Council Special Report: The United States, China, and Taiwan—A Strategy to Prevent War

Friday, March 12, 2021
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Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Coauthor, The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War, Council Special Report

White Burkett Miller Professor of History and Miller Center Wilson Newman Professor of Governance, University of Virginia; Coauthor, The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War, Council Special Report; CFR Member


Senior Policy Analyst, China Program, United States Institute of Peace; CFR Term Member

In the Council Special Report The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War, authors Ambassador Robert Blackwill and Philip Zelikow warn that “Taiwan is becoming the most dangerous flashpoint in the world for a possible war that involves the United States, China, and probably other major powers.” The authors urge the Biden administration to consider a strategy that includes affirming that it will not change Taiwan's status, working with allies to challenge Chinese military moves against Taiwan, and planning for the disruption and mobilization that could follow a wider war. 

KIM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's virtual meeting on the Council's Special Report, The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War. My name is Patricia Kim, and I'm a senior policy analyst with the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. I will be moderating our panel today with the two authors of the special report: Ambassador Robert Blackwill, who is the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dr. Philip Zelikow, who is the White Burkett Miller professor of history and Wilson Newman professor of governance at the Miller Center, both at the University of Virginia. First, I'd like to congratulate Bob and Philip for producing an excellent and very timely report that informs the debate on whether and how the United States should update its approach towards Taiwan given the changing balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and increasing Chinese assertiveness that we've seen in this theater over the last few years. I had the privilege of participating in a study group that was led by Bob and Admiral Gary Roughead that discussed and debated many of the issues that Bob and Philip write about in their report. I think their final product does a great service by laying out the long and complex history of U.S. policy towards Taiwan, how China and Taiwan's approaches towards each other have evolved over the decades, and of course, what the U.S. and its allies should do going forward to prevent a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. So I would highly recommend to anyone who has yet to read the report to take a close look at it, as well as the War on the Rocks piece written by our two panelists today that we circulated with the group.

We have over seven hundred members registered for this virtual meeting, which speaks to just how much interest there is on the topic and in the report. We'll do our best to get through as many questions as possible in the second half of the session, but I'd like to start us off with a few questions for Bob and Philip. First to Bob, your report identifies Taiwan as one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world. Can you tell us how the situation surrounding Taiwan has changed, how have the military and political balance evolved, and why do you think there's a greater likelihood of war over Taiwan today than ever before?

BLACKWILL: Well, thanks, Patricia. It's good to be here. Thanks to all the participants for tuning in. We think that there have been substantial structural changes in the situation between China, Taiwan, and the United States. First, the Chinese decision to crush local governance and effective rule of law in Hong Kong has obviously had large effects and changed the politics in Taiwan further and accelerated a trend in favor of a president whom China regards as a separatist. Chinese leaders have doubled down on xenophobic nationalism and repression and escalating pressure on Taiwan both rhetorically and militarily. Taiwan has begun a substantial program of rearmament with a seriousness not seen in a generation supported by the United States, yet there's a significant window of time before this program can bear sufficient fruit. And then finally, of course, fewer and fewer Taiwanese want to have a relationship union with the mainland. Now, I think it's fair to say, and Philip and I have looked at all the literature we could, that most experts now believe China will not use force against Taiwan in the foreseeable future. We respect their views. However, we observe that most international wars come as a surprise except to those planning them. In 1962, most experts dismissed the possibility that the Soviets would deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba. In 1973, most experts dismissed the possibility that Egypt and Syria would launch a war. In 1979, most experts dismissed the possibility that the Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan. In 1990, most experts dismissed the possibility that Iraq would invade Kuwait. In 2014, most experts dismissed the possibility that Russia would invade Ukraine. You get the idea. And further, China's doing what a country would do if it were moving into a pre-war mode. We can go into those details, but it is conditioning its population. It's engaging in a tempo of exercises and military preparations that are sharpening and widening the readiness of its armed forces and so forth. In response to this, and just in a word, the Biden administration issued a statement, which stressed that Beijing should cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and went on to say, "Our commitment to Taiwan is rock solid." The newly published Interim National Security Strategic Guidance by the Biden administration makes the same point, yet in our view, the underlying substance of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan after these statements from the Biden administration is no clearer than it was before.

KIM: Thank you. I have a follow up question. So given all of these changes, your report makes the case that the United States should update its strategy towards Taiwan, and before we get into the specifics of what kind of changes you are recommending, how would you explain why all of this matters to an American citizen who might be wondering whether Taiwan is a vital U.S. interest?

BLACKWILL: Well, this is a crucial question, and thank you for raising it. We looked at this in some detail in the report, because we think that if one considers whether the United States, for example, should go to war with China over Taiwan, one would look first at whether Taiwan is a vital U.S. national interest. We found it striking that many pundits ignore this, what we think, preeminent factor, or simply assert without analysis that Taiwan is a vital national interest, or Taiwan is not a vital national interest. So we looked at what we think are U.S. vital national interests and came to a very strict definition of them—to safeguard and enhance American survival in a free and secure nation. As I said, we make it strict because American presidents often go to war if they think that an issue, or a place, is a vital national interest. Could we see the slide, please?

So here are the five vital U.S. national interests that we believe should address the question of where does Taiwan fit in. And again, you see at the top strictly defined as necessary to safeguard and enhance American survival in a free and secure nation. So these won't be surprising I think to you, although one can discuss them—prevent the use and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons or catastrophic conventional terrorist attacks or cyberattacks against the U.S., its military forces, or its allies; stop the spread of nuclear weapons, you can read that, that's in long-range delivery systems; maintain a global regional balance of power, and you can read that; prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on U.S. borders; and ensure the viability and stability of major global systems, and you can see what those are, they'll be familiar.

So where does Taiwan fit into this? Well, it doesn't seem to be connected to one, two, four or five. And what about three—maintain a global regional balance of power? And so, of course, there is a debate about whether whatever intrinsic value Taiwan has to the United States, whether under certain circumstances a Chinese successful invasion or intimidation of Taiwan to change its government might reverberate through American alliances. That, of course, is a domino theory. The weaknesses of domino theories, one of course thinks of Vietnam. You might want to have a quick look at the Pentagon Papers in this regard and see the domino theory again and again expressed in the cabinet meetings and the National Security Council meetings regarding Vietnam. Well, some have argued that Taiwan dominoes would fall in a disastrous way all the way to the collapse of U.S. alliances and to Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. But with all domino theories, there's no way in advance to know whether these worst-case projections would actually occur. Just to conclude, the late, great diplomatic historian, Ernest May, did point out that in individual historic instances, most such worst-case dominoes never fall. But this is an issue that certainly should be debated before a crisis, because any American president would have to think hard about initiating a war with China over an unproven domino theory.

KIM: Thank you, Bob. Well, I think this is a great point to turn to Philip to ask if you can walk us through some of the potential scenarios we might encounter if a military conflict were to breakout over Taiwan and the different ways that the United States might respond to a PRC attack on Taiwan?

ZELIKOW: Sure. Thanks, Patricia. Let me just start with two notes of humility. The first note of humility is that Bob and I don't know whether or not China is going to try to dominate Taiwan militarily. We don't know if a conflict will break out. We've heard theories as to why it might, and we've heard theories as to why it might not. We approach this then from a perspective of humility as we don't know. What we feel we do know is that the danger has risen and that the danger has now risen to the point where it demands planning for this contingency with the utmost seriousness. That's all we assert, and that's an assertion born of humility and concern. The second dimension of humility is then when you do this planning, you do it with professional specificity. And you remember that the first thing that strikes you right away is this is a really hard problem. Anyone who really works on this problem seriously and doesn't admit how hard it is, is a person whose judgment you should not trust. When you work on it really hard then you come to the realization that everybody talks about Taiwan military scenarios viewing it as if it were in a fog. You hear people who assert about what the U.S. can do, but no one can really tell. The plans aren't visible to anyone. The allied involvement from Japan is not visible. No one can tell. Then you hear people say, "But don't worry." Then you hear people tell us, "Oh, we've seen the plans. You should worry." We don't know, we're humble. So we postulate plans that do not assume a lot of things that are mysterious.

If you could put up a slide now on the issue of scenarios. There are three basic sorts of scenarios for how China might go about moving against Taiwan militarily—three sets—and then you can do variations on its first. China attacks Taiwan's periphery, attacks Taiwan, for instance, the offshore islands. Could you go to the next slide and let me draw your attention to this map. There's an offshore island that's not visible on this map that's well to the south in the South China Sea—an island, an atoll. You see Pratas there in between Hong Kong and Hainan on the west and the Luzon Strait and the Bashi Channel, the great outlets to the deep Pacific? You see Pratas there in the middle? That's a little atoll that Taiwan controls around which the Chinese have lately been conducting constant military exercises and overflights. Pratas atoll is currently garrisoned by several hundred Taiwan marines and soldiers that were put there last year in response to this danger. If you get closer to Taiwan you see Penghu, sometimes called the Pescadores. You see Kinmen near Xiamen and Matsu and Fuzhou, these are also offshore islands that China could conceivably attack. But now go back to the previous slide. Our perception then is that China could do that, but ask yourself this question: What does it accomplish for China to do it? Yes, China could terrify Taiwan. But would terrifying Taiwan in this way actually achieve the political effects of making Taiwan kowtow? Or would it be more likely to achieve the opposite effect?

A second set of scenarios is the China could quarantine Taiwan. By quarantine here the most interesting scenario to us is not a blockade that tries to cut off food or cut off the daily ferries. By quarantine we mean more like the scenario that the United States used when it put a quarantine around Cuba to keep the Soviets from shipping missiles into Cuba in October 1962. In this case China would say Taiwan is our sovereign territory. We don't wish the United States to ship hundreds of missiles with foreign trainers and lots of relocatable sensors into Taiwan. We're not going to let you ship these missiles into Taiwan, and so we're now going to establish sea and air control around Taiwan's periphery. And if we see traffic we regard as suspicious, we will divert it for customs clearance on the Chinese mainland. So then, and by the way, the Chinese have been doing things recently to enhance the legal powers of their Coast Guard and so on to enable this scenario. So then you would ask yourself what would the United States do in this case where the Chinese establish a de facto sovereignty in quite real terms around Taiwan without actually occupying the island at all or its people.

A third set of scenarios is the classic scenario of the Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The classic version of that is a sea and amphibious assault. People have thought about that, and there are arguments about that are pessimistic or optimistic about what might happen. There's another kind of invasion scenario that's a quick attack and a decapitation scenario using special operations forces, heliborne assaults, and the like. And so what you would then want to do from the point of view of the United States is you'd ask yourself in each of these sets of scenarios, what is it exactly that the United States and its allies might do? So that's the second part of your question, Patricia, and let's go to that map. Next slide. There are four basic approaches and scenarios like these. The first approach is that the United States should not plan on the direct U.S. defense of Taiwan and not become a belligerent. This is a conflict between China and Taiwan. This is not the status quo approach, but there are people who advocate this. This is not what we support. Option two. In option two, the United States does not commit in advance to the direct U.S. defense of Taiwan, yet it plans as if it might do it. The role of Japan or other allies in that is unclear. It's also unclear in this scenario whether or not the U.S. plans, which it might or might not use, would involve attacks directly into the Chinese mainland potentially escalating to general war. This second approach on this slide is what we regard as the current status quo. It's deeply mysterious.

Option number three—commit, plan, and prepare to share responsibility for the direct defense of Taiwan. Various senators have actually proposed putting this into law and adopting this commitment, for instance, in the Taiwan Defense Act that several senators supported last year but which was never brought to a vote for the Congress. Usually the analysts who work on this approach, this third approach, which is very clear, we're going to prepare to defend Taiwan. The Chinese should know it, and we're going to get there. We're going to get ready, we're going to clearly get ready, and we're going to have to get ready with a lot of work fast. And usually these analysts assume that as part of the U.S. defenses, the United States will hit targets in the Chinese mainland. What we said we don't support number three, but a lot of people do. What we support is approach number four. We basically go along with the status quo and its mysteries. But we think in addition to that, in addition to the mysteries, you need to prepare and rehearse a parallel plan that could concretely challenge Chinese denial of access and ship defense supplies to Taiwan so that Taiwan can defend itself.

Now, I want to call out three distinctive elements of this parallel plan that Bob and I have been working on. First, this plan should be designed to place clearly the burden on China on whether or not to widen the war by attacking the Americans. Notice this is an allied plan. The Americans, and we think at a minimum the Japanese, would be challenging the Chinese denial of access. It places the burden on China to engage them and widen the war. Second, even if China attacks the allies near Taiwan, however, even if China does widen in the war, this plan would not assume that such a war should extend to the Chinese mainland. In other words it does not casually assume escalation to general war. Third, it would instead prepare that if the war was widened in this way near Taiwan, allies would prepare visibly and in advance their plans to break all economic relations, which is what would happen when America goes to war with another country. It freezes assets. It freezes financial transactions of every kind—that's what it does. So plan in advance to do that and make those plans visible beforehand. Then one can plan to remilitarize Japan for the first time in generations and prepare the United States for general war in the event China has chosen to widen the war near Taiwan. But you don't assume an escalation to general war. Now, these plans that we have here in this third bullet are so dramatic and large, and preparing them in advance would itself be such an ominous signal, we think it is hollow to threaten to execute these plans unless a limited war has already broken out. We put the burden on China to decide whether or not it wants to have a limited war while the United States only focuses on helping prepare Taiwan to defend itself and does not assume that it will initiate a war with China. You can bring the slides down.

BLACKWILL: If I might chime in here, the purpose of the specificity that we've outlined here, and it's in much greater detail in the report and the War on the Rocks article, is to let China know the consequences of the decisions it is making. There is an obvious analogy to NATO and its defense plans and doctrines. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union knew very well what the United States would do with its allies both because of NATO declaratory policy, flexible response and all of that, and because the Soviets had penetrated NATO and other allied capitals and in some cases even the United States. So we want China to know that this is what would occur. We want China to know that the escalation would be in its hands with the consequences that Philip has described, because we think that would strengthen deterrence. Meanwhile, of course, we support all of the elements of the Taiwan Relations Act. We should move briskly for even more military support, not the big ticket items but missiles and sensors and so forth, to strengthen Taiwan's defenses. One last point. It is that a war between the United States and China would be a catastrophe for both countries and their peoples. And so, as Phillip said at the outset of his comments, we need to think very hard how to avoid that while at the same time strengthening Taiwan's political outreach into the world, strengthening its economy, and strengthening its capacity to defend itself.

KIM: Thanks, Bob. There's a lot to process through in both of your remarks. And I guess one place where I would pick up is that the role of U.S. allies will be critical in any of this sort of planning and preparation that the two of you advocate for. And, you know, the report mentions Japan as a critical partner, and I imagine other allies like South Korea and others in the region will be essential as well. So how much enthusiasm do you see in Tokyo or in other capitals like Seoul for supporting Taiwan in these potential military scenarios that you sketch out in the report? And what challenges do you foresee in military, political, and economic coordination given many of our key allies count China as their biggest trading partner? They are literally closer to the line of fire just geographically speaking. So can you touch upon that and maybe we'll go with Bob first, and then we could turn to Philip.

BLACKWILL: I'll be brief. Obviously, those countries in their relationship with Taiwan and United States and their contending national interests are one of the reasons that this is such a difficult problem. But the first step, of course, after the United States would develop ideas about how to strengthen deterrence, would be to discuss them in detail at least with Taiwan and with Japan and perhaps more broadly then. They would either agree with those ideas, equivocate, or say we can't agree with those ideas. So we don't have to guess what their reaction would be. No government is going to sign up to an automatic pledge in circumstances that they can't necessarily foresee, but we do think that this notion of avoiding a general war in Asia would be an attractive one to those same countries. We do think that, as everyone who's watching this knows, Japan has a long and intimate relationship with Taiwan and is becoming more robust in expressing that. But the key will be the quality of our consultation and, as Philip said about option two, the status quo. It wasn't the status quo during the Trump administration, which we think more or less adopted three, but it's been the status quo. We don't think a mystery strengthens deterrence.

ZELIKOW: Patricia, to chime in on that, those are good points. Your question is a very good question. I liked the way you also drew out the importance of South Korea. Our listeners should not assume that Tokyo and Seoul have identical views on this issue. Tokyo and Japan have a long historic relationship with Taiwan or Formosa—sometimes called Formosa before that—that go back a long time and it's actually quite deep politically, culturally, and economically. The same is not true between South Korea and Taiwan. I think the South Korean leadership deeply believe in the American alliance, but they have a relatively narrow view of the functions of that alliance. And so in our report, we basically don't make any assumptions about the attitudes of South Korea towards all of this. We do, however, place a huge premium on the role of Japan. We think it's very difficult to envision a successful policy on this issue in which Japan is not a part of. Then you come back to, well, what is Japan's view? It's kind of hard to tell except we know Japan is friendly to Taiwan. Bob made this crucial point; I want to underscore it. We don't know what Japan's views will be in an ultimate crisis. The Japanese leaders themselves do not know, and the Japanese people have not been mobilized around this in any really decided way. Therefore, I want to stress is the innovation of what we're proposing is the emphasis we place on advanced allied plans. You may not agree on what to do in advance, but you can agree in advance to plan to do certain things to at least give yourself the choice. You have the choice if you've prepared and planned and rehearsed. If you do those things in advance, people can see what you're preparing and planning even if they don't know if you will use those plans in the crisis. The simple act of having to work together to develop such ambitious plans, as the ones we outline, in advance will then itself have a large political effect on the societies in forcing them to discuss their mutual interests and hopefully converge.

KIM: Great, thank you. Well, we can go on for hours, but at this time we need to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. So let me remind everyone again that the meeting is on the record and operator over to you.

STAFF: We will take our first question from Jed Snyder.

Q: Jed Snyder, semiretired I think. We'll see. Bob Blackwill, it's great to see you. It's been, I think, decades. I'm glad to see you're looking regal as is quite appropriate for the region we're talking about. My question is this: considering your favorite approach number four, the explicit reference in it to denial of Chinese access, which could be defined pretty broadly, and your quotable quote about mystery not serving deterrence—Admiral Davidson's very recent announcement of this $27 billion plan, which I think is the largest of any of the COCOM commanders in at least forty years, his Indo-Pacific deterrence initiative, which Admiral Aquilino will inherit—is it your view, and Professor Zelikow, that in order to meet the conditions for successful conclusion, if you will, to approach four, that we need to make a significant addition to our regional presence? For what it's worth for me having spent five years at PACOM for four of the commanders there, I believe our presence if its steady state will be insufficient to meet those conditions. Could both of you talk about that? And are we prepared to do that, you know, unilaterally, because I think it would be the triumph of hope over experience for any of the allies, including Japan, which no longer has a [Yasuhiro] Nakasone or others behind them to support us. Could we do this unilaterally? And even if not unilaterally, is it possible to add to the deterrent without being escalatory pushing China's hand? Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Jed, good to hear you. I can't see you. You have that disadvantage of being able to see me. But in any case, there are three different issues there. First, we address the issue of Japan and whether it would involve itself in such a crisis. People have their opinions about this, but we just test the case and see. It's crucial as we both have said. Second, is the issue of forces required to challenge the quarantine. And that, of course, would be highly classified examination of that. We didn't have access to any classified material. But what I would say is that obviously the strategy would depend on our capacity to challenge the quarantine and if we judged that we didn't have the assets capable of doing that, then of course we should acquire them. The third is a much broader question, which is America initiates the war, attacks the Chinese mainland, and we're in a general war. Well, I don't know because I haven't seen in detail the $27 billion proposal, but I suppose it goes in that direction. And in that case, that's such an enormous decision on the part of the American president to attack the Chinese mainland. Analysts are willing before dinner to attack the Chinese mainland in their articles. I think the American president would be extremely cautious about that because of the consequences. Our assets are being shifted as you note, Jed, to Asia already, but to have the assets in place to win a war in the Taiwan Straits against China, which was the declared objective of the Trump administration, would require enormous increase in U.S. assets.

ZELIKOW: Jed, let me distinguish between two kinds of reinforced deployments, one more provocative than the other. I'll describe them in simplistic terms, but I think you'll see the different direction. For both of them, you're strengthening PACOM forward. The first option is I'm going to flood the zone with American combat forces. I'm going to try to build lots of mini-bases manned by Marines all through the Ryukyu Islands. I'm going to have big legal fights in Japan to get extended authorization from the Japanese government to have all these American installations. I'm going to push forward American combat forces that are clearly designed and ready to wage war to try to win the Taiwan Straits. That would be highly provocative, and it seems less likely that the Chinese will simply sit passively and watch that unfold and take no action in the meantime. Or at least we think that's a danger. So that's one style of deployment. Now, another style of deployment is suppose I really wanted to be able to help Taiwan defend itself. You would really concentrate a lot on logistics and sustainment. You would concentrate on things like war reserve stocks. You would have cargo ships and other sorts of sustainment assets that were deployed forward and that we're actually in position and rehearsing the ability to provide resupply to Taiwan. But that's not the same thing as trying to create a dozen mini-bases on the first island chain manned by U.S. combat forces. Now from the point of view of PACOM, PACOM has two jobs. One is to get ready to deter the outbreak of war over Taiwan. I think there is a less provocative way to do that than some have advocated. But the second job PACOM has is to get ready for how to wage a general war with China should that escalate to that point. But there again, I think that if you're getting ready for a general war that does not arise automatically in the Taiwan Strait, it gives PACOM more options as to how to deploy in ways that are less provocative but also perhaps more resilient.

KIM: Great. Well, operator back to the questions and maybe we can take two at a time so we can squeeze in more with the time that we have left.

STAFF: We will take our next question from Priscilla Clapp, and then I'll come on and announce the next. Please accept the unmute now button. Okay, we will move on and just come back to Ms. Clapp.

Q: Hello?

STAFF: Okay, go ahead.

Q: Sorry. You keep muting me and I unmute and you mute. Okay. Three quick questions. First, if we don't somehow defend Taiwan, does it raise questions about the credibility of our alliances? Secondly, if China does try to take over Taiwan, what effect does this have on China's global ambitions, which are really quite aggressively economic these days? I think it would have a very negative effect. And thirdly, is there any such thing as conventional war anymore? I have a feeling that if we were approaching a wartime situation with Taiwan some of the unconventional warfighting measures that we see on the horizon like cyber and so forth would come into play first. Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Well, let me just do the first and then I'll turn the other two over to Philip. I tried to explain in one of my presentations earlier that, of course, there's an issue of U.S. credibility if China were to conquer Taiwan. But then again, one can't stop with that headline and say we must do X or Y because of American credibility. As I tried to say, arguments about credibility don't get very far analytically. They may persuade presidents from time to time, but they don't help much in trying to figure out what are the consequences of U.S. options either adopted or not. American history since the Second World War is filled with instances in which the United States acted—Vietnam being the outstanding case—because of issues of credibility, which turned out to, in practice, be vacant.

ZELIKOW: Priscilla, the second question was isn't China devoted to economic pressure, why would it invade Taiwan and mess up its economic global campaign? And frankly there are some people who make that argument and say that, therefore, don't worry about a Chinese attack on Taiwan in any of my three scenarios. Don't worry about that or just worry about gray-zone stuff where they try to harass and intimidate Taiwan and scare them. You can see how well that is going. Our answer is the answer of humility, is you might bet that might be one. But there are other people who have other theories about the Chinese leadership that are not silly theories, that make an argument as to why over the next few years the Chinese leadership will want to resolve this issue. Its old formula for resolving this intra issue—the "one country, two systems" formula—is now more or less in the garbage can after what they've done to Hong Kong. Everyone can see that. The Taiwan population certainly sees that. So then the Chinese ask themselves how are we going to resolve this issue? And there's a theory that says they might be arguing about this. And so our point, but being humble, is that we hear the arguments on both sides. We hear all these people interpreting and guessing about the Chinese leadership. All we see, as Bob recounted earlier, is that for sure China is conditioning its population to the possibility of conflict, and China is dramatically upping the tempo of its military preparations and exercises. That's all we know for sure. So then to us that just means, well, you better start seriously planning as if this was a dangerous possibility and take that possibility really quite seriously. That's all. The third point that Priscilla then made was isn't conventional war out of date. Well, yes and no. I think the answer is, well, look at the particular war you have in mind and look at particular situation, look at the options people have, and the options people are preparing. We can see the options China is preparing for possible attacks on Taiwan. China certainly does not think those options are obsolete. It is building up and training for those options with a high intensity. So the job for the United States is to just figure out, okay, if that happens what will we do? And how do we deter that?

KIM: Great. Next question, please.

STAFF: We will take the next question from Tony Pan.

Q: Hello, thanks. A great report. I'm Taiwanese by birth—Taiwanese American. Over a majority of the Taiwanese population in polls assume that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid in lots of these scenarios. So I guess my question is how do you prevent or do you worry about the issue of moral hazard if the U.S. comes up with a policy that reinforces commitments in a sense that actually may trigger Taiwan to increase the chance of war?


KIM: Do you want to just address that right away, or should we wait for another question?

BLACKWILL: I'll just do it in two sentences, because I think it's important question, which is that the planning that we would do would be intense with the government of Taiwan. And it would not be behind the curtain for the Taiwan people in general. We do not say—we do not say—that an American president in the circumstances of option four would necessarily choose option four, but we would plan for option four.

ZELIKOW: Let me add, though, to address the moral hazard point. Tony is right. The casual assumption for a generation was that Taiwan didn't need to prepare to defend itself in the way Israel prepares to defend itself or even Switzerland prepares to defend itself, because the United States would come to the rescue. So Taiwan abolishes conscription, no draft anymore. Young people in Taiwan view military service with abhorrence or a sense of humor as you might know. So we're saying that in the years ahead Taiwan is moving into a situation in which it must prepare at least to defend itself with the utmost seriousness and the United States should support that. The United States cannot and should not create a situation of just the moral hazard that you mentioned, Tony.

KIM: Great. Next question, please.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Trudy Rubin.

Q: Thanks very much. This is terrific. First, I'm wondering do you see any basis on which the U.S. and China could reach a new consensus on Taiwan of non-use of force given that the 1992 Consensus and "one country, two systems" appears dead? And also, I wonder if you could say a bit more about the role that you think cyber would play both in terms of Chinese offense and/or a Taiwanese-U.S. defense.

BLACKWILL: Patricia, did you want to do two at a time?

KIM: Sure, we could collect another one.

STAFF: Okay, we will take our next question from Daniel Runde.

Q: Hi, it's Dan Runde. This was just a terrific session. The paper is terrific and sobering. It's probably the most important papers I've read in the last year. I want to just say, first, I want to encourage you all to think about making a fiction version of an invasion the way that 2034, this new novel that's come out. I encourage you all to collaborate with a fiction writer about what this might look like, because I think during the Cold War fiction was used to scare the hell out of people to think differently and reach a broader audience. So that's kind of a comment. In terms of a question I was a little bit taken up a little bit earlier in some of the comments. I'm just quite annoyed with Taiwan in terms of—I love Taiwan, Taiwan is a friend, I've loved going to Taiwan, I'm inspired by Taiwan—but I don't think they've kind of held up their side of the bargain. I think, like you sort of referenced, they've sort of assumed we're going to bail them out and only sort of an isolated handful of voices have sort of woken up to the fact that, you know, this isn't 1995. I don't believe they're at—maybe they're at 2 percent of their GNP. Maybe if we're lucky, I actually don't think that's the case in terms of their defense spending. And I just find—or they've also had a penchant for purchasing big show-off things like submarines or something like this that they didn't need. So could you just comment a little bit on, sort of, a little bit more of them upholding their side of the bargain. And please consider seriously my idea of collaborating with a creative writer to do a fiction version of this to reach a wider audience. It's a really important topic. Thank you for writing this paper.

BLACKWILL: Oh, thank you, Daniel. We'll take it under advisement about turning it into a novel. [Laughs] I would just say your point is powerful and well taken. And we've tried to say that Taiwan has to hold up its end of the bargain. One point that you imply, but I will say it directly before turning this over to Philip, is imagine that as some U.S. senators would recommend that the United States gave an unbreakable commitment to Taiwan to enter its combat forces into the fray automatically if trying to use force against Taiwan. With that automatic commitment by the United States secured, what would you think would happen to the Taiwan military budget in such a circumstance? So I think that would exacerbate the problem you have correctly identified.

ZELIKOW: I'm happy to leave it there.

KIM: And we had the question from the previous speaker who asked about the role of bilateral diplomacy between the U.S. and China on Taiwan. Is there a role for that? And so would either of you care to comment on that one? 

ZELIKOW: I'm happy to mention, that's a great point. We refer to this in the Council report. There are aspects of the Taiwan problem that have a faint resemblance to the problem of West Berlin during the Cold War, a place that we wanted to support but which was very difficult to defend in conventional terms. There are some differences there, but there are some conceptual aspects of the logic that are suggested. What happened in Berlin actually is after the Soviets made their intense bid to threaten the denial of access in the most serious phase of the Berlin crisis between the end of 1958 and the end of 1962, what ensued after that actually was about eight years of quiet diplomacy to unwind the problem. It was not purely bilateral. It involved the West Germans, the British, and the French in different ways. And the result of that diplomacy was actually in agreement. Neither side gave up its position of principle. They agreed to disagree about the status of West Berlin. But they came up with what was sometimes called the Quadripartite Agreement in 1970 and 1971 to defuse the tensions and make the situation durably livable. And that's the way it then remained for the next generation.

KIM: Great, thanks. We'll take the next set of questions, please.

STAFF: We will take our next two questions from Paul Heer and then Matt Miller.

Q: Hello, this is Paul Heer from the Center for the National Interest. Thank you very much for this. I think this flows from the last question, from Trudy's question at least in the comment that was made. My concern was that by focusing almost exclusively here on military deterrence and planning and these war scenarios, that we're at risk of thinking about Taiwan as primarily a military problem. My question, and I think Philip might have started to answer this, was I haven't had a chance to read through the report yet, but the title is A Strategy to Prevent War. What are the diplomatic elements of the strategy to prevent war? Because I think if we get into one of these military scenarios, our strategy to prevent it has obviously failed, and I think Taiwan is not primarily a military problem. So what does the report outline as the diplomatic components of the strategy?

BLACKWILL: Well, you'll see, Paul, when you have a chance to look at it that the report ends with eighteen policy prescriptions. One of them is to intensify diplomacy with China across the board but certainly including Taiwan. And that will, at least, in the first instance happen next week in Alaska. But I would observe that, unfortunately, and this does not only apply to China, but diplomacy is rather out of fashion as an instrument of American national security. And so I salute your emphasis on this. Now, whether we can find a formula, as Philip was saying occurred in the early '70s in Berlin, is another matter. I was looking recently again at the Kissinger-Zhou Enlai memoranda of conversation. If you read those and the dramatic difference, polar difference, between the United States and China on Taiwan and then give yourself the challenge of trying to square the circle as was done in the Shanghai Communique, it's at least pretty difficult for me to imagine squaring that circle twice.

ZELIKOW: Another thing I liked about Paul's question is that a lot of the standard military analysis of Taiwan turns it into, sort of, wargaming scenarios where people do casually talk about striking targets on the Chinese mainland. There's very little attention to the role Japan would play. What you see in these wargaming scenarios is very little political analysis of how the American government politically or the Japanese government politically are actually likely to behave in this crisis. What we try to do in our arguments is actually to create possibilities that are politically more realistic and to actually move you a little bit more out of the sort of the wargaming scenario kind of analysis and more into the political military realm where you're coordinating plans, you're discussing common interests, and you're preparing ideas that actually involve political and economic instruments in order to deter and not just relying on being able to run a better war game, although recent war games have not gone wonderfully on this case. And then as Bob points out our report then says in the meantime you need to have a whole diplomatic agenda for strengthening the U.S. relations with Taiwan and building that up in constructive ways, which we outline. And you need to turn down the rhetorical tone of America's confrontation with China. It does seem to both of us that really quite a lot of the tone about American attitudes on Taiwan over the last year has actually been ostentatious blustery posturing, which is meant to strike a pose. It is a pose that displays aggressive toughness using Taiwan as an instrument to display that pose of toughness. We would, as others have written in other contexts including Patricia I think, be in favor of talking less and doing more. Is that a fair summary, Patricia, of the way you sometimes write about this?

KIM: Sure. Yes, it is. Great. Well, I think we have time for maybe one or two more questions. So, we have Matt on the line. Matt, over to you.

Q: Thanks. Matt Miller with Capital Group. Can you hear me?

KIM: Yes.

Q: We hear a lot about China's dual circulation strategy on the economy these days relying more on their massive internal market to drive growth and improve living standards so that at some point and economic break does not seem as consequential a threat to them. Do you have a point of view of the timeframe by which China doesn't view some of the economic consequences you lay out with the U.S. and our allies as unduly costly? Is it five years from now, fifteen years from now, or whether U.S. allies would really join in a break, for example, Europe, given some of the different directions they seem to be taking in the way they assess the role of China? How should we think about that?

BLACKWILL: Well, I'm not going to pick a number, Matt, of years, but it will be many years before China in that meeting when they're deciding whether or not to use force against Taiwan where the economic ministries and principals say, "Oh, don't worry about our external trade. Everything will be alright." It will be many, many years. On the issue of whether our allies would join, well, perhaps I could put it like this and back to the issue of the role of diplomacy. We would, if our option four were adopted, go to the allies and say, "Can you think of a better way to deter a Chinese military attack on Taiwan? Because if you can think of a better way to do it, let's hear it." And I think that of the options, this might be the most attractive including to the Japanese. Option three, which is an early attack on the Chinese mainland, of course, I think would terrify the Japanese, because they would expect an immediate attack on them on their mainland and not to say the American mainland.

KIM: Philip, do you have any comments for Matt? You have the last word. We're in our last minute before the session ends so any comments you'd like to leave us with?

ZELIKOW: Only that, you know, our idea—this is a very hard problem. I just want to reinforce the theme of humility. It's a very hard problem. Our approach has some strengths, we think, including being relatively realistic. But our approach also has some weaknesses and risks. I like very much the way Bob emphasizes talking to our allies and our friends. If you can come up with a better plan, come up with one. But criticizing our plan saying, “Well, it has this risk, it has this potential weakness” or purely wishful thinking like don't worry about the danger of a Chinese attack, I think wishful thinking and not coming up with an alternative are dangerous. I think people need if they don't like our approach, they need to come up with a concrete alternative that on balance has more strengths and fewer risks. It's very important here to be specific. I think to take this this danger quite seriously you don't have to think it's certain to think that it's worth giving it all the attention we can.

KIM: I couldn't agree with you more, Philip, and on that note we are at time and I'd like to thank everyone for joining today's virtual meeting and our two speakers, especially for the engaging discussion today. For those who are interested the audio and transcript of this meeting will be posted on CFR's website and, of course, the report, if you haven't seen it, is also on the website. So I highly encourage everyone to go and take a look. Okay, well, thank you everyone, again, and happy Friday.

BLACKWILL: Thank you, Patricia.


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