Lukas Filler on Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit, the 20th Party Congress, and the Timing of a Taiwan Invasion
China scholar Lukas Filler talks to CACR about Chinese responses to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the foreign policy implications of the 20th Communist Party Congress, and Chinese strategic perceptions and planning regarding an invasion of Taiwan. This interview is edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Lukas Filler is an Affiliate Research Scientist at the Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS) and the University Affiliated Research Center for the US Intelligence Community as well as a Policy Affiliate at the University of Virginia’s National Security Policy Center. Previously, he was a Senior Advisor (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Acting Director/ Deputy Director, China Strategic Focus Group, US Indo-Pacific Command, where he lead a $19M/yr joint DoD/IC program of record focused on better understanding the logic and implications of PRC decisions and behavior. Filler has conducted and led related work including at Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N3/N5), Naval Special Warfare Command, Joint Special Operations Command, Office of Naval Intelligence, US Naval War College, and the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).
A graduate of Bowdoin College, Lukas studied comparative morality in foreign policy decision making, strategic preferences and the use of force – with a focus on China – for a Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, as a Harvard University Sheldon Fellow in China and Taiwan, as a two-time Senior Visiting Scholar at Renmin University of China, and for a PhD from King’s College London Department of War Studies. Lukas started his professional career as a Naval Aviator, flying P-3C Orion and other aircraft in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and other locations, earning 4 Combat Air Medals as well as other decorations.
What do you think of China’s response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan? Do you see it as restrained?
I watched the lead-up to the Pelosi visit and then the execution pretty carefully, and the one thing that jumped out to me from the beginning was that everyone made a much bigger deal of it than it needed to be. I think that’s part of the news cycle and also the gamesmanship of diplomacy, but the US didn’t really help with the hyping of something that really shouldn’t have been all that crazy.
Like many other people you’ve interviewed, I spend most of my time reading what “China” is saying. One of the things that I saw was how many Chinese social media accounts seemed really fired up. The Chinese [sources] that jumped out to me were almost gleeful when they looked at the warning language that China was using and were expecting their government to really push back hard. And we’ve seen from research from Gary King and others that Chinese censorship tends to be focused more on preventing mass action than it is on whether it’s pro-China or anti-China rhetoric. I was watching really carefully to see how the CCP might try to control that narrative, and what I thought was interesting was that it seemed to be feeding this nationalistic sentiment. So when Pelosi went to [Taiwan], the ultimate question to me was whether the CCP’s reaction would be influenced by it feeling a little bit boxed in in how it had to respond, because it had allowed its citizens to expect a fairly robust response.
What I saw was that there was a lot of “muscular” talk, and within China’s domestic-facing media, there was much hype about China’s military response. I think for many “China Watchers,” the actual actions, just like the US actions before it, were not actually all that remarkable, but they were hyped to make it sound more remarkable. That’s not to say that there weren’t things that China’s military did that were not remarkable or significant, because they were, but they were probably more significant in a symbolic sense.
Looking at what I think China was trying to communicate from all of this and from its more muted response to [subsequent US] Taiwan Strait transits, my sense is that it [the CCP] was somewhat restrained – but, in part, because it had few options where it could be confident about retaining control of possible escalation.
I found it interesting that in my recent interview with Oriana Skylar Mastro, she argued that the question of whether Japan becomes involved in a Taiwan contingency is crucial to the outcome. She also felt that it is very unlikely that Japan would become involved. What do you think?
I think partially yes. If Japan becomes involved, I agree with her that that would be a big deal and pretty decisive in terms of correlation of forces. But I don’t think it’s necessary. There are many other ways to achieve similar effects and similar force multipliers. But Japan’s involvement – whatever that ends up entailing – seems like a logical strategic choice for Japan and a very helpful one for Taiwan.
I think Japan is quite likely to help and to become involved in this. I think it fully understands the geostrategic ramifications to its security and its interests if China successfully invades Taiwan. Taiwan has a very, very important role in Japan’s security. I think it also realizes the risks of becoming involved, but a Taiwan invasion, especially if the United States becomes militarily involved, is kind of a one-time shot. With the right assurances and allies, I think Japan will feel even more confident in supporting via at least a limited military engagement.
The other question becomes, if US forces operate out of Japan, even if Japan’s military doesn’t become involved, what will China do about that? That becomes a really interesting game of escalation dynamics. I know that there’s been some public discussion in China about this. In the event of a PRC invasion of Taiwan, will the CCP strike US forces operating from Japan? If so, will Japan see that as a strike on its homeland or will it see that as a strike on one of its allies on its territory? Either way, this makes it harder for the CCP to have confidence in its ability to succeed, especially decisively or with relatively low costs – or at least it ought to.
Do you anticipate any changes to China’s foreign policy after the 20th Party Congress? I’ve heard people say there’s going to be a charm offensive, for example, and I’ve heard people say that they’re going to be even more aggressive.
Well, obviously, the outcome of the 20th Party Congress is a big decider of how things go forward. I think it’s reasonably safe to expect Xi to be re-elected, but we’re looking at human nature and human decisions and human relations on a huge scale. There are people saying Xi will definitely get re-elected, but who knows what’s going to happen?
What I think will be a consistent consideration going forward in China’s diplomatic approach is not only that it sees the world from a political realist perspective, where it’s a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum existential fight over limited resources, but also that it looks at what the US is doing from a very, very cynical perspective. A striking theme in conversations I had with many during the years I lived in China was that China’s not doing anything the US hasn’t done. Both are behaving like states trying to survive in this anarchic international system, so why is China so harshly criticized? According to this logic, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive to change its approach. If it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, it’s got nothing to lose.
Many of the reasons to expect China to be more moderate are based on assumptions that I don’t think the majority of Chinese decisionmakers have. I think they have totally different assumptions. Why would they try to win over Japan or the United States or Australia when [they believe that] it’s clear that none of those countries are going to be won over by China? The reason [CCP leadership think] these countries are not going to be won over by China goes back to [their] political realism. We’re competitors. I’m not saying this is objective truth nor universally applicable to the CCP, but I think that it is an important consideration in CCP decision-making that is not often enough appreciated outside of China.
If the CCP softens its diplomatic language and its diplomatic approach after the 20th Party Congress, it’s going to be basically because it seems like a smart way of sugar-coating its same agenda. But I don’t think the CCP sees that as having been effective [in the past], so, from its perspective, why bother? It might do it in specific places like the Solomon Islands, but generally speaking, I don’t think China is going to think it can win Australia back, for example. China’s diplomats might say things to try to reduce tensions because you can make more political and diplomatic progress when people aren’t all riled up, but I wouldn’t expect an overall softening.
If China’s economic miracle growth were to end and they were to come to the conclusion that they can no longer take for granted that they’re going to surpass the United States in power, do you think that would alter the trajectory of Chinese foreign policy?
Great question, and I’ve been tracking this for a while. China’s economy has been hollow and somewhat rotten at the core for a long time, and people have predicted their demise every decade for who knows how long. I think that there is something to be said about all of those [economic] factors that must weigh on Xi Jinping’s mind, but there’s plenty of other examples of countries like Japan to show that China doesn’t necessarily have to collapse. There’s also the ability for the Chinese government to control and correct problems better than messy democracies – or so it seems many in the CCP believe. If true, that means that there’s probably more confidence that it can weather this just like it’s weathered many other challenges.
How do you feel about the Biden administration’s approach to strategic ambiguity? There are people who are very critical of Biden’s statements, calling it strategic confusion, and there are people who feel that there is now more strategic clarity. What do you think? Separately, do you think that greater strategic clarity would be useful?
When it comes to the policy of strategic ambiguity, I’m kind of agnostic about it. I think that it’s an important factor, but it’s not one that I’ve spent a whole lot of time considering, because I think it’s the relative perceptions that matter. Whether or not the US clarifies strategic ambiguity, with that policy in place, my personal opinion is that China is quite confident that the US will very, very seriously consider intervening, and in part, will want to intervene, regardless of whether our policy is ambiguous.
I think that China looks at the US, generally speaking, as a pretty war-loving society. It doesn’t take much for the US to jump into a good war. I’m not saying that’s true, but I think that’s not an uncommon perspective in China, especially compared to how the US perceives itself. When China thinks about US decision-making, it has a stronger belief that the US will use force than perhaps the ordinary US citizen thinks about the US probability of using force. So I think a good amount of the CCP in China thinks that the US would be generally eager to intervene, in part because of our “warlike nature,” in part because of our strategic interests, in part because of China’s political realist interpretation of state behavior, and in part because the US government is [seen as] somewhat unpredictable due to its democratic nature. I don’t think that China knows if the US will intervene, and if so, how it will intervene, but I think there’s a fair amount of confidence that there’s going to be a large portion of the US population and even more so US politicians and military that are going to advocate for a very robust intervention, if nothing else because for many US politicians, for the US military, and for the US defense-industrial complex, from the Chinese perspective, it is in all of their self-interests to intervene. It’s good for business, it’s good for resourcing the military, and it’s good for re-elections. These are very broad generalizations, but this whole issue of strategic ambiguity is less crucial if China already believes that the US is going to want to intervene and there’s going to be a strong push to intervene. The question really is how the US will intervene rather than if the US will intervene. Hard to know what that will look like once it makes it through the democratic machine.
Doesn’t the refusal to adopt strategic clarity undercut the assumption that the United States will intervene, though? Doesn’t the trepidation and the caution suggested by the fact that whenever Biden says something like this, all the other people in the White House try to back off as much as they possibly can, suggest that the United States’ intervention really can’t be taken for granted?
Yeah, I think you can’t take it for granted, in the sense that it’s not a given. But trying to put myself in CCP cultural shoes, the CCP and China in general have a lot more ambiguity in the way things are done. The Chinese excel in a foreign policy (as well as language, etc.) that relies on ambiguity as well. And so I don’t think the Chinese look at the ambiguity of US policies as anything much different than its own. It is probably seen as intentionally providing the space for the US to adjust as conditions require. From the Chinese perspective, the US probably wants to preserve its strategic flexibility, so a lot of the people who are criticizing the ambiguity within the US and within the English-speaking community, what do they know? Are they actually people who have insights into how such clarity might affect US policy and response options, or, similar to the “America Watchers” in China, are they talking heads engaged in intellectually exploring all the possible scenarios? How relevant are their insights? Especially if, as just described, the CCP also sees at least some of the inconsistency and ambiguity coming from the inherent “chaos” of the democratic process. The impact to Indo-Pacific allies and partners is a totally different issue, though.
Do you think that China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands portends an attempt to militarize the Pacific Islands the way it has militarized the South China Sea, and should that be a strategic concern for the United States?
No and yes. No, I don’t think that China is working towards a militarization like the South China Sea, in part because it sees the South China Sea as its territory and does not see Oceania and the Pacific Islands as its territory, in part because China seems to view the role of its military as a global military as very different than how the US sees the US military’s role. But these countries still have tremendous strategic importance to the US, to Australia, to many countries, basically to anyone who supports the current international system and the norms and standards and laws of it. I think China is trying to get a foothold anywhere it can across the globe, and it will use any economic opportunity as a way of creating opportunities to support its military. So if [China]’s constructing sea ports, it will not only maximize Chinese equipment and labor, but it will install Chinese equipment capable of providing logistics and repairs to its PLA Navy ships, and that is significant, but I do not think that it’s looking to move surface to air missiles and all the military infrastructure of the South China Sea. Which isn’t to say 50 years from now, it might do this, but for now, the approach seems to be, one step at a time, get an economic foothold that also allows the PLA to operate capably further afield, and add some things like maybe space tracking stations and dual use facilities that will have importance to other nations – especially the hosts-- in terms of security and economics. So the US should absolutely be paying attention and working with these countries to try to emphasize the [longer term] risks that they may be facing, but it should do it in a way that understands why these countries are entertaining these Chinese offers even though most of them don’t trust China. Most of these countries are pretty clear-eyed about China writ large and its ambitions and its not win-win policies, but there’s clearly something that China is offering that makes it worth those risks.
Do you think that China is militarily ready to attack Taiwan regardless of US intervention? Do you see that as a threat in the next few years, or do you think it’s going to be a longer time horizon?
Regarding the 2027 number, the way that China presented it publicly does not suggest that it is a hard and fast date. It might be a threshold goal for being ready. My general sense, looking at China’s historical use of force, is that [full scale] war is generally seen as not the best tool for making political progress, but there are definitely times where it [the use of force] can move the ball forward better than other options. And the CCP and PLA do a fairly robust cost-benefit analysis of that.
To me, on whether there is a date– because it’s unclear, and I think for China it’s also fairly unclear– I think the more important question is whether China believes it’s ready or not. If it thinks it’s ready, then the more important conversation is about how increasing tensions and military activity in the East China Sea and South China Sea are increasing the chances of an incident that leads to unintended escalation. I think it’s more likely that some accidental military mishap escalates to the point that the CCP decides that this is the opportunity to move on Taiwan. That’s more likely in my thinking than any hard and fast date. So understanding China’s calculus for its correlation of forces [and] capabilities is still incredibly important, and the urgency of making sure that the US and rest of the region is equipped and ready to respond is also equally urgent. The timeline aspect isn’t. Within the next 10 years, there’s a greater chance of a mishap that could become a crisis than there is of China reaching a specific calculated threshold of military capability that will then make it decide that it’s going to go. Especially since the CCP and PLA continue to try and leverage US efforts to create crisis management mechanisms to prevent this to squeeze out policy concessions that the US military interlocutors don’t have the authority to make. I also think that it doesn't have to necessarily be a military incident. I don’t think it’s a date. But emotion as well as domestic politics play important roles in foreign policy decision-making, so there’s a couple other ways that I can see China making a move on Taiwan even if it doesn't believe that circumstances are most favorable. It may be willing to accept higher costs under those conditions. It’s important to think about the Chinese calculus for success and the cost of success. I think that right now, I don’t think that China has sufficient confidence that it can execute and occupy Taiwan with acceptably low costs, and I use the term costs very broadly. But if certain situations happen, I think the CCP would go for it anyway.
Having been in the military, I’m very biased, but the US military is really impressive. The US military is very, very good at what it does. There’s certainly places where the US can strengthen its military abilities to support Taiwan against an invasion. But, I mean, the US military really stands out not just in its capabilities but even more so the capability and professionalism of its people. Also, unlike China, it’s sort of a mixed blessing in that the US has so much practice at actual combat operations in modern war, and spends so much time and money training and being ready, that I think China has very good reason to be concerned about pulling off a successful and low “cost” invasion, and even if it was successful, of being able to hold on to Taiwan.