If deterring the Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not at the top of the Biden administration’s national security priorities, then it should be. For the United States, an attack on Taiwan would be the ultimate strategic failure. It would make the coronavirus pandemic pale in comparison.
In March, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region, Adm. Philip Davidson, told Congress that the Chinese Communist Party could annex the island within the next six years. Davidson’s successor, Adm. John Aquilino, testified at his nomination hearing that the invasion of Taiwan is actually much closer than most think. In other words, this is no longer a theoretical problem. The clock is ticking.
China has repeatedly rejected Taiwan’s offers to engage in political talks. Instead, Beijing has severed all official communications channels with its democratic neighbor and ramped up provocative military drills aimed at Taipei. For its part, the United States seeks to maintain the status quo: the existence of two governments on each side of the Taiwan Strait. An uneasy stalemate is far better than the alternative.
No U.S. forces are stationed at this flashpoint. The heaviest burden of responding to a Chinese assault will be Taiwan’s to bear. One way America can improve Taiwan’s security is by supporting the island nation’s defense strategy, the Overall Defense Concept (ODC).
Taiwan’s ODC aims to transform the Taiwanese military into an agile, resilient, and modernized force capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating an invasion by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a far larger and stronger force. Under Xi Jinping, China has engaged in a stunning military buildup, which has upset the regional balance of power. Taiwan must now make painful trade-offs and weigh the near- and long-term impacts of procuring competing defense capabilities.
Conventional weapon systems are potent symbols of national power. They matter a great deal for political reasons. However, too much emphasis has been placed upon Taiwan’s investments in such highly visible capabilities. Billion-dollar acquisitions of advanced aircraft and tanks from America look good, but those systems may not be as effective as advertised when the enemy attacks.
During periods of increased tension, the people of Taiwan can take comfort in knowing their country’s advanced radars can track enemy incursions, and their newly minted F-16 jets can scramble whenever PLA bombers enter Taiwan’s airspace uninvited. However, during an all-out war, Taiwan’s state-of-the-art radar systems will be demolished, runways will be devastated, and those F-16 jets will have nowhere to take off. Taiwanese public morale could plunge. If a system can be seen, then it can be destroyed.
Asymmetric weapon systems, on the other hand, are less visible but essential for war. They are adept at exploiting natural battlefield advantages—and the enemy’s vulnerabilities—while delivering maximum tactical impact with minimal effort. Naval mines laid by fast minelaying ships can crack open approaching amphibious assault vehicles and submarines. Large arsenals of precision-guided munitions and mobile coastal defense cruise missiles can wreak havoc on China’s battle fleet from multiple angles. Man-portable air-defense systems and anti-armor weapons can take down aircraft and turn Taiwan’s streets into kill-zones for enemy tanks. Stealth fast-attack crafts armed with Stinger missiles can be dispersed and hidden among fishing boats around the island nation’s two hundred fishing ports, adding lethal layers to Taiwan’s air and sea defense architecture.
Smaller systems may be considered less sexy than next-generation fighter jets and tanks, but they will enhance Taiwan’s ability to respond effectively to mass attacks. That’s why the ODC calls for a low quantity of high-quality platforms, and a large number of small things. A minimal number of advanced conventional systems should be maintained for key missions. Minimal because such platforms almost always require expensive arms sales. They are also costly to operate and maintain, and their delivery schedules move at glacial speeds.
Taiwan has already formally committed to acquiring new F-16 jets, Abrams tanks, and indigenous submarines. The clock cannot be turned back on these purchases, nor should it be attempted. Taiwan will need to maintain an arsenal of advanced conventional platforms. Going forward, though, Taipei’s focus should be on the acquisition of asymmetric weapons system: capabilities that are small, mobile, lethal, cost-effective, numerous, easily dispersed, and easily maintained.
Taiwan’s government has faced challenges in turning the ODC’s ideas into action. Like any entrenched bureaucracy, the Ministry of National Defense abhors change. The United States can help by establishing a bilateral joint working group focused on implementing the ODC. The Pentagon could advise Taiwan on its force and weapon systems acquisition process, and provide the support and guidance needed for developing Taiwan’s joint doctrine, operational planning, and training. By conducting contingency simulations and exercises with their Taiwanese allies, U.S. experts could offer operational experience to guide Taiwan’s force restructuring and doctrinal reforms.
For its part, Congress could authorize a War Reserve Stocks for Allies program, allowing the U.S. military to store war reserve stocks in Taiwan, something it already does in Israel, another small democracy that has contended with the threat of invasion since its inception. Such a program would directly complement the ODC. Prepositioned stockpiles of munitions, spare parts, and other items would help Taiwan address shortages and procurement challenges for key defense equipment.
As it currently stands, U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation is woefully inadequate to meet the looming Chinese invasion threat. A fully implemented Overall Defense Concept would revolutionize Taiwan’s warfighting capabilities and advance American interests. The Taiwan Strait could soon become a theater of conflict. The United States and Taiwan would do well to shape that battle space together.
Eric Lee is a research associate at the Project 2049 Institute.