated with a PLA invasion. The capability to respond is at least as important as the perceived willingness to do so. Strategic clarity without capability has limited deterrent value.
  • Recommendation: US Taiwan-related defense preparations should be more visible; as one Taiwan expert opined, “for real deterrence value, Beijing must be aware of what we are doing.”
  • Recommendation: The United States should carefully assess, preferably through consultations with Taiwan officials, the impact of Taiwan-related actions and policy decisions on Taiwan security interests. They should understand that Taiwan scholars, like their US counterparts, have mixed views regarding the advisability of greater strategic clarity since (as the aftermath of Rep. Pelosi’s visit demonstrated) the PRC’s response to what they perceive as “hostile” US actions is often to Taiwan’s detriment.

Finding: The US desire to strengthen extended deterrence while decreasing the role of nuclear weapons appears contradictory to many Taiwanese participants. The role/impact of Russian nuclear threats on the US/NATO decision to avoid direct engagement with Russia in Ukraine is also troubling to them.

  • Recommendation: The United States should more carefully explain the role of nuclear weapons within the broader, more inclusive concept of extended deterrence. The development of the nuclear employment strategy may provide such an opportunity.
  • Recommendation: The United States should explain precisely how nuclear weapons fit in the new integrated deterrence concept. It should dispel the idea increasingly in vogue in Taiwan and some allied capitals that efforts to integrate deterrence may reduce the importance of extended deterrence, especially extended nuclear deterrence.

Finding: The greatest concern associated with Chinese nuclear build-up is not the threat of nuclear war (given US preponderance of nuclear weapons) but rather nuclear blackmail by the PRC aimed at discouraging Washington from getting involved in a Taiwan confrontation. Taiwanese are concerned about crisis escalation (especially to the nuclear level) but worry more about the PRC deterring the United States.

  • Recommendation: The United States should conduct joint intelligence assessments with Taiwan government officials (and US allies) about the implications of the PRC’s nuclear build-up. Such assessments should focus on the implications now as well as in the future, based on possible and most likely developments.
  • Recommendation: The United States and Taiwan (as well as US regional allies) should identify ways to respond to the PRC’s unprecedented build-up by looking at options at the conventional level as well as possibly through nuclear-sharing arrangements in the Indo-Pacific. Both should encourage, if not financially support, security-oriented think tanks to conduct research on the desirability and feasibility of such arrangements in the Indo-Pacific (and what can be learned from existing nuclear-sharing arrangements in the NATO context). Such arrangements could help strengthen strategic deterrence. An important potential benefit from a US perspective would be that they could help reduce proliferation incentives, which are rising to unprecedented levels in several allied capitals.

Finding: Ukrainian lessons learned have thus far focused on the war’s impact on Taiwan threat perceptions and defense preparations, less on lessons that the United States has learned, and even less on lessons Beijing has learned and how it is responding.

  • Recommendation: While recognizing that the Ukraine war is far from over and its outcome still unclear, US Government officials, researchers, and independent scholars should carefully assess emerging lessons learned not just for Taiwan but for US defense strategy and preparedness.
  • Recommendation: DoD should more deeply examine the prospects of, and the necessity of being prepared for, two simultaneous major conflicts, given both Russian and Chinese territorial ambitions. Since the PRC remains the “pacing challenge,” US defense acquisitions and border procurement strategy should focus on responding to Chinese contingencies.
  • Recommendation: US government officials, researchers, and independent scholars should also carefully assess the lessons that the PRC appears to be learning from the Western response to the Russian invasion and any corrective actions Beijing is taking or preparing to take in response to those lessons.
  • Recommendations: With the DoD in the lead, the US Government and think tanks should assess PLA strengths and weaknesses with an eye toward countering the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses in any Taiwan-related scenario. To be most effective, this data should be shared with Taiwan defense planners.

Increasing Public/Allied Awareness

Finding: Ukrainian lessons learned have thus far focused on the war’s impact on Taiwan threat perceptions and defense preparations, less on lessons that the United States has learned, and even less on lessons Beijing has learned and how it is responding.

  • Recommendation: Officials in Washington and Taipei should put greater emphasis on articulating the differences between Ukraine and Taiwan in the eyes of their respective publics. Both should publicize public opinion polling in the United States that reinforces both growing awareness of the Chinese threat and the need to respond to this challenge specifically but not exclusively in defense of Taiwan. Greater public awareness of the domestic, regional, and global implications and consequences should the PLA invade and occupy Taiwan could further strengthen the resolve among the United States and its regional and global allies and partners to deter such Chinese actions.
  • Recommendation: Washington and Taipei should better assess and understand the impact of Chinese disinformation campaigns on public opinion and both individually and jointly develop information plans to counter these ongoing disinformation attacks.

Finding: US allies and partners have an important role to play in deterring a PRC invasion of Taiwan. Japanese and Australian officials in particular have become more outspoken in warning of the threats posed to regional stability (and more specifically to Japan’s national security interests) due to increased Chinese assertiveness and both the prospects and implications of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

  • Recommendation: The United States and its allies and partners should continue stressing the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in official joint and multilateral statements such as the various “two plus two” and broader joint statements.
  • Recommendation: The United States needs to develop and/or sponsor public information campaigns that better articulate the implications and/or consequences of a successful Chinese invasion (including broad distribution and US Embassy-sponsored public information sessions for key allies and partners explaining the results of studies such as the soon-to-be-completed Pacific Forum assessment of the consequences should Taiwan fall).
  • Recommendation: DoD should develop joint contingency plans with affected allies such as Japan and Australia on how to best counter Chinese military action, specifically including a blockade or boycott of Taiwan, to be better prepared to respond if the political decision in their respective capitals is made to provide such assistance.

Finding: Taiwan is already under attack politically, economically, psychologically, and through more aggressive gray zone operations. This multidimensional threat requires a multidimensional response in ways that complement and enhance military deterrence. Chinese behavior represents a global problem, which demands a global response by the United States, Taiwan, and like-minded states.

  • Recommendation: The United States should be more proactive and less reactive in responding to Chinese aggressive behavior toward Taiwan, including through increased political and diplomatic efforts with allies and partners to clearly articulate the PRC threat and the implications for regional security should Taiwan be attacked by the PRC.
  • Recommendation: The United States should implement an aggressive information campaign not only to counter Chinese disinformation efforts but also to exploit the double-edged sword of increased Chinese nationalism. US/Taiwan information campaigns should also focus on what the Chinese people stand to lose if war breaks out across the Straits, since Chinese “internet nationalism,” in part, reflects Chinese peoples’ frustration with their own government, which should be exploited. An information campaign aimed at attacking the CCP’s legitimacy is a good place to start.
  • Recommendation: The US Government should coordinate closely with allies and other like-minded states in responding to the global challenge posed by Chinese economic as well as military and political coercion both vis-à-vis Taiwan and more generally. While continued strong support for Ukraine is important to demonstrate Western resolve and prevent more Russian territorial gains, the PRC remains the “pacing threat” and Taiwan is the greatest flashpoint. The PRC in general and the defense of Taiwan in particular should remain the focus of US national security policy and DoD’s acquisition planning.
  • Recommendation: Recognizing that Taiwan has “comprehensive vulnerabilities,” the US Government should sponsor research aimed at assisting Taiwan in identifying non-military security-related vulnerabilities, such as its reliance on outside energy sources, to reduce Taiwan’s susceptibility to economic coercion in peacetime and especially during times of conflict.

Other Recommendations

Finding: Washington and Taipei have already acted upon or incorporated many of the recommendations outlined in the 2021 Dialogue Report; a few others have been overtaken by events. Other recommendations are consistent with the findings and recommendations outlined in this report and are worth repeating:

  • Recommendation: The US and Taiwan governments and militaries must prepare for the worst-case all-out invasion scenario, even while identifying measures to combat Chinese gray zone activities. Both need to improve strategic communication. The United States should more clearly articulate not just the military but also the political and economic costs associated with any Chinese kinetic action against Taiwan.
  • Recommendation: The United States needs to better prepare for military contingencies, with the aim of increasing the “risk” factor in any Chinese “risk-reward” calculus.
  • Recommendation: The United States should continue its firm support for greater Taiwan involvement in international organizations and initiatives, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade and economic entities, and carefully explore the prospects for Taiwan involvement in bilateral and multilateral military training and exercises. More pushback is needed against Chinese efforts to limit Taiwan’s international space.
  • Recommendation: Taiwan needs to reassure the United States that it retains the will and ability to defend itself and the United States should continually reaffirm that its support of the Taiwanese is “rock solid.” Both must develop effective measures to fortify integrated deterrence.

[i] As noted in this report, the US Government did release unclassified versions of these key national security documents in October 2022. The unclassified National Defense Strategy still contains little or no explanation of Taiwan’s integrated deterrence role.

Click here to download the full report.