Shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the famous story goes, a U.S. colonel found himself in a conference room with a North Vietnamese colonel. Unable to resist defending his country’s honor following the most high-profile defeat in its history, the American volunteered the thought, “You know, you never really managed to beat us on the battlefield.” The Vietnamese officer’s classic reply: “That may be true, but it is also irrelevant.”
That exchange highlighted the ultimate failure of the United States in Vietnam: to convert its superior military power into a durable political settlement that suited its interests. Carl von Clausewitz pointed out that war is merely an extension of politics rather than a pursuit in its own right; feats on the battlefield that do not enhance one side’s ability to dictate the peace that follows do not serve a purpose.
This is a problem for all countries that go to war, but time and again, it has proven an especially serious problem for the United States. In Iraq, President George W. Bush frequently demonstrated a fixation on enemy casualties, infuriating military subordinates who understood that they could not simply slay their way to victory. In Afghanistan, the United States’ military accomplishments proved meaningless: Unable to convert its military power into negotiating power, Washington was ultimately forced to choose between withdrawal and the unending occupation of a distant country. It eventually chose the former, and its venture ended in failure.
If the People’s Republic of China invades Taiwan in the not-too-distant future, the United States will face another test of not merely its warfighting ability, but its ability to forge a lasting political settlement that suits its interests and those of its partners. Adding to the immensity of the task is the fact that, at least in public, the United States appears to be understandably focused on the difficult and high-stakes military dimension of a Taiwan conflict rather than the challenges inherent in winning the peace that follows. While the attention to military matters is of course appropriate, the lack of attention to the political equation that would emerge even after a best-case-scenario victory is a recipe for long-term issues.
Just as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other theaters – albeit all for different reasons – victory on the battlefield in a war over Taiwan is unlikely to automatically confer victory in the peace that follows. The reasons for this are manifold, both military and political, and have to do with the nature of China as a belligerent, Taiwan’s situation, and the incentives of the United States.
One factor that will prevent victory on the battlefield in a conflict over Taiwan from translating automatically into a successful post-war peace is a quality that makes China different from any other belligerent the United States has ever directly faced: its status as a nuclear power. This obvious fact, despite Beijing’s dubious public pledge not to use its nuclear arsenal except as retaliation against a nuclear attack, will shape the conflict regardless of whether the nuclear threshold is crossed. The prospect of nuclear retaliation will impose significant – yet often undiscussed – limitations on the United States’ war aims.
Not only will Washington likely be unable to risk directly targeting, much less attempting to destroy, the Chinese regime, it will also be forced to exercise caution in attacking targets on the mainland. As a result, China is likely to retain not just a significant industrial base with which to reconstitute its military following a conflict, but even a substantial quantity of military assets intact.
Just as seriously, the threat of China’s nuclear arsenal passing into more dangerous (that is, less predictable) hands if the United States fatally undermines the ruling regime will necessitate the moderation of its goals in the peace that follows. At a time of war, if a crumbling political situation in China gives rise to voices harsher and less rational than the country’s rulers, Washington will likely seek to avoid peace terms so humiliating as to topple the existing regime and push the country into a political abyss. Even in defeat, China will retain not just latent military power and nuclear bargaining chips, but also – if the United States can help it – the very irredentist, aggressive leadership that started the as-yet hypothetical Taiwan war in the first place.
The survival of Beijing’s ruling regime and military strength will constitute a threat to the peace that follows a Taiwan conflict for the simple reason that China’s rulers cannot afford to abandon their efforts to absorb the island, even following a failed invasion. The forfeiture of the Communist regime’s claim to Taiwan would strike at the heart of its nationalist credibility, a legitimacy built on its own myth-making propaganda about foreign humiliation and the party’s indispensable role in restoring the country’s dignity. Since peaceful integration will almost certainly be a dead letter (as it is now), China’s rulers will be left with little choice but to at least credibly prepare for military reunification. Indeed, so powerful is the national narrative surrounding Taiwan that this is likely to happen under most Chinese regimes, even if the Communist Party were to fall. Absent strong actions from Washington, the question that will define the Taiwan peace will not be whether China tries to capture the island again, but how long the United States can trust peace to last before it does.
These complications will leave Washington only two difficult options to ensure Taiwan’s long-term security, even in a scenario where an invasion force has been comprehensively defeated. One would be to maintain open-ended conventional military superiority in the island’s vicinity – a fraught and difficult task, given U.S. commitments elsewhere, China’s economic might and proximity, and Beijing’s fixation on the island. The other would be to attempt to settle the matter once and for all by extending a nuclear umbrella over Taiwan and accepting the risks inherent in an open-ended nuclear standoff like those of the Cold War. The former aim is dubious, given China’s home-field advantage in the region; the latter policy so far surpasses Washington’s historical Taiwan policy in boldness – the current administration has resisted committing to even a conventional defense of the island – that it is difficult to envision.
The true danger to the United States’ efforts to win the Taiwan peace lies in the possibility that Washington may respond to these conundrums by attempting to chart a safer, middle course following victory. A desire not to “provoke” Beijing on the Taiwan issue, if taken too far, could result in a cautious military policy that fails to maintain deterrence against China’s ever-brewing military designs on the island. In a parallel to the current status quo, an unwillingness to explicitly commit the United States to Taiwan’s security – perhaps out of a misguided attempt to maintain freedom of action, thereby opening the door to isolationist forces in the United States pulling back from the island at some future date, or simply a reflexive urge not to “provoke” a regime that needs no provocation to attack Taiwan – would further weaken deterrence.
Within a surprisingly short span of time, even after a successful defense of Taiwan, Washington could find itself facing a situation not at all unlike the present day: a looming threat of yet another Chinese attack on Taiwan, and yet another bevy of difficult decisions to make about the defense of that unlucky island. This would be an especially tragic outcome for those who suffered to stop the invasion of Taiwan in the first place, as it would mean the situation had not fundamentally changed from the status quo ante bellum.
If Washington is to escape a cycle of conflict or the constant threat of conflict with China over Taiwan, it will require bolder policymaking than efforts to smooth over differences with Beijing in the aftermath of a war. The defeat of an invasion force alone will not be enough to win the Taiwan peace. Given the difficulties inherent in either conventional or nuclear deterrence even following a major victory, before Washington undertakes what may be merely the first of several phases of a Taiwan conflict, it should consider whether it is willing to run the risks required to win the peace that is to follow.