How should the U.S. respond to China’s Taiwan Provocations?

How should the U.S. respond to China’s Taiwan Provocations?

By Evan M. Dudik

March 9, 2021

What do you do when a well-armed enemy gives every sign of spoiling for a fight? That’s what China signals by its latest, expanded incursions into Taiwan’s defense zones January 23-24 2021. China’s forces included nuclear-capable bombers, anti-submarine aircraft and fighter escorts. On Monday, March 1, China launched a month-long combined forces exercise in the South China Sea. As public guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence, a provocation of Taiwan also provokes the U.S.

Note to Reader: What you will not see in this paper are any of the following responses to the question, How should the U.S. respond to China’s Taiwan provocations?
“Open a frank dialog with China.”
“Broker diplomatic exchange of views between Taiwan and mainland China.”
“Provide clear and unambiguous warning to the Chinese leadership of the U.S.’ rock-hard commitment to Taiwan.”
“Send more and advanced arms to Taiwan.”

Read no further if that’s what you’re expecting or hoping for.

Why are these answers worthless? Because the time for them is past. The forces at work right now argue strongly for sooner rather than later Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

1. COVID: The West is at the apex of its preoccupation psychologically, economically and financially with COVID. The economic and psychological upswing will happen over the next few months, certainly by October in the U.S, when, for example, McKinsey and Company expect normalcy to return. [1]
2. Internal Distraction: China thinks the U.S. is so pre-occupied with its internal race relations, political polarization and transition to a new, predictable, peace-oriented president that the U.S. public will choose to sweep under the rug actions against Taiwan. However, this atmosphere is unlikely to last. Says Daniel Russel, President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs: “The strongest driver of increased Chinese assertiveness is the conviction that the Western system, and the U.S. in particular, is in decay.” [2]
3. Inadequate U.S. Navy: The United States Navy has awakened to the fact that it needs more hulls in the water—but won’t have them for years (and it’s still debating just what they will be and about how to pay for them). Main reason for deficiency: An over-reliance on quality and a few, powerful carrier groups provides China with the opportunity to field asymmetric response of saturating enemy targets. [3]
4. Vulnerable U.S. Air Force: An example is U.S. Admiral Phil Davidson’s begging Congress for an ashore Aegis Ashore air defense system for the U.S.’ vital Guam airbase. He’s been asking for it since at least July 2020 [4] out of recognition that China has no fewer than 2,500 missiles with which it could saturate Guam’s Andersen AFB. Even if he got it, it would take until 2026 to become operational. Well, in the 2021 Defense Authorization Act he didn’t get it.
5. Inadequate Taiwanese Navy: Taiwan has likewise awakened to its relative maritime weakness. It’s building a fleet of submarines to counter a probable Chinese blockade. However, it takes years to build a fleet of submarines, especially ones that, as blockade breakers, can be relatively easily targeted. [5]
6. Under manned and trained Taiwanese Army: The Taiwanese Army lacks numbers, skills, training munitions and adequate dedicated training time—plus low enlistment duration. There’s a good chance that after a brief fight, much of the Army will disintegrate, never mind going into guerilla warfare mode as is now planned for a worst-case scenario [6]
7. Japan not yet relevant: Japan has awakened that it can’t any longer revel in its comfortable and convenient pacificism—but hasn’t yet rebuilt its military capabilities to a significant extent. Japan spends only 0.93% of GDP on defense. Arigato, Uncle Sam!
8. U.S. Supply Chain Vulnerable: Despite calls for on-shoring key necessities, the U.S. remains dependent on China for everything from antibiotics to refined rare earth metals to semiconductors.[7]
9. Australia and New Zealand awakening gradual: Ditto India and Vietnam. And anyway, those countries still hope not to need to choose sides. [8]
10. China Emboldened by Hong Kong: China’s de facto reabsorption of Hong Kong has moved along with barely a hiccup: Protests are over. The extradition law has taken effect for a year plus, thus ensuring Chinese Communist Party sway over the former British colony. Masked protests are done for since authorities have locked up the leaders. Only the U.K.’s announcement that up to 5 million Hong Kong residents may move to the U.K. and apply for citizenship provides a significant, unambiguous response. “As recent events have demonstrated, Beijing has faced few, if any, repercussions in response to its human rights abuses against the Uighurs; the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong; and provocations in the South China Sea, on the Indian border, and near Taiwan” according to RAND’s Mark Cozad. [9]
11. Internal Drum-beating: Apparently increasing ‘nationalist’ calls inside the CCP for reunification.
12. Forge Internal Unity: The CCP faces internal schisms and dissent. [10] What better way to enforce unity than start a war? Age-old, time-tested political strategy.
13. Anti-China Taiwan Attitudes Increasing: An extremely important development is a growing trend in Taiwanese opinion against union with China, including election of a strong-pro-independence candidate as president, Tsai Ing-wen, and falling identification by young Taiwanese as Chinese. [11]

In fact, every war-game shows that the Blue Team (U.S. and allies) has: “…had its ass handed to it for years,” says David A. Ochmanek, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development and now a defense analyst at RAND… ‘For years the Blue Team has been in shock because they didn’t realize how badly off they were in a confrontation with China.’” [12]

Now, in the interest of logical rigor, we should enumerate the factors that argue against a near-term outbreak of hostilities:

1. Delay Allows PLA and PLA-N Increased Size and Proficiency: Delay of action against Taiwan would allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and PLA-Navy (PLA-N) to increase their proficiency in amphibious warfare, build equipment and missiles for an increased saturation of Taiwanese and U.S. targets. In particular, China will seek to saturate the huge U.S. Air Force based on Guam and U.S. CVN groups. Add to that China’s waiting for the fruits of its huge investment in stealthy diesel submarines that could blunt U.S. carrier-based aircraft capabilities while enforcing a blockade of Taiwan. Additional time could also bear fruit for China from its burgeoning investment in technologies such as quantum computing, semiconductor manufacturing, artificial intelligence, open-source software-based development, and space warfare.
2. Increasing U.S. internal Division: China can hope that as the Biden presidency wears on, the U.S. will become even more internally divided and even more navel-gazing than at present, a not unlikely evolution. This probability increases if, true to history, the Congressional balance of power shifts as soon as the 2022 midterm elections.
3. Taiwan Isolation Percolating: China may expect that its aggressive measures to isolate Taiwan from the world, especially Europe, Latin America, and Asia, will succeed of themselves to force reunification.
4. Time to Complete Preliminary Probing: Delay of action would allow China to complete its probing of American resolve as well as mapping Taiwan’s defenses.

Likely, CCP study groups in Beijing are debating the pros and cons of these forces at work even as you read this.

I judge that the case for “sooner” overwhelms the case for “delay.” Why? The “delay” scenarios promise acceleration in the race for superiority but don’t promise to widen the current gap in relative power. In other words, the

relative correlation of power likely grows as wide as it probably can grow in the near term.

Most important, the forces at work arguing for the “delay” option don’t take into account mounting psychological and interpersonal factors—including jockeying for power–inside the CCP. These forces ultimately arbitrate when the CCP decision-makers order “go”. Many commentators, including the brilliant George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures seem to misconstrue the nature of deterrence when it comes to China. Mr. Friedman belongs to a camp that believes that China knows it isn’t prepared to invade Taiwan because it hasn’t engaged recently in large-scale warfare, especially at sea. They argue that lack of experience and practice makes China cautious especially against an experienced U.S. Navy and Air Force.

These commentators overlook that deterrence is in the mind of the would-be deterred. Actual physical factors such as the correlation of forces, operational readiness, and command and control capabilities only carry so much weight. Psychological and interpersonal factors embracing the personal need for CCP senior officials to retain power, sideline rivals and secure their legacies loom at least as large as considerations of physical ways and means.

Thus, there is likely no better time for China to pick a fight than the immediate future.

Purpose of the Provocations

There is one core reason the Chinese hesitate to launch an assault today against Taiwan. It’s not economic interdependence with Taiwan and the U.S. History shows that ideology trumps economics every time. That was true before World War I and before World War II, to cite recent examples where the aggressors picked fights to the death with their main trading partners.

The real reason for hesitation is that in its dreams for world hegemony, China seeks legitimacy. Legitimacy begets acquiescence and acquiescence is cheaper, faster and more reliable than military conquest, especially when the threat of overwhelming violence attends the party as a midwife. The leaders of the CCP, like most leaders who rely on massive surveillance and abject conformity to keep themselves in power, know they have a tissue-thin claim to legitimacy (See my paper “Why and How Governments Lie,” on For the world and its own people to see China as the legitimate Asia-Pacific (and ultimately, world) hegemon, China must make the U.S.-Taiwan alliance appear the aggressor. China would very much like the U.S. and/or Taiwan to fire the first missile.

Therefore, the China’s provocations seek to calibrate what kind of steps it must take to provoke the desired first-shot reaction. How much encroachment on Taiwan’s sovereignty, territory, and economy specifically and in the South China Sea in general can the U.S. and Taiwan stand before they initiate hostilities?

The very secondary goal of the provocations is to ‘signal’ China’s resolve to force reunion and to intimidate Taiwan, its allies, and neighbors. We already know that resolve (we just need to pay attention to it just as we needed, but failed, to pay attention to Nazi Germany’s oft-stated goal of taking over France, the USSR and exterminating undesirable populations). The provocations also gather intelligence about the state of Taiwan’s defenses, U.S. capabilities and willingness to react and, of course, the technical aspects of warfare that allow for China’s meticulous planning—including its trademark deception planning.

Shaping the U.S. Response

Specifying China’s provocation goals makes it much clearer how the U.S. should respond.
If I’m right that the forces at work indicate a sooner rather than later Chinese move against Taiwan, then:

The primary purpose of a U.S. response to the provocations must be to buy time to increase preparedness.

This means buying time to remedy the delays and deficiencies enumerated as weaknesses 3, 4, 5, and 6 on Pages 1-2.

This goal suggests that:

1. The U.S. should not draw any lines in the sand. Drawing a ‘thus far, no farther’ line provides exactly what the Chinese provocations seek to determine. Instead, the U.S. should deploy calculated ambiguity, the very opposite of drawing a line in the sand. This ambiguity can take many forms: diplomatic, military maneuvers, choices in what information is made public and so forth. The design of the ambiguity should be to reinforce any rifts in thinking inside China’s Communist Party/government. The intelligence agencies either know or should find out about any schism and debates. The U.S. could emulate the USSR, a master of the art of splitting opponents from the inside. In short, the U.S. should carefully increase China’s FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) Factor. Thus U.S. policy should be far from consistent, at least tactically. Sometimes the U.S. should react mildly, sometimes react with borderline irrationality. A little irrationality can multiply negotiating leverage.
2. The U.S. should build creative tension toward Taiwan. Right now, Taiwan believes it can rely on the U.S. Cavalry to ride to the rescue. Some observers believe that would work out; many doubt it. The U.S. is stretched thin (especially if the Russians create a distraction, something they have also mastered and a tactic that fits with their strategic goals). But what is noticeably clear is that Taiwan needs to do more—a lot more—to improve its defenses. I mentioned above that Taiwan has an under-manned military, with few munitions, and inadequate training. Let’s compare Taiwan’s defense spending with another small country in a very tough neighborhood, Israel. Taiwan’s is about 2 pennies on the dollar of GDP, 2.26%. Compare that with Israel at 5.3%. [13]

The needed creative tension could take this form: “The U.S. will support Taiwan’s defense to the extent that Taiwan seeks to support its own defense.” In other words, like a matching challenge grant for a non-profit fundraiser, the U.S. will match whatever Taiwan spends on its incremental effort to improve readiness in the categories above. In particular: No new arms unless Taiwan demonstrates it invests in the capabilities, supplies and training to deploy what it currently has.

Note the difference in tone and content of this message compared with the oft-heard clamor that the U.S. should deter China by unconditionally reassuring Taiwan of its commitment to come to the island’s defense. A little tough love is in order.

3. Every good competitive strategy needs a deception plan. FUD provides the key ingredient to keeping an opponent guessing. Skipping the obligatory quote from Sun Tzu, dissembling a willingness to negotiate might buy Taiwan and the U.S. a few precious months. The CCP might hope to bargain to get what they want rather than go to the expense and domestic upheaval a war will involve. The U.S. should channel Neville Chamberlain but instead of bringing home a scrap of paper, waffle, citing ‘sharp disagreements within the U.S. Congress we are trying to address.’ The trick is not to take our own deception plan seriously nor pin any hopes whatsoever on its success.

4. Most important, we need to change our attitude and consciousness. We need to fully realize that a collision is inevitable and can only be modestly delayed. Ironically, but in full accord with the inherent paradox of strategy [14], the more we prepare mentally and physically for conflict the less likely it becomes. Whereas the more we aspire for a settlement and ‘peace in our time’ the more likely and sooner the conflict will arise.

Summary: The Neville Chamberlain time has passed. The clash is inevitable. We must give up hoping for a ‘settlement’. Paradoxically, the more we give up the hope for peace, the more likely peace may break out.

What to Expect

We can expect China’s provocations to surge in intensity and multiply in frequency as the CCP seeks to find the button which will trigger a Taiwan/U.S.- first-shot response. One such escalation provides a prickly problem for the Taiwan-U.S. alliance: a reprise of the 1958 Kinmen (Quemoy)-Matsu Crisis when China bombarded and attempted to invade these Taiwanese island territories. Their location within visual distance of the mainland makes them military indefensible against a Chinese attack. However, if I’m right about China wanting Taiwan-U.S. to fire the first shot, a provocative test by China could be attempted subversion of the islands, or an invasion employing the Chinese version of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean little green men. China has already fielded little green men in the form of a naval militia of at least 700,000 personnel and 140,000 watercraft, dual-purpose and fake fishing trawlers [15]. This force could keep potential U.S. Taiwan allies such as the Philippines and Vietnam quite fully occupied as well as being agents provocateurs to ignite the first shot.
We need to prepare our diplomatic and military reaction to this very overt provocation–and to prepare U.S. and Taiwanese public opinion. We need to be more prepared than we were for Russia’s Crimea takeover by establishing the case now that either little green men or tanks signify an illegal takeover. One way to do this would for Taiwan to hold an internationally observed referendum on which country the islands’ 140,000 inhabitants prefer to align themselves with. (I acknowledge it may be tough to find 10 countries willing to undertake this assignment, as China has successfully isolated Taiwan from much of the world). We should keep in mind that there’s no assurance the population would vote to remain with Taiwan since the islands’ economy depends largely on the mainland. Opinion polls show a much large proportion of the islands’ population views unification with China more positively than on Taiwan proper.
Now, if the population votes in favor of unification, Taiwan-U.S. would have avoided a bloody conflict and probably eye-blackening defeat. On the other hand, if the population votes against reunification, the U.S. and Taiwan will have a strong case to make to world opinion that China’s habit of running roughshod over other people’s preferences knows few bounds. That might deter or delay Chinese annexation.
I’ve described just one scenario. China may decide that imposing its will on these islands does nothing but give the U.S. warning and Taiwan time to prepare for the inevitable next step. It may prefer to instigate its provocations elsewhere.
History suggests that few modern wars start with the expectation by the instigators that they will be long wars. China’s view is no exception, their thinking on Taiwan encapsulated as: “The first battle is the last… “the first battle is a decisive battle, so that it could be finished before the U.S. army arrives.” [sic].” [16]
But history has not been kind to this expectation; I won’t provide here a litany of occasions when events thoroughly and tragically disappointed plans for a quick, decisive victory. In every case, the aggressor either expects unconditional victory or has convinced itself that after successful aggression it will negotiate a new, favorable status quo from strength. That requires the opponent to follow script, something angered enemies seldom do.
In the case of Taiwan, some people aver that the island will be conquered in short order, a matter of days with two-three weeks as an upper limit. Others believe the island can defend itself successfully. I can understand the first branch of this dichotomy, the expectation of a quick victory; I can see the real possibility although I’m skeptical China can do it easily, based on an analysis by experts (Examples: “Taiwan Can Win a War with China,” by Tanner Greer, who recently backed off from this thesis) [17]—and the grim experience of history.
What seems overlooked is the answer to the question: Suppose Taiwan wins? It seems grotesquely improbable that a successful initial Taiwan defense will precede anything other than a protracted, sanguine, expensive, and difficult conflict. Assuming China’s first attempt is somehow defeated, expecting China will give up its long-held, oft proclaimed, revered goal of unification, cut its losses and meekly accept the humiliation of defeat beggars credulity. This means especially that we must stop using such frequently espoused terms as “making takeover too costly for China” and other analyses in the McNamarian cost-benefit vein. China has not shown that it genuflects at the altar of cost-benefit analysis, suffering, for example 208,000-700,000 deaths in its Korean War intervention. Indeed, according to consulting RAND testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, , “Beijing has long expected that conflict with the United States would require significant mobilization of national power.” [18]
Even assuming a hypothetically successful first round defense, U.S. involvement will balloon. The U.S. Cavalry might not arrive in time to help tip the balance of the first Chinese attempt, but it would surely be there in time for a second attempt (predicated on the right U.S. domestic political atmosphere). The U.S. would probably attempt to break China’s South China Seas defensive barrier, and if successful, impose a blockade. But history indicates that blockades are rarely dispositive in of themselves. The most a blockade could do is make petroleum somewhat scarce and cut China’s exports. And it’s hard to see that the American public and world consumers of Chinese goods would have the patience for a blockade to achieve a decisive effect on such a huge continental power. Regarding petroleum, the Russians, rubbing their hands in glee, would exact their price but Chinese goods would flow west through Siberia while Russian oil would flow east into the Middle Kingdom. (Oh, and the Russians would be happy to have a free hand in the Baltics, Balkans and Middle East while the U.S. deals with a Pacific conflagration and the medical and economic crises at home brought about by the shutdown of supplies from China in pharmaceuticals and electronic components).
This would leave the U.S. with only the alternative of upping the ante to a true global fight. Once the ball starts rolling, e.g. with a Chinese strike on Guam, a full-scale fight inevitably follows.
* * *
The likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan grows more likely every day. April and October provide the least treacherous weather for an amphibious crossing of the Taiwan Straits. When the Chinese decide to cross, however, don’t expect the event only in those months: If we get through April 2021, don’t breathe a sigh of relief that we’re OK until October. China has a long history of military deception; striking at a time when it’s not expected matches their way of thinking. It’s undoubtedly preparing the invasion and a bodyguard of deception even as I write these final words.


Notes and References


[2] Here’s what could happen if China invaded Taiwan,” By Samson Ellis (Bloomberg),

[3] Brose, Christian, The Kill Chain, April 2020; China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress Updated January 27, 2021; Congressional Research Service

[4] Protecting Guam from Chinese Missiles is Top Priority for INDO-PACOM’s Davidson, By: Mallory Shelbourne, USNI News July 21, 2020


[6] Taiwan’s Military Hollow: China is certainly aware of the hollowness of Taiwan’s military. Just when Taiwan needs to act more like Israel, it has shrunk its military to 175,000, basic training is minimal, reserves are unready, its vehicles and artillery are in utter disrepair. [ Michael Beckley, “China Keeps Inching Closer to Taiwan,”, 10/19/2020; Paul Huang, ’Taiwan’s Military has Flashy American Weapons but no Ammo,”, 8/20/2020; Tanner Greer, “Why I Fear for Taiwan,” The Scholar’s Stage, Sept. 11, 2020]. One-third of Taiwan’s tanks lack crews—they’re useless. Available manpower achieves only 60-80% of Taiwan’s own target. [Paul Huang, Taiwan’s Military is a Hollow Shell,”, February 15, 2020].

[7]. Those who say the U.S. is not vulnerable to China cutting off pharmaceutical supplies appear to make the elementary analytical mistake of confusing the dollar value of pharmaceuticals with their intrinsic value. Example: Doxycycline is a common, cheap, essential antibiotic. China makes all of it. Other imported final dose and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) pharmaceuticals have multiple sources. But for antibiotics for one, the U.S. now depends on China—and for acetaminophen and other common drugs. One example study: “Last year, China accounted for 95 percent of U.S. imports of ibuprofen, 91 percent of U.S. imports of hydrocortisone, 70 percent of U.S. imports of acetaminophen, 40 to 45 percent of U.S. imports of penicillin and 40 percent of U.S. imports of heparin, according to Commerce Department data”. Source: U.S.-China economic and Security Review Commission, []. Ditto for rare earth metals. They aren’t that rare but only China seems willing to bear the environmental costs of mining and refining them. China provides 85% of the world supply. An F-35 requires 920 pounds, and a Virginia-class nuclear submarine requires 9,200 lbs. It takes years to set up the mining and refining facilities to take advantage of non-China sources.—another reason for a sooner rather than later Chinese attack [See:].


[9] “Factors Shaping China’s Use of Force Calculations against Taiwan.” February 18, 2021. Cozad’s testimony largely maintains China considers itself not yet ready to take on the U.S. over Taiwan. It’s just working at breakneck speed to remedy its material, manpower, training, proficiency and operational deficits, focusing especially at achieving parity with the command, control, operational, force-integration and information system advantages it perceives the U.S. to have. The brutal honesty of China’s self-assessment lend power to the probability that China will work rapidly to achieve or surpass parity with commendable focus. In any event, China sees conflict with the U.S. as a total war—something the U.S. should take to heart.

[10] “Expelled Chinese Communist Party Insider Details Internal Tensions in VOA Interview,” By Xiao Yu, Yu-Wen Cheng, August 18, 2020

[11] Kat Devlin and Christine Huang, In Taiwan, Views of Mainland China Mostly Negative, Pew Charitable Trust [poll] May 12, 2020,

[12] “The Scary War Game Over Taiwan That the U.S. Loses Again and Again,” By Richard Bernstein, RealClearInvestigations, August 17, 2020.

[13] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2019 fact sheet. Interestingly SIPRI, obviously bowing to Chinese pressure, and the World Bank, don’t even list Taiwan in their statistical tables. Yet another indication China is succeeding in making Taiwan a non-entity; Sean Lin, Proposed defense budget to rise 4.4%; 2021 BUDGET: Social welfare policies would have the biggest slice of the budget of NT$2.16 trillion, followed by education, culture and science-related expenditures, Taipei Times, Aug. 14, 2020

[14] See Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Harvard University, 2001. His Rise of China and the Logic of Strategy (Harvard University Press, 2012) stresses that every Chinese aggressive action provokes a foreign policy reaction, shedding light on the ambivalence of smaller Asian countries in the wake of China’s attempts to intimidate them.

[15] Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,”, no date but more recent than 2016

[16] “Few want to see a ‘scorched earth’ Taiwan if war breaks out: former KMT chairperson,” Fan Lingzhi, Global Times, 2020/10/11 Note: Global Times is a mouthpiece of the CCP.

[17] See Also, Foreign Policy Magazine, Sept 25, 2018; “Here’s what could happen if China invaded Taiwan,” Samson Ellis, Japan Times, Oct 8, 2020

[18] Mark Cozad, op.cit



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2 Responses to How should the U.S. respond to China’s Taiwan Provocations?

  1. Rob Buzby says:

    Marv thanks. I enjoyed that. I agree with this comment: ” Most important, the forces at work arguing for the “delay” option don’t take into account mounting psychological and interpersonal factors—including jockeying for power–inside the CCP. These forces ultimately arbitrate when the CCP decision-makers order “go”. ” As well all (3) points for buying time. Well done. SF, Rob

    • Evan Dudik says:

      Thank you, Rob! This is actually a thought I had in response to a post by George Friedman, a brilliant and prolific thinker and author. I appreciate your comment. Evan

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