In January 1996, in the midst of a crisis brought about by a series of Chinese missile tests conducted in Taiwan’s waters, a Chinese general grimly alluded to a potential nuclear response to any U.S. intervention in defense of the island. “The American people,” he warned a U.S. official, “care more about Los Angeles than Taipei.” Such saber rattling, however, belied the fact that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) knew it did not have the military strength to deter the United States from intervening in a war over Taiwan. At the time, the costs and risks of any kind of war with the world’s sole superpower prevented China from seriously considering provoking one in the first place.

But in the years since, China has worked to make a U.S. intervention less likely through an approach it calls “strategic deterrence,” which relies on, among other things, using nuclear signals to dissuade a potential adversary from entering the fray. China’s deterrence efforts are intensifying even as the Biden administration moves ahead with its own plans for the “integrated deterrence” of Chinese aggression, which involves threatening military and economic penalties in concert with a coalition of allies to convince China of the tremendous costs of war. These two competing models of deterrence are at odds with each other in ways that could destabilize the Taiwan Strait and the region at large. China, spurred by its perception of U.S. decline, emboldened by its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, and inspired by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent success in using nuclear threats to limit U.S. support for Ukraine, could become overly confident and spark a conflict in the belief that Washington will stay out of the way.

Washington must avoid this kind of escalatory spiral by undermining Chinese optimism in its own capabilities; in other words, by out-deterring China. This requires delivering an unequivocal message to Beijing that any conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could quickly become calamitous, far outweighing the potential benefits of an armed reunification with Taiwan. If deterrence fails—if China grows more convinced of its military superiority and underestimates the U.S. commitment to the island—both countries could end up embroiled in a war between great powers armed with nuclear weapons.


Until recently, the PLA assumed that it could not ward off U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan. Frequent displays of American force, such as U.S. President Bill Clinton’s decision to deploy two aircraft carriers to East Asian waters during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis or the accidental U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy during the 1999 Kosovo war—seen in Beijing as a brazen provocation—were signs that Washington was undeterrable. This judgment was reinforced by the combination of unrivaled U.S. military power, demonstrated with alacrity in the 1990–91 Gulf War (and by the quick dispatch of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, although that war’s aftermath proved much tougher for the U.S. military) and China’s nuclear inferiority. As late as 2020, the U.S. government estimated that China had only about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with no functioning sea- or air-based deterrent such as long-range bombers carrying nuclear payloads or nuclear ballistic missile submarines on operational patrol. The relatively modest size of this nuclear force reduced the possibility that a conflict would escalate beyond the conventional level but was not strong enough to make U.S. policymakers rule out intervention in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

China has since worked to augment its military capabilities, building the arsenal necessary to potentially win a conflict over Taiwan. To buy enough time for Chinese troops to land on the island, the PLA has developed weapons known as Assassin’s Maces, including antiship ballistic missiles designed to attack U.S. carriers, long-range missiles targeting U.S. bases in the western Pacific, and bombers capable of striking U.S. forces throughout the region. The use of these weapons would presumably buy enough time for PLA forces to land on Taiwan and seize the island before the U.S. military could arrive. China’s breakneck military modernization efforts have, if not closed the military gap with the United States, made it a formidable power in the region.

A conventional war with the United States, however, remains a risky proposition for China. Each of the U.S. military services has been adapting to potential Chinese threats in ways that could allow them to conduct devastating strikes against a putative PLA invasion force. The air force now has more advanced and powerful long-range bombers; the navy possesses fearsome nuclear attack submarines; the Marine Corps has practiced operating from locations close to China; and the army has begun to field nimble multidomain task forces—highly mobile units with hybrid capabilities, such as missile systems, electronic warfare and cyberwarfare, and intelligence gathering—that would quickly step in to conduct air and missile operations should a conflict break out. Even if the PLA somehow managed to seize Taiwan with U.S. boots on the ground, the military costs alone of a conventional war against the United States would be staggering, potentially setting China’s development back by decades.


But China now has reasons to believe that it can deter U.S. intervention. First, the United States seems more politically, economically, and socially vulnerable than it did at the height of its unipolar, post-Cold War power, when China was beginning to craft its deterrence strategy. As early as 2008, following the United States’ weak performance during the global recession, Beijing’s foreign policy began to grow more assertive, spurred on by a sense that China remained strong even as others floundered. The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 only seemed to lend credence to Chinese theories of American decline.

Second, China is expanding its strategic arsenal and becoming more convinced of its military might. The U.S. government estimates that China’s ICBM launchers increased from 100 in 2020 to more than 450 in 2022, putting the PLA ahead of the United States. China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is expected to grow from 400 today to 1,500 in 2035. Some Chinese ballistic missile submarines are carrying new long-range missiles that could reach the continental United States. Those submarines have also begun to carry out operational patrols in the South China Sea. The PLA Air Force has put into service a dual-capable bomber—an aircraft that can threaten U.S. territories in the Pacific and U.S. allies such as Japan—with a longer-range successor expected this decade. In July 2021, the PLA tested a hypersonic nuclear missile system that could deliver nuclear or nonnuclear payloads to the continental United States, potentially evading missile defenses. The mere existence of such weapons could encourage Chinese leaders to believe that they can intimidate their U.S. counterparts.

Third, the impact of Putin’s nuclear saber rattling throughout the war in Ukraine has been instructive for Chinese leaders. Although the PLA was probably surprised by Russia’s failure to achieve its initial objectives—overcoming Ukrainian forces and installing a puppet government in Kyiv—Beijing has observed with interest how Putin has warded off U.S. and European intervention through nuclear signaling, including provocative rhetoric, exercises, and raising the alert level of his nuclear forces (emblematic of a doctrine that the Russians, not coincidentally, also call “strategic deterrence”). Dai Xunxun, a scholar in the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, claimed at the start of 2023 that Russia’s nuclear arsenal and major conventional systems, such as hypersonic missiles, serve as an “effective strategic deterrence” against direct U.S. and NATO intervention in Ukraine. The success of Putin’s deterrence could help convince Chinese planners that their nuclear arsenal could similarly deter the United States.

Together, a dimmer view of U.S. power, a larger strategic arsenal, and the example of Putin’s deterrence may encourage Chinese leaders to think that they could attack Taiwan without incurring a serious response from the U.S. military. This narrative, to be sure, may be quite out of touch with reality—Chinese aggression against Taiwan could well spur a rapid U.S. intervention, a course that Biden has endorsed on several occasions. Yet in Beijing’s view, its own methods of deterrence could promise victory at a lower cost. According to a series of war games conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Taipei would likely capitulate in a few weeks if the United States does not get involved. Lured by the prospect of a relatively easy win, China could blunder into a much larger war, one that might go nuclear.


Just as China is focusing on strategic deterrence, Washington is likewise absorbed with deterring China. In its 2022 National Defense Strategy, the Defense Department cited the need for integrated deterrence—especially in the context of Taiwan. To achieve this goal, the strategy identified priorities such as more resilient combat systems, new warfighting concepts, and greater intelligence sharing. The 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review noted that efforts must be made to retain the credibility of the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent through building new ICBMs, designing a new ballistic missile submarine, and modernizing the B-52 bomber fleet.

The U.S. approach to deterrence differs from its Chinese counterpart in ways that lend Washington several advantages. First, the U.S. deterrence strategy emphasizes coordinating with allies. Whereas China lacks allies, the United States works closely with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and others in the Indo-Pacific on a range of security issues. Some of these countries could even become directly involved in a Taiwan conflict, creating additional military risks for Beijing. And with China’s nuclear upgrades casting a pall over the region, the United States may double down on extended deterrence—the idea that any nuclear strike on an ally would be treated the same as one on the U.S. homeland.

Second, the U.S. deterrence strategy aims to bring all the tools of national power together in a coordinated way. China’s policy of strategic deterrence revolves around the military, but the U.S. approach involves the participation of agencies such as the State Department and the Treasury Department. Sanctions against Russia have suggested to Beijing that aggression against Taiwan would invite not only military risk but also U.S.-led sanctions, supported by European and Asian industrial democracies. China could find it difficult to inoculate itself against such pressure because of its integration in the global financial and trading systems.

If China underestimates the U.S. commitment to Taiwan, both countries could end up embroiled in a war.

As part of its own deterrence strategy, Washington must also seek to prevent China from convincing itself that the United States can be easily deterred at the start of a conflict. Saber rattling from Washington could provoke war rather than prevent one, but policymakers can still craft strategic communications to weaken the confidence of China’s leaders in the effectiveness of their own deterrent and to highlight the risks of nuclear posturing. U.S. leaders should communicate, first, that there are no reliable parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. U.S. interests are much greater in the latter case—according to one senior U.S. official, Taiwan is a “critical node” in the Asian security architecture that Washington cannot afford to lose. The options available to Washington are also different, and likely more limited. Resupplying Ukraine was a way for NATO to show support without putting boots on the ground or establishing a no-fly zone, but a PLA blockade of Taiwan could make resupply an untenable option, narrowing the choice to direct involvement or capitulation. Beijing would have to make the risky bet that Washington would choose the latter course of action.

Second, policymakers should communicate to Beijing that nuclear signaling contains serious risks of escalation that could leave China worse off. For example, signaling tactics such as placing forces on a hair-trigger “launch on warning” status, in which China could launch nuclear-armed missiles under the erroneous assumption that the United States is conducting a nuclear first strike, would increase the risk of an avoidable nuclear exchange at the outset of a conflict. Nonnuclear attacks on the U.S. homeland, such as cyber strikes against critical infrastructure, could also lead to the conflict spiraling out of control. In their discussions with Chinese interlocutors, U.S. officials should make plain that the use of such tools would not just fail to cow U.S. decisionmakers but would only lead to further escalation—with potentially calamitous results. Of course, reassurance also needs to be part of the equation: the United States will not target the Chinese mainland with similar weapons if Beijing refrains from using them against U.S. territory.

With Chinese leader Xi Jinping beginning a third term in power, and with China growing increasingly belligerent in its interactions with Taiwan, Washington must act to ensure that Beijing does not grow overconfident in thinking it can deter the United States in the wake of an invasion. China must understand the true risks of a conflict over the island; should it dismiss these dangers out of hubris, it could invite catastrophe.

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  • JOEL WUTHNOW is Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. This article represents only the author’s views.
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