What strategy should the United States use to deter China from using force against Taiwan? Some argue that deterrence requires convincing China that it would lose in a military competition, a strategy known as deterrence by denial. An alternative strategy, deterrence through punishment, attempts to convince China that even if it could win, the costs of trying would be so high that they would outweigh any possible gains.
Policymakers should choose a strategy by analyzing its costs and risks, taking into account the scope of U.S. interests at stake. This guidance note concludes that the costs and risks of deterrence through denial are not justified on the basis of American interests. While there are many compelling reasons to prefer that Taiwan remain democratic and retain its affinity with the West, these outcomes are not vital enough to merit a strategy whose immediate consequence of failure is high-level war with a nuclear-armed adversary.
A strategy of deterrence through punishment, by comparison, is pragmatic. It preserves options for American policy makers even if it fails – it does not produce an immediate war, nor does it preclude a later decision to go to war either to defend against or to expel an aggressor. There are also reasons to be optimistic about the effectiveness of deterrence through punishment. The United States has real leverage and an increasingly determined set of partners with which to convince China that aggression will be extremely expensive.