America Can't Dump Taiwan

America Can't Dump Taiwan

Washington needs to stop double-dealing with this beacon of democracy.

Over the longer term, it would be useful for the number of visits by Congressional members and Cabinet members (other than State and Defense) to increase. This sends the appropriate signal both to Taiwan and other allies in the region, and it can be done without any loss of face to China—although such visits will no doubt be condemned in the Chinese press.

Moreover, these visits need not be merely symbolic. There are very real issues America can help Taiwan with—from its economic development and upping its game in the energy dependence arena to improved education for its military forces and military modernization.

On this note, and at the operational level, one intriguing suggestion I heard repeatedly on the island was to send more private, retired military contractors to the island to help train the troops. This approach would deftly skirt any “red line” involving any U.S. military troops stationed on the island.

More broadly, with the rise of China’s aggression in the East and South China Seas, it is now time for America to more fully commit to the modernization of Taiwan’s defense capabilities. As I have argued in both my Crouching Tiger book and film, maintaining Taiwan as an independent, pro-U.S. ally is absolutely critical for strategically balancing against the rise of an increasingly militaristic China.

Here, I should note that any doubt about this was erased in several lengthy discussions with experts on the island about what it would exactly mean if Beijing controlled MacArthur’s famous “immovable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific. Specifically, it would mean a submarine base on the east side of the island rivaling that of the Yulin naval base at Hainan Island and immediate access to the deep waters of the Pacific.

If China were to take Taiwan, it would also mean other bases that would significantly extend the effective range of China’s air force. None of these developments would provide comfort to the American fleet or forces on Guam—or to our friends in Japan concerned about security along the Ryukyu Island chain that includes Okinawa.

As a further consideration, Taiwan urgently needs to upgrade its defensive capabilities, and Taiwan’s leaders clearly understand that such capabilities must be focused on developing a similar set of “anti-access, area denial” capabilities that China is now using to deter U.S. sea and air power in Asia. One key to any such strategy is the development of a fleet of conventional diesel electric submarines with state of the art air independent propulsion systems. As Seth Cropsey has noted in the National Interest:

According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, if war were to break out Taiwan would face upwards of 34 People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines. A dozen subs connected with advanced sensors and weapons could contest the PLA for control of the waters surrounding Taiwan. No other Taiwan platform could oppose a maritime blockade as effectively. The ability of submarines to act autonomously and stealthily would give Taiwan an effective defense against a real threat. The inability of hostile forces to detect submarines also helps assure the uninterrupted flow of sea-borne commerce. Taiwan is the U.S.’s 10th largest trading partner. A modern, deployable fleet of submarines is critical to the sustained defense of Taiwan.

Thus far, however, Beijing has been very successful in bullying other nations that sell modern subs, e.g., Sweden, Germany and Japan. An alternative strategy is to develop an indigenous submarine production capability. However, this, too, has been thwarted by Beijing’s pressure as countries are similarly unwilling to share blueprints and help Taiwan in developing its submarine industry. It is now time for the United States to help break this embargo. Here, again, as Cropsey notes:

The United States has not constructed a diesel submarine since the late 1950’s, but could provide design engineers. The U.S. could work with Japanese shipbuilders who make excellent submarines. The U.S. could also relax export controls on items needed to build the submarines. Several U.S. defense contractors have solid working relationships with Taiwan. In 2002, when the U.S. Navy discussed options with the RoC Navy (ROCN), General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon all expressed interest in being the prime contractor. All of these companies have maintained interest in Taiwanese defensive abilities. Working with a U.S. company to design an ROCN submarine could set Taiwan on an accelerated path towards development while giving Taiwan control over production and manufacturing.

Another option is to use the blueprints of an existing model and customize it to fit the ROCN’s requirements. Japan is both capable and possibly willing—with the right encouragement—to assist Taiwan in constructing diesel-electric submarines. A transnational industrial cooperation with Japan could help strengthen security partnership between defense ministries that face the same threat.

With the more hawkish Shinzo Abe now at the helm in Japan, and with a United States finally awakening to Beijing’s threat in the Western Pacific, this may indeed be the time to move in this direction. The construction of such a submarine industry would not only help defend Taiwan. It would also create new, high-skilled jobs at robust wage levels—the most critical need of a Taiwan that, like America, has offshored far too much of its industrial base to China.

As a further consideration, Taiwan needs all the American help it can get integrating this island democracy into as many international organizations as possible. Currently, the lack of official “statehood” limits Taiwan’s options, but there are many cases where statehood is not a requirement.

One glaring example is the now current exclusion of Taiwan from the Rim of the Pacific annual military exercise based in Pearl Harbor—even as the People’s Republic of China is allowed to participate. To many in Congress—and the Navy!—this is exactly backwards.

China’s participation provides this increasingly hostile country access to both allied technologies and tactics. Taiwan’s exclusion denies the island a precious opportunity to improve its defensive and coordinating capabilities. It’s dumb and offensive to many in an American navy that is going to bear the brunt of the causalities if and when China starts firing its swarms of anti-ship ballistic missiles and torpedoes at American aircraft carrier strike groups.

Finally, one of the requests I also heard repeatedly during my travels in Taiwan was the need to better integrate Taiwan into the region’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance or “C4ISR” systems. With Taiwan hosting one of the most important radar facilities with respect to deep penetration into the Chinese mainland, this is a “win-win” for the United States and allies like Japan and Australia.

At the end of the time, it’s time for America to fully and firmly recommit to an island that is indeed both a beacon of democracy and critical to the U.S. defense strategy in Asia. The chessboard is now clear on the matter of the dangers posed to the region by a rising China, and we need to stop sacrificing friends like Taiwan to placate what is increasingly morphing from a trading partner and strategic rival into a hostile enemy.

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine and author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and a policy advisor for Donald Trump. The views expressed are his own. View his documentary film on Taiwan here. Contact:

Image: Taipei 101. Photo by David Hsieh, CC BY 2.0.