October 26, 2021

CNAS Wargame Shows U.S. Needs to Work with Taiwan and Japan to Develop Better Deterrents to Chinese Aggression

Washington, October 26, 2021—How could the United States respond if China seized one of Taiwan’s outlying islands in the South China Sea? A recent wargame conducted by the Center for a New American Security found that in such a scenario, the U.S. and Taiwan have few credible options for pushing China to withdraw without escalating the crisis.

A report published today from CNAS’ Gaming Lab details the outcomes of the virtual strategy game, which saw the U.S. team relying on military force in ways that were risky and would be difficult to sustain; while other non-military options, such as economic sanctions or information campaigns, took too long to produce effects and appeared too weak to compel China to abandon its gains.

With few viable, coercive options and the onus of escalation falling on the U.S. and Taiwan teams, the game reaffirmed the importance of a multi-lateral deterrent approach to dealing with Chinese aggression or coercion.

Among the game’s key takeaways:

  • The U.S. and Taiwan should deter Chinese aggression against these islands with a “poison frog” approach in which Taiwan, the United States, and regional allies like Japan work together to make these islands unpalatable targets for Chinese aggression.
  • Militarily, this demands capable garrisons on the island that prevent bloodless faits accompli and push China to use force. Diplomatically and economically, this requires pre-planned, multilateral coercive actions that are communicated clearly to China in advance.
  • Japanese involvement was essential in this game. In this potential conflict, a lack of unambiguous Japanese support for Taiwan could set a precedent for future unchecked Chinese aggression.

“Perhaps most important, the way the United States responds to smaller-scale territorial Chinese aggression may affect Chinese future decision-making,” conclude report authors CNAS Senior Fellow Chris Dougherty, Research Assistant Jennie Matuschak, and former Defense Intern Ripley Hunter. “If the U.S. allows Chinese coercion or aggression to go unopposed, China may extend its aggressive behavior elsewhere and may even posit that the United States wouldn’t defend Taiwan from invasion.”

To speak with the authors of “The Poison Frog Strategy,” please reach out to ssimon@cnas.org. For more information on the Gaming Lab at CNAS visit www.cnas.org/gaming-lab.