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Deterrence By Denial: The Taiwanese Example


Published Octiber 12, 2021

Why is maintaining a modern military essential to protecting peace? Most scholars agree that convincing adversaries that they cannot achieve their goals through force, often called deterrence by denial, is one of the most effective ways to prevent war. This principle can be seen clearly in the case of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The United States must embrace the concept of deterrence by denial to preserve peace and prevent the horrific costs of war.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it beneficial for Taiwan to practice deterrence by denial when confronting the People’s Republic of China?
  2. How can embracing deterrence by denial help America preserve global peace?

Additional resources:

  • Watch “Cold War II— Just How Dangerous Is China?” an episode of Uncommon Knowledge with H. R. McMaster and Matt Pottinger. Available here.
  • Read “Realism and Deterrence in Cross-Strait Relations,” by Joesph Felter. Available here.
  • Read “Taiwan: Time for a Real Discussion,” by Admiral Gary Roughead. Available here.
View Transcript

If the United States truly wants peace, why does it maintain such a large military?


One obvious answer is that we want to be prepared to defend ourselves, our allies, or our interests in response to threats or attacks by those who wish to do us harm.


But there is another reason to maintain a capable and modern military, and that is to deter attacks before they happen in the first place. Most scholars agree that the most effective way to prevent war is through something called “deterrence by denial.”


For deterrence by denial to succeed, would-be aggressors must conclude that they are unable to accomplish their objectives through the use of force due to the resistance they would face and the losses they would suffer.


In the real world, we can see the application of this concept in the case of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, also called the PRC.


The PRC maintains that Taiwan is a part of China under its “One country, two systems” doctrine.


Since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has promised to help arm Taiwan so that it could defend itself. While the US has not guaranteed that it would intervene militarily, it has responded to PRC aggression with large demonstrations of military force during the three Taiwan Strait crises in 1954 to 55, 1958 and 1996.


But the military balance between the United States and the PRC has shifted as the Peoples Liberation Army or PLA undertook the largest peacetime buildup in history, increasing their defense spending over eight hundred percent since the mid-1990s. 


The Chinese Communist Party leaders have made it a public goal to “reintegrate” Taiwan by 2049, one hundred years after Mao’s victory over the Chinese National Party – the Party that fled to Taiwan at the end of their Civil War. In the wake of China’s subjugation of Hong Kong, many fear that the PLA will accelerate preparations to take Taiwan by force.


But the Taiwanese people have a thriving democracy and a free market economy. Moreover, they have learned from the loss of freedom in Hong Kong and don’t want to live under the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Xi Jinping may conclude that to fulfill his promise to make China whole, his only option is a military invasion.


But will the PRC do it? Or more accurately, do they believe they could subjugate the Taiwanese people by force?


Even if the United States did not intervene with military force, Taiwan may pose such a formidable problem for the PLA that its leaders conclude that a military operation to subdue Taiwan would fail.


As always, the devil is in the details.


The Taiwan Strait is just 110 miles at its narrowest point. Taiwan itself is a mountainous island a little larger than the state of Maryland. Its geography is difficult: mountains cover the eastern two-thirds of the island, and the majority of Taiwan’s population is located in dense urban terrain along the western plains. Between its shallow straights and the stormy seas, there are not many places to land an invading force on the island. A successful military operation against Taiwan would require constant resupply either by air or by sea.


That is why Taiwan has invested in critical asymmetrical capabilities such as sophisticated air- air defenses and shore-to-ship missiles, to pose an invading PLA force with multiple dilemmas. Taiwan continues to invest in a range of military capabilities and training exercises to convince the PRC it cannot succeed, embodying the principle of deterrence by denial. 


And the Chinese Communist Party should not assume that its growing military capabilities would dissuade the United States from intervening to defend Taiwan. In 1941, Imperial Japan concluded that the United States, after the Pearl Harbor attacks, would not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to penetrate its inner Island Chain and threaten it directly. And in 1950, North Korea concluded that the United States would not intervene if it invaded South Korea. 


No matter the size of the country or the military forces arrayed against it, deterrence by denial is a critical concept to grasp. It helps to answer the question, why build and maintain a modern military if we don’t want to fight a war? 


The simple answer is that investment in deterrence by denial – that is, investing in the capabilities necessary to convince our adversaries that they cannot achieve their goals through force – can pay enormous dividends by preserving peace and preventing the horrific costs of war.