Advocates for American “restraint” and withdrawal often attribute international tension to the policies and actions of the United States, while ignoring the ideological predispositions, motivations, and actions of others. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident—or more consequential—than in the Taiwan Strait.
If the United States is to defend its core interests in Asia and avoid war with China, leaders in Washington must be clear-eyed about developments related to Taiwan—and act accordingly. Those actions should include further strengthening Taiwan’s capability to defend itself, enhancing the U.S. military’s ability to surge to Taiwan’s defense, building interoperability between the Taiwanese and American militaries, and countering Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taiwan.
Taiwan is an exemplar of what is possible when people are provided protection from authoritarian coercion. When the United States broke relations with Taiwan in 1979 but effectively agreed to support the latter’s defense against an attack from the mainland, Taiwan was a military dictatorship with a small economy. Over the past forty years, Taiwan has transformed itself into a vibrant democracy, adopted numerous liberal reforms, increased its economy eighteen-fold, and recently demonstrated superb leadership throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration and national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden, respectively, were right to argue in Foreign Affairs last year that the current conditions in Taiwan represent “the greatest unclaimed success in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undoubtedly finds this extraordinary track record troublesome and inconvenient. After all, Taiwan has demonstrated that a Chinese model of both prosperity and freedom is possible. That is a message the CCP does not want disseminated to the population on the mainland.
In a troubling sign of what may come, Beijing has undertaken the most ambitious military modernization effort in the history of the People’s Republic of China, much of it focused on Taiwan. And in the interim, Beijing has wielded its growing military might in a concerted effort to intimidate and coerce Taiwan.
Following a string of extraordinary provocations by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivered a speech in October 2020 that amounted to an olive branch and invitation to dialogue. Within hours, Beijing responded by releasing videos of PLA exercises featuring “amphibious landing craft, attack helicopters and land-based missiles” simulating an invasion of Taiwan.
America must now carefully consider its options in support of a beleaguered ally in a tough neighborhood.
First, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act and longstanding U.S. policy, the United States should continue to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself. This seems like a daunting task given that China spent nearly twenty-five times as much as Taiwan on defense last year. However, the reality is that Taiwan does not need to match the capabilities of the PLA. Rather, Taipei needs to be the military equivalent of a porcupine—an unappealing candidate for attack by a predator.
With that in mind, it is worth considering the ways Beijing might strike. Beijing could try an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait (eighty miles at its narrowest) or conduct a massive airborne/aerial assault. The PLA could also use its growing air and naval forces to blockade Taiwan’s ports and impose an economic embargo. Alternatively, the PLA could launch a sustained ballistic and cruise missile assault on Taiwan’s critical infrastructure to break the will of the population. China might also use gray-zone tactics such as sustained cyberattacks and information campaigns, which could also imperil Taiwan’s critical infrastructure and weaken the public’s will to resist. Beijing could employ any of these approaches or a combination of them.
To dissuade Beijing from such adventurism, Taiwan requires numerous counter-intervention weapons. These include mobile land-based anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, manned portable air defense systems, anti-armor weapons, torpedoes for both submarines and aircraft, defensive sea-mining capabilities, portable air- and sea-based radars and drones for situational awareness, agile cyber defense systems, anti-ballistic missile systems, and air defense aircraft (fighters and airborne early warning).
U.S. arms sales over the past four years have provided Taiwan access to many of these systems. The challenge for Taiwan is finding the funds for purchases and having enough left over to recruit, train, and retain its relatively small but professional military. All the while, Taiwan must also provide minimum quality training for a much larger crisis reserve force.
There are two possible avenues to address this budgetary challenge. First, Taiwan could continue to increase its defense expenditures. In 2021, Taiwan will spend a record $16 billion, or 2.4 percent of GDP, on defense. This is a healthy amount for a democracy; only a few democracies spend this much. A second avenue is for the United States to provide financial assistance, as Washington does for Israel, another beleaguered democracy. The United States could consider providing matching grant funds (up to a certain amount) for Taiwan’s defense spending above 2.5 percent of GDP each year—for the purpose of purchasing U.S.-origin hardware.
Some may be reluctant to provide Taiwan additional U.S. arms, blaming the increased tension in the Taiwan Strait on the Trump administration’s more robust pace of U.S. arms sales to Taipei. There is no doubt that Beijing does not appreciate U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, predators tend to prefer prey that are less prepared and well-armed.
But to attribute the tension in the Taiwan Strait to the U.S. decision to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself is to ignore history. Beijing’s more aggressive foreign and defense policy dates from Xi Jinping’s ascension to general secretary of the CCP in 2012—not the Trump administration’s arms sales to Taiwan after 2016. And if increased U.S. support for Taiwan is to blame for Beijing’s more aggressive policies in the strait, what then explains Beijing’s parallel escalations in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, or on China’s border with India?
For fear of upsetting Beijing, previous U.S. administrations have too often hesitated to provide arms to Taiwan. Seizing the advantage, China has pushed ahead with a major armament campaign that has altered the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait—setting the conditions for the PLA to coerce or attack Taiwan.
Failing to provide Taiwan what it needs to help defend itself would only increase the chances of Chinese aggression and put additional burden on the United States for an inevitable response.
Given the growing PLA capability, however, assistance to Taiwanese military alone is not sufficient. Beijing is growing too strong, too fast. To deter aggression, the United States must demonstrate the ability to come quickly and decisively to Taiwan’s aid.
This task is increasingly more difficult than many Americans realize. U.S. wargames consistently predict a U.S. failure in such a scenario. The solution to the shortfalls identified in these wargames is two-fold: First, Taiwan needs to “hang on” longer. Second, the United States has to be able to more rapidly surge sufficient cost imposition forces to turn the tide.
To present an effective surge force, U.S. commanders require sufficient launch systems and weapons to destroy both the Chinese navy at sea and select land targets ashore, as well as resilient and redundant systems (satellites and aircraft) that can acquire and track Chinese maritime assets and then convey the targeting data to launch systems. U.S. commanders also need defensive systems (fighter aircraft, air defense ships, and maritime patrol aircraft) that allow the principal launch systems to destroy their targets; sea control forces (ships, submarines, aircraft) that can exert temporal and geographic maritime control to either establish or break maritime blockades; and logistics and force-protection systems that enable these forces to operate far from the U.S. homeland.
These enhancements to Taiwanese and American military capabilities must be accompanied by a third area of improvement: building improved integration between U.S. and Taiwanese forces. This must include comprehensive individual- and unit-level training, as well as operational-level exercise programs that build interoperability, emphasize shared warfighting situational awareness, and culminate in joint operational planning. Initial areas of focus should include precision strike, special warfare, air and missile defense, sea denial operations, and critical infrastructure protection—each of which addresses possible Chinese cross-strait attack vectors.
Finally, the United States should seek to counter Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taiwan.
In terms of military preparedness, that should mean including allies in the effort where possible, namely Japan and Australia. Their involvement could include arms sales, training opportunities, or even participation in larger multinational exercises that include Taiwan. Diplomatically, Washington should lead a multilateral campaign to increase Taiwan’s participation and representation at the United Nations and its agencies. A study of the Palestinian campaign at the United Nations from 2011 to 2018 may offer some useful techniques that could be employed.
The protection of core U.S. national security interests, and potentially the freedom of the Taiwanese people, will depend on whether the incoming Biden administration rejects excessive constraints related to arms sales as well as self-imposed restrictions on interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan militaries. These limitations have dogged previous administrations. Reviving such constraints would ignore the CCP’s aims and exacerbate the current situation in the Taiwan Strait.