LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Response to Capt. Walker D. Mills, “Deterring the Dragon: Returning U.S. Forces to Taiwan”
Military Review, September-October 2020
1st Lt. Daniel Hogestyn, U.S. Army
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The September-October edition of Military Review hosted a multifaceted discussion on the prospects of a conflict over the reunification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This included a policy proposal to return U.S. ground forces to Taiwan in order to deter aggression from the mainland. In “Deterring the Dragon,” the author argues that “the United States needs to consider basing ground forces in Taiwan if it is committed to defending Taiwanese sovereignty.”1 This is a bold suggestion, but one that certainly merits discussion given the current strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. This policy prescription focused on how deploying heavy U.S. ground forces could balance the growing gap in capability between PRC and Taiwanese forces, and therefore shore up deterrence across the strait. However, the proposal failed to consider any reaction by the Chinese government or the willingness of the Taiwanese to make such a significant change to the status quo.
This article prompted a response from Chinese state-run media, which cited Capt. Mills and claimed “a potential US military deployment in Taiwan may trigger a PLA reunification-by-force operation.”2 While Chinese media is known for bellicose rhetoric, this is not a new threat. In 2017, a Chinese diplomat stated, “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung [a major Taiwanese port] is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unites Taiwan with military force.”3 This aggressive response to the notion of U.S. military presence in Taiwan even extends to the Marine Corps security at the American Institute in Taiwan (a de facto U.S. embassy), which has only recently been acknowledged due to Chinese sensitivity to uniformed American military personnel on the island.4
In addition to the potential for a military response from the PRC, there is little appetite for a major change in the status quo in Taiwan. While attitudes on the island are hardening against the PRC, a strong majority of Taiwanese citizens still favor the status quo over an immediate move to de jure independence.5 A move to fortify Taiwan with U.S. forces would undoubtedly suggest that the U.S. is reneging on the agreements made in the Three Joint Communiques, and that commitment to the One China Policy is only lip service.
The PRC certainly understands the deterrent effect of even a limited U.S. military presence in Taiwan. This is why they protest any proposal to return even a token force to the island, knowing that it could act as a tripwire to ensure a full U.S. response to a Chinese attack. Also, such a force could open the door for a larger rotational or permanent U.S. presence, one that could deter China by denial and prevent it from being able to achieve its military objectives. Deterring U.S. intervention would be paramount to any forced reunification. An effective U.S. tripwire force would eliminate this possibility. Injecting heavy U.S. forces right on China’s doorstep, even in the pursuit of deterrence, would severely exacerbate the security dilemma and risk major escalation.
The growing concern over cross-strait relations and broader competition between the United States and China has driven extensive debate in foreign policy circles. Deterring Chinese aggression and reassuring our Taiwanese partners are important roles for the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific. Any dramatic change to force posture in the region must take into account the adversary’s reaction and the willingness of the host nation to incur the risks involved. The United States cannot afford to manufacture a potentially disastrous crisis or conflict in the pursuit of regional stability.
- Walker D. Mills, “Deterring the Dragon: Returning U.S. Forces to Taiwan,” Military Review 100, no. 5 (2020): 65.
- Liu Xuanzun, “Returning US Forces to Taiwan Will ‘Trigger Reunification-by-Force Operation,’” Global Times (website), 25 September 2020, accessed 24 November 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1202011.shtml.
- Staff, “A Warning to Taiwan-Independence Forces.” Global Times (website), 10 December 2017, accessed 24 November 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1079620.shtml.
- Staff, “Marines to Guard New US Compound in Taiwan,” Asia Times, 4 April 2019, accessed 24 November 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2019/04/marines-to-guard-new-us-compound-in-taiwan/.
- Russel Hsiao, “Poll: People in Taiwan Feel China Is Unfriendly, Prefer Independence, and Favor Slower Pace of Cross-Strait Exchanges,” The National Interest (website), 12 April 2020, accessed 24 November 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/poll-people-taiwan-feel-china-unfriendly-prefer-independence-and-favor-slower-pace-cross.
1st Lt. Daniel Hogestyn, U.S. Army, is the aide-de-camp to the Infantry School commandant at Fort Benning, Georgia. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy in international relations with a minor in grand strategy. He previously served as a rifle platoon leader and scout platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). His research interests include conventional deterrence and alliance politics.
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