I’ve written before about China’s increasingly brazen indications that it plans to force a “reunification” with Taiwan sometime in the not-so-distant future. For its part, Taiwan is clearly worried about the possibility China could overwhelm its defenses but remains defiant. The US has been selling Taiwan arms, sending warships through the Taiwan strait and even training Taiwanese troops. All of it raises the possibility of a real confrontation over Taiwan, one that could be extremely costly to both China and the US.
But two American scholars wrote a paper last year suggesting there was another way to deter China from an invasion, one that wouldn’t involve a direct confrontation between superpowers with nuclear weapons. They call it ‘Broken Nest.’ Nikkei Asia reports it was the most downloaded paper published last year by the Army War College. The paper opens by arguing that American deterrence through the threat of war is no longer as credible as it once was.
In previous decades, the United States enjoyed clear military supremacy over China, and thus, American deterrence capabilities were more credible. For example, in June 1950, President Harry Truman interposed the Seventh Fleet between mainland China and Taiwan “to ‘neutralize’ the Taiwan Strait” and to discourage Chinese forces from attempting an amphibious attack.
More than 40 years later, President Bill Clinton impressed America’s military superiority upon Chinese leaders with the dispatch of two carrier strike groups to the region—a show of force that, while successful in the short term, had the long-term effect of convincing China’s leaders to pursue massive investments in anti-ship ballistic missiles. Today, the United States has more difficulty engaging in such exercises of “deterrence by denial.”10 The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now powerful enough it probably could overrun Taiwan even if the United States intervened to defend Taipei. Both sides know this—or at least strongly suspect it. A Chinese analyst with connections in the PLA Navy told us the PLA’s goal for a successful invasion was 14 hours, while it projects the United States and Japan would require 24 hours to respond. If this scenario is close to being accurate, China’s government might well be inclined to attempt a fait accompli as soon as it is confident in its relative capabilities.
But what if there was a way to turn an invasion of Taiwan into a pyrrhic victory? A way to deter an invasion without a threat of war. The authors suggest Taiwan could threaten to make the cost of an invasion too high by promising China a broken nest:
A Chinese proverb asks, “Beneath a broken nest, how (can) there be any whole eggs?”20 The proverb means if the United States cannot prevent China from seizing Taiwan by force, it should instead develop a strategy to convince China’s leaders an invasion would produce a peace more injurious than the status quo. As noted previously, the United States already incorporates the logic of deterrence by punishment into its overall Taiwan strategy. What distinguishes the broken nest approach from other deterrence-by-punishment proposals is that it does not rely upon America’s willingness to use military force; the strategy is unique in the sense that it has the potential to deter China from invading Taiwan while also reassuring all sides a great-power war is not being threatened by the United States…
Beijing must also be made to believe conquering Taiwan, while satisfying one core goal of the Chinese state, cannot be done without jeopardizing other core interests. In practice, this strategy means assuring China an invasion of Taiwan would produce a major economic crisis on the mainland, not the technological boon some have suggested would occur as a result of the PRC absorbing Taiwan’s robust tech industry.
To start, the United States and Taiwan should lay plans for a targeted scorched-earth strategy that would render Taiwan not just unattractive if ever seized by force, but positively costly to maintain. This could be done most effectively by threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the most important chipmaker in the world and China’s most important supplier. Samsung based in South Korea (a US ally) is the only alternative for cutting-edge designs. Despite a huge Chinese effort for a “Made in China” chip industry, only 6 percent of semiconductors used in China were produced domestically in 2020.27 If Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s facilities went offline, companies around the globe would find it difficult to continue operations.28 This development would mean China’s high-tech industries would be immobilized at precisely the same time the nation was embroiled in a massive war effort.
Even when the formal war ended, the economic costs would persist for years.
I wrote about TSMC last July. They are currently home to the most complicated machines ever built by man, the advanced EUV lithography machines produced by ASML. It’s these machines that allow TSMC to be the world’s leading chipmaker. Destroying them would a) be easy to do given how delicate they are and b) would not be something China could recover from anytime soon. It takes the combined effort of multiple specialized companies around the world to produce a single advanced EUV machine. China would not be able to buy a replacement from the free world, but the free world would be able to buy replacements which would allow it to eventually overcome the loss of TSMC. This is not a minor point as we’re talking about a decade or longer advantage in the production of high-tech devices, computers, etc. Invading Taiwan would probably guarantee China was unable to compete with the rest of the world on technology for the rest of Xi Jinping’s lifetime.
Such threats would have the advantage of making the Taiwan issue not just a battle of wills between the United States and China, but a fundamental question of what China wants its place in the region and wider world to be. Does China want to provoke the ire of its Asian neighbors, or would it prefer to advance its ambitions of regional leadership and peaceful cooperation?
Again, the purpose here must be to convince Chinese leaders invading Taiwan will come at the cost of core national objectives: economic growth, domestic tranquility, secure borders, and perhaps even the maintenance of regime legitimacy.
Nikkei Asia reports that the paper caught the attention of the PRC:
China has responded strongly to the report. On Dec. 23, the website of the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office posted an article noting that “the mainland’s pursuit of cross-strait reunification is definitely not for TSMC.”
That may be true to some extent. The goal here is bigger than TSMC. Xi is seeking national glory and adding to his own legend. But if the invasion leads to economic disaster and widespread unhappiness on the mainland for years to come, he may decide that’s not the kind of glory he’s interested in.