Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait: Is Dispersal Enough?

Surface to Air Missile Coverage of the Taiwan Strait, US Department of Defense

By John Chen, Columnist

Since 2009, the anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have received a great deal of attention from US military planners. As US planners prescribe ways around Chinese A2/AD capabilities, there has been considerably less attention devoted to the impact of these solutions on deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, a tension-filled region that might call for US intervention. Are efforts to increase the survivability of US forces in the Western Pacific in the face of China’s A2/AD challenge hindering the US capacity for deterrence in the Taiwan Strait?

The PLA has greatly increased its A2/AD capabilities since 2004. The US Department of Defense reports that the Chinese ability to strike US bases in the first island chain with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) has rapidly increased over the past ten years, and its development of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) could threaten US bases in the second island chain.[1] Studies by the RAND Corporation show that left unsheltered, US aircraft at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan and the Marine Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan could suffer losses that would dramatically reduce the ability to conduct sorties over Taiwan in the event of conflict.[2]

US planners have turned to a number of operational concepts in response. Much has been made of AirSea Battle, a military concept predicated in part upon the dispersal of US aircraft to bases largely outside the range of the numerically formidable Chinese SRBM force to limit damage during an attack.[3] If implemented correctly, dispersal could greatly increase the capability of US forces to project power into the Western Pacific, especially against the PLA Air Force in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.[4]

While US dispersal strategy might preserve warfighting capability (at least until the PLA develops and fields more MRBMs), the dispersal component of AirSea Battle does little to enhance US deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, and may in fact weaken it. Deterrence theory dictates that deterrence is strongest when nations demonstrate both the capability and the resolve to carry out the deterrent threat – that is, a nation must be able to carry out a threat and credibly demonstrate that it will do so if the status quo is violated.[5] All deterring powers have trouble convincing the opponent that they have the will to act – a credible commitment problem – but Thomas Schelling presents several possible methods to increase credibility. Schelling writes that incurring commitment either by inducing a nation’s “political involvement, honor, obligation, and diplomatic reputation” in the response, or by “laying a trip-wire…that is manifestly connected up with the machinery of war” can help increase credibility of the threat.[6] Dispersal alone checks none of these boxes. It does not commit US reputation to the defense of Taiwan, and does not guarantee an automatic US response if Taiwan is attacked. Worse, the redeployment of US aircraft to bases outside the range of Chinese forces could signal to China a manifest unwillingness to bear the cost of defending Taiwan. Dispersal may increase the US ability to defend Taiwan, but there is a chance it could weaken deterrence.

Even the perception of a weakened US commitment could have serious consequences for security in the Western Pacific. Taiwan could be forced to adopt riskier defense methods, including developing offensive missiles[7] and investing in base hardening that forces China to initiate hostilities at a high level of violence[8], thereby increasing the chances of US intervention in a war. Taiwan could seek even closer ties to China if an effective defense of the island appears infeasible and US support appears unlikely, which could signal to other states that bandwagoning with China might be safer than relying on a distant U.S military for security. A weakened US deterrent not only risks letting Taiwan slip away, but also weakens US interests in the Western Pacific at large.

In light of the importance of maintaining a credible deterrent, the United States should carefully examine dispersal and explore other methods that both increase warfighting capability and strengthen deterrence. Alternative methods could allow US forces to better withstand an initial Chinese blow while still demonstrating US commitment to a military presence in the Western Pacific. For instance, base hardening, though expensive, would signal that the US is willing to continue to bear the costs of maintaining a military presence in the region. The use of decoys and deception could greatly complicate Chinese military planning by forcing Chinese targeters to account for more US military assets[9], while dispersal of military assets to a number of different countries still in range of Chinese SRBMs would show US commitment and raise the costs of war for Chinese leaders by horizontal escalation. All measures should achieve the dual goals of enhancing or preserving both deterrence and US warfighting capability.

There are points of nuance in this discussion. The United States may be reluctant to fully commit to defending Taiwan for fear of getting drawn into an unwanted war in the Taiwan Strait, and dispersal reduces the temptation for a Chinese first strike on US military assets, thereby reducing the possibility of an outright war. But if US strategy in the Western Pacific continues to include deterrence against the Chinese use of force in the Taiwan Strait, US planners must account not only for US capability to deter, but also the US willingness to deter. The dispersal component of AirSea Battle will not suffice if implemented on its own.


John Chen is a columnist at the Georgetown Security Studies Review and an MA Candidate in the Security Studies Program. He holds an AB in Government from Dartmouth College and writes on East Asian security issues.


[1] US Department of Defense, “ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2014,” Office of the Secretary of Defense (2014):, 39.

[2] David A. Shlapak, et. al, “A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Military Dispute,” RAND Corporation (2009), 67.

[3] Jan Van Tol, et. al, “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2010), 37.

[4] Marcus Weisgerber, “Pentagon Debates Policy To Strengthen, Disperse Bases”, Defense News, April 13, 2014,

[5] Robert S. Ross, “Navigating The Taiwan Strait: Deterrence, Escalation Dominance, and US-China Relations,” International Security 27, No. 2 (Fall 2002), 50.

[6]Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 50, 99.

[7] Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan Working on New ‘Cloud Peak’ Missile” Defense News, January 18, 2014,

[8] Schlapak et. al, 127-128.

[9] Jan Van Tol, et. al, “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept,” 38.

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