Although it can be complicated in practice, deterring a conventional attack of the kind Beijing is likely to launch against Taiwan is in theory very simple. All that the United States needs to do is raise the anticipated cost of a Chinese conventional attack to the point where it exceeds the benefits Beijing might realistically hope to gain from such an attack. Confronted with such a cost-benefit calculus, China’s leadership would have a powerful disincentive to use military force to attack Taiwan. It would, in other words, be effectively deterred. And for most of the period since Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces retreated to the island in 1949, the combined forces of Taiwan and the United States have done just that.
Three factors were key to deterring China from attacking Taiwan. First, with U.S. support, Taiwan’s armed forces during this period were sufficiently strong to deny the PLA any realistic possibility of conducting a successful amphibious assault on Taiwan. The combination of Chinese military weakness – the PLA was neither organized nor equipped for serious amphibious operations – and Taiwanese-American conventional military strength meant that Beijing was dissuaded from even attempting to use military force to compel Taiwan to return to the fold.