Understanding That Weakness Is Provocative Is Deterrence 101

Last week Xi Jinping directed his armed forces to surround Taiwan and carry out live fire exercises; in addition, Chinese forces carried out a series of ballistic missile launches, five of which overflew Taiwan and landed in Japanese waters. These provocative military actions reflected the PRC leadership’s fit of pique at the recent one-day visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. As the many observers have pointed out, this military temper tantrum represents a disproportionate response to the Pelosi visit, since delegations of U.S. Senators and House members had visited Taiwan as recently as last November without eliciting this kind of over-the-top reaction.

In response, the Biden administration has canceled a long-planned test of an unarmed Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), because, as White House spokesman John Kirby said, “we have no interest in escalating the tensions.” The U.S. normally tests our ICBM system several times a year. These tests are an important part of maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent. They are a visible and powerful demonstration of the most responsive leg of our nuclear triad and a reminder to adversaries that the U.S. possesses a potent nuclear deterrent force.

The administration’s feckless decision represents a total failure to understand strategic nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, and escalation dynamics. This decision, taken while PRC missiles were flying around Taiwan and encroaching on the territory of a treaty ally, was not the first time this year that the Biden team canceled a scheduled ICBM test. In March, shortly after Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked, illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, the White House initially rescheduled and then subsequently canceled another long-standing Minuteman test. Putin, clearly deeply impressed and touched by this U.S. show of restraint, responded by ordering a test of his new super “America killer” ‘Sarmat’ ICBM.  Sadly, Team Biden did not learn from this pointed public humiliation. 

Effective deterrence relies upon potential enemy leaders recognizing both U.S. military capabilities and our will to use them to defend ourselves and our treaty Allies.  If the potential enemy believes that our will is lacking, deterrence is weakened, and new acts of aggression become more likely.  Moreover, failure to signal one’s determination can also lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation by other governments with enormous, indeed, catastrophic consequences. 

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