Helicopters fly with the Taiwan national flag during the National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2020.

Helicopters fly with the Taiwan national flag during the National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2020. AP / Chiang Ying-ying

Keep The US Retreat from Afghanistan From Emboldening China

Start by recalling precisely how deterrence works.

China lost no time in attempting to use the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to weaken Taipei’s faith in Washington’s ability to deter Beijing and willingness to fight if deterrence fails. “Those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and U.S. military won’t come to help,” the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times wrote in a mid-August editorial. But is the damage real?

Many have argued—both before and after the fact—that withdrawing from Afghanistan undermines U.S. credibility and its ability to deter adversaries. But the “strategic failure” likely did not hurt as much as many might think. While adversaries’ decisions can be shaped by perceptions of their opponents’ past behavior, successful deterrence depends much more on the case at hand—in particular, how adversaries assess each other’s interests and the choices they can make to achieve them. Thus, managing those choices and the preferences they entail will play a much more critical role in deterring China, for example, from annexing Taiwan.

Not everyone sees the withdrawal as equal cause for concern. Professor Stephen M. Walt points out that “deciding not to continue a futile war for less-than-vital interests tells you absolutely nothing about whether a great power would fight if more serious interests were at stake.” Professor Joshua D. Kertzer also argues that the connection between reputation and credibility is not as direct as thought by many, including apparently the Chinese. As he points out, actors judge others’ credibility on a “case-by-case” basis. To the extent a current conflict of interest echoes a previous one, actors may draw conclusions based on past behavior. To the extent it does not, they likely will not. A reputation for quitting 20-year counter-insurgency fights does not have the same effect when other interests are at stake.

More important to credibility than reputation is what an adversary believes is in one’s interest. If an adversary believes that one’s cost of employing a deterrent measure is less than the cost of conceding to its challenge, one’s threat is credible.

Credibility, however, is not sufficient to deter an adversary from acting. One’s threat must also be capable. Capable threats are those that not only impose a cost on prospective challengers, but that also leave those challengers worse off than if they had not acted. So, when assessing deterrence, what matters is whether an adversary believes it is rational for one to defend a particular interest with means adequate to make it irrational for an adversary to challenge in the first place.

Assessing capability, however, is not as straightforward as one might think. The fact one might have military capability sufficient to defeat an adversary’s armed forces is not the same thing as having a military capable of deterring them from trying. Having a capable deterrent threat depends as much, if not more, on what choices adversaries believe they have and what choices they think their opponent will make. This point does not entail that having an adequate military capability is not important; however, if one’s goal is to both avoid war and a costly arms race, one must also take those choices into account.

Taking those choices into account shifts the focus of analysis from the interest to the relationship. Focusing on the relationship requires more than assessing the balance of power between opposing actors. It requires also assessing the potential each relationship represents. So, rather than asking questions like “what do we want?” and “how do we get it?” a relational focus asks questions like “where has this relationship been, and where can it go?” Given where it can go, the task for policy is getting to the place that optimizes one’s interests.

Answering those questions requires assessing the potential for cooperation or conflict inherent in each relationship. Maintaining the upper hand in such adversarial relationships further requires identifying opportunities to direct the relationship in ways that maximize the outcomes one can attain. One does this by shaping the choices it would be rational for an adversary to make. There are some general rules of thumb.

First, one must establish credibility by ensuring that an interest is worth the cost to defend it and ensuring that the adversary believes it as well. The difficulty here, of course, is just saying so will not be convincing. It is stating the obvious to say China cares more about reunification with Taiwan than the United States. So, even something as provocative as offering Taiwan defense assurances will not likely affect Chinese assessment of U.S. credibility. Given the asymmetry in interest, it is, in fact, difficult to say what would. However, a recent survey indicated that more than half (52 percent) of Americans “support using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion of the island.” Mobilizing such opinion to convince Beijing that U.S. elected officials stand a better chance of re-election by defending Taiwan than not, one can at least begin to build a case for credibility.

Second, one should avoid raising the stakes regarding a conflict of interest unless escalation, and likely war, are more in one’s interest than the status quo. Stakes, in this context, are a function both the value of the interest and the likelihood of conflict. Thus, the higher the stakes the more tempting it is to bear the cost of acting or any subsequent escalation. Under such conditions, actors may feel an urgency to act because they want the advantages associated with seizing the initiative and are willing to bear whatever costs they incur.

Third, and related to the second, is increasing the value of the status quo for an adversary. Increasing this value should not be confused with appeasement. An adversary does not have to like the status quo to prefer it to war. As Patrick Porter and Michael Mazarr point out, invading Taiwan may give the Chinese government a domestic boost as well as provide a platform for extending the extending its ability to project power and conducting intelligence, surveillance, and air defense. But these benefits will likely come at the cost of depleting its more effective combat forces as well as triggering a region-wide military buildup. It will also likely isolate China internationally, making it difficult for it to achieve its other foreign policy objectives. Thus, seizing Taiwan may, in fact, not be worth the cost for the Chinese. These points suggest giving China more to lose, not just more to pay, will be important to an effective deterrent strategy. Ensuring Beijing understands that means not only an ability to impose such costs, but also the willingness to make the status quo satisfactory enough they are not tempted to act.

When crafting a deterrence policy regarding Taiwan, it is important to remember that invading is Beijing’s second worst option, not their preferred one. Their preference is that their influence operations lead to Taipei’s capitulation and the international community’s acquiescence. Of course, even China’s famed “strategic patience” will eventually run out. When that happens, deterrence will depend on the status quo being preferable to war. Ensuring that is the case depends on establishing multiple credible and capable threats while not raising the stakes associated with the interest in conflict. It also entails providing inducements and assurances to give Beijing more to lose should it act.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the United States government.

Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is the Research Professor for Strategy, the Military Profession and Ethics at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.