A piece of serious and potentially grave news appeared last week. And it wasn’t on the government shutdown or the raid in Somalia or events in Syria. Rather, the news came in the form of a release of a document from the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense (MND). This document, which represents the Taiwan military’s official statement of the island’s current security environment and national-defense policy, pronounced that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have “the comprehensive military capability to deter any foreign aid that comes to Taiwan’s defense by 2020.” China is doing so, the report announced, by building up a formidable set of strike assets—such as advanced missiles and aircraft, amphibious capabilities, defenses against counterstrikes, and the associated enabling infrastructure. These will allow the People’s Republic, the report judged, not only to do extensive damage to Taiwan (something it can already do), and not only to mount a protected and sustained amphibious flotilla and airborne assault, but also to block any attempt by a foreign power (read: the United States) to intervene and defend and/or recover the island.
This is a big deal. Why you ask?
Because the United States is pledged by long-standing national policy and urged by its own law—namely the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979—to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of Chinese aggression or attempts at coercion. U.S. administrations have, even since Washington transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, believed that preventing a coerced integration of Taiwan into the PRC is an important U.S. interest, not only for its own sake but because they saw that other U.S. allies as well as fence-sitters in Asia would take their cues from how Washington dealt with the island.
Nor has this defense commitment been merely theoretical. The United States sailed the Seventh Fleet and its aircraft carriers in and around the Taiwan Strait not only in the depths of the Cold War, but as recently as 1995-1996, when Beijing sought to signal its displeasure with the prospect of Taiwan electing politicians favoring the island’s independence by barraging the waters surrounding it with test missiles. Meanwhile, Beijing views the unification of the island with the PRC as a core national interest, meaning they are in earnest about the objective. Indeed, many observers believe that Beijing’s major upgrade of its military capabilities has been driven in large part by the desire to field a military that can influence, and ideally even force, Taipei to settle the decades-old cross-Strait dispute on terms favorable to Beijing. This has led China to develop and begin to field an increasingly impressive set of interlocking capabilities, ranging from advanced antiship ballistic missiles and quieter submarines to more sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets.
But up until recently the prevailing sense has been that, while China has been getting stronger, the United States could still outfight the PRC and block it from securing its important objectives over Taiwan. If push came to shove, in other words, it wouldn’t make sense for Beijing to push things too far. This has had important geopolitical consequences. Most immediately, it has made a fairly high degree of restraint over the Taiwan question the only sensible option for Beijing. And for Washington, it has meant that the business as usual, path of least resistance approach of combining a supportive position on improving cross-Strait relations with a firm stance against the use of force by the PRC, all couched in a posture of ambiguity about just how the United States would react to more assertive moves by Beijing and backed by a strolling and not especially fervent effort at modernizing high-end U.S. military capabilities, has seemed sensible.
What Taiwan’s new national-defense report suggests, however, is that this combination no longer seems so sensible.
Now, we must take Taiwan’s warnings with a grain of salt. Obviously the island (and especially those elements of the population and government that find union with the Communist regime distasteful), which stands essentially no chance of defending itself against the PRC on its own, has a powerful incentive to magnify the threat from the PLA and thus to induce the United States to focus more on developing the forces that itwould need to beat back a PLA invasion. Moreover, Taiwan’s assessment is necessarily based on imperfect and incomplete information; for instance it doesn’t know the full panoply of U.S. military capabilities that the Pentagon could bring to bear in the event of a standoff or conflict with the PRC.
But the assessment is nonetheless significant. First off, it echoes an increasingly widely-held view that, barring a change in the trend lines, China’s military power by 2020 or the years following (as a Taiwan MND official noted, the year is just an estimate) will be able to offer an increasingly potent regional challenge to the United States, and that the defense predicament of Taiwan in particular is likely to continue to deteriorate. Nor is this view held only in Taiwan, but can be found among U.S. allies and partners in the Pacific and among many U.S. defense officials and experts—not to mention, we may well surmise, among policymakers and defense planners in Beijing. Thus even if these fears are exaggerated, they still pose impediments to Washington’s ability to deter potential adversaries, like China, and reassure allies and partners, like Japan and South Korea. In these kinds of strategic disputes, perceptions of capability (and resolve) are crucial. If everyone thinks we are growing weaker, then they are likely to behave accordingly, even if they are wrong in a technical sense. Unaddressed, these dynamics would be likely to lead to an East Asia considerably less to our liking and probably more dangerous.
But the real problem is that such fears are likely not without foundation. China’s military power, and specifically its ability to blunt U.S. power projection in the Western Pacific, is growing, and growing substantially. Now, some say we should pull up stakes and leave Taiwan (and sometimes even all of the Western Pacific) to its own devices. Leave aside for a moment the moral problems involved with abandoning Taiwan (which, whatever its flaws, is a liberal and democratic society that has stood with us for over six decades). From a strategic perspective, abandoning Taiwan would certainly send an immensely powerful signal throughout Asia (and probably the world) about the direction of our policy and the sturdiness of our guarantees, with hard to predict but almost certainly negative implications for our position in the world’s most dynamic region. It would also considerably enhance China’s military position in the Western Pacific, resolving Beijing’s thorny military problem of gaining dominance over the so-called “first island chain” and easing the PLA’s ability to project power into the Pacific. Moreover, we must bear very much in mind that forking over Taiwan to the PRC is as likely, if not more likely, to result in an expansion of Beijing’s demands as a diminution. (Signs have emerged, for instance, that, for at least some in the PRC, China’s recent focus on the Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan is only a first course; their territorial interests extend beyond those rocks, to the Ryukyu Islands that include Okinawa.)
So throwing up our hands seems imprudent and possibly foolhardy. But this is most definitely not to advocate for a maximalist position on Taiwan. While we strongly support (and should) Taiwan’s right to determine its own future, the United States must treat the question of Taiwan with the utmost delicacy. While it would be dangerous and rash to abandon Taiwan, we also must not write Taiwan a blank check. Rather, we must continue to walk a fine line, supporting Taiwan’s reasonable rights while avoiding needlessly angering China, all while preserving our position in the Western Pacific. And, while we must be prepared to use force in the region, if at all possible we do not want to get in a war with China over Taiwan (or anything else).
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet on the Taiwan question. Instead, the issues surrounding Taiwan’s future are certain to remain immensely fraught, exceedingly delicate, and continually changing. Wise government policy must adapt to these realities even as it charts a course that shapes the environment in ways favorable to our interests.
This is all frustratingly ambiguous. But what is not ambiguous is that, whatever happens, we will certainly be better off if we are strong. If we are strong, we will have more and better options, more leverage, more maneuvering room, more credibility, and more time to chart a course through these waters, relatively placid on the surface but exceedingly treacherous beneath, of deciding how best to deal with the problems of Taiwan and China. But right now the trend lines of military strength are not encouraging for us; the Taiwan MND report suggests we are getting weaker, which, if right, means our options are shrinking and getting worse.
We must bend these trend lines. The simplest and most effective way to do so is to focus our increasingly pinched defense dollars carefully and pointedly on military capabilities of value in the Western Pacific. We need the ability to match China’s improvements in its military capabilities, especially its antiaccess/area-denial capabilities, with correlative and ideally superior improvements of our own. In particular, this means keeping a lead over China in the areas of this military competition that really matter—the high-end military capacities that would ultimately decide who would prevail in a battle for supremacy in the Western Pacific. The United States needs to be armed with the capabilities, for instance, that will enable it to wage an effective AirSea Battle-style campaign. Most obviously this means the kind of naval and aerial capabilities that can deal effectively with an opponent like China, but it also means the cyber, space, C4ISR and associated elements that will mean the difference between a winning and losing combatant in such a conflict. It also means focused and intelligent investment in potentially disruptive technologies like directed-energy weapons, 3-D printing and the like. Finally, it means maintaining a sufficiently large, flexible and discriminate nuclear force capable of deterring the most dramatic forms of escalation and as an ultimate backstop for our defense posture.