Elbridge Colby probably underestimates nuclear risk in a war over Taiwan

Colby writes in the excellent book The Strategy of Denial:

“How could the United States persuade Beijing to concede, especially in a war that impinged on interests China might consider vital?”

“This question is particularly pointed when a powerful losing side like China might appear to care more than the United States about the stakes at issue, for instance, Taiwan.” (…)

“The sense that the stakes might be lower in Sino-American relations than they were between the Cold War superpowers may cause leaders to discount the potential for catastrophic escalation if they do go to war, thereby increasing their propensity to countenance risking or entering a conflict.” (…)

“That a side is more resolute over a given issue does not mean that it is actually prepared to commit suicide over it, even if it wants the other side to think so. It is one thing to threaten suicide and another thing to mean it, let alone follow through. China, for instance, may care more about the disposition of Taiwan than the United States does, and Beijing certainly benefits if Washington believes that China would pull down the temple over its head rather than accept a limited loss over Taiwan. But China is exceedingly unlikely to invite its own destruction, given that this would mean the loss of everything it values—and the United States can see that.” (…)

“A state that can escalate only to the level of mutual thermonuclear cataclysm has little leverage, since the other side is unlikely to believe that it will commit suicide over anything short of a truly existential interest.” (…)

“One side may be more resolute about the controversy in some detached or abstract sense. But this will not gain the side very much if the only way that it can try to vindicate its interests is … to unleash a full nuclear war that results in its own as well as its adversary’s destruction …”

” … any war between the United States and any participating members of the anti-hegemonic coalition and China would almost certainly be limited.”

Rationally there are obviously good reasons why China or the US should not start a nuclear war. But human beings are often not rational during war. The new weapons of 4IR (fourth industrial revolution) imply that a Taiwan War can escalate in many domains, like cyber and space, until destruction in both America and China has reached a level where one of them concludes that it has less to lose by using nuclear weapons.

China has seen that NATO broke its promises to Russia after the first Cold War. National Security Archive:

NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard

Defeat in a war over Taiwan is an existential threat to CCP. So Beijing will probably only make a decision to begin an invasion of Taiwan if CCP has 1) the resources to a fight a war of attrition that may last twenty years, or 2) is from the get-go willing to start WW3 if necessary. If CCP is not willing to go all in, it’s better not to fight at all, since the consequences of defeat are (potentially) catastrophic, either immediately, in the form of a domestic uprising, or gradually when the US incrementally supports a “color revolution” in China. In other words, if an invasion begins one can assume that CCP will go to war as if its own existence depends on not being defeated.

There is a way for China to credibly deter the US from intervening in a Taiwan War, but I will not mention it, partly because China is an AI surveillance regime and it has done little or nothing to support cultural conservatives in the West. But when I – a mediocre armchair strategist – have discovered that an effective deterrence tactic does in fact exist one can assume that PLA will discover it too, if they have not done so already. The nature of this deterrence tactic makes it effective if Beijing announces it just a week or two before an invasion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s