Is War Really Coming to Taiwan?

Is War Really Coming to Taiwan?

Leaders in Washington and Taipei sometimes forget that the defense of Taiwan is about much more than simply arm sales.

 

Parallels have been drawn between the war in Ukraine and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. While these situations differ in many respects, both countries exist outside of a collective security apparatus like NATO, and both face existential threats posed by much larger and hostile neighbors. Lacking nuclear weapons and outgunned in conventional terms, both the Ukrainian and Taiwanese militaries have little choice but to wage asymmetric warfare. Yet few people truly know, let alone understand, Taiwan’s current defense policy and the path forward.

Over the past five years, Taiwan has sought to adopt a defense strategy that emphasizes asymmetric warfare. In 2017, Taipei introduced the Overall Defense Concept (ODC), which articulated Taiwan’s procurement priorities and a path for structural reform. The ODC received high-level support from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and leadership in the U.S. Department of Defense. Yet, like all major reforms, this effort faced pushback from both entrenched interest groups and generals who viewed the ODC as being overly reliant upon American intervention. Today, it is unclear if Taiwan is continuing the ODC. The Ministry of National Defense claims the ODC is still its policy, yet no one in Taipei or Washington is convinced that is so. While Taiwan is still pursuing a number of new asymmetric weapons capabilities, no one seems sure what Taiwan’s defense strategy is and what the way forward looks like for U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation. In effect, Taiwan’s military has a strategy of ambiguity.

 

If unresolved, the confusion over Taiwan’s strategy could drive a wedge between the United States and Taiwan. While there exists a perception that bilateral relations are possibly the best they’ve been in decades, the reality is that they appear to be worsening. Symptoms include growing voices in the United States calling for Taiwan to buy certain weapons “or else,” and attempts to legislate which systems Taiwan is (and is not) allowed to acquire. Furthermore, legislation introduced in Congress has claimed Taiwan’s force build-up suffers from a “misguided prioritization.”

Since President Joe Biden took office, his administration has denied or delayed the sale of several weapons systems to Taiwan. For example, the administration’s first approved arms sale to Taiwan was a number of M109A6 self-propelled howitzers in August 2021. By May 2022, the sale has reportedly been pushed back by at least three years. Likewise, approved in July 2019, the delivery of man-portable air-defense Stinger missiles has also been delayed. In March 2022, the U.S. State Department transmitted a letter to Taiwan explaining why it had opted to ignore Taiwan’s request to purchase MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopters: the system’s perceived incompatibility with their definition of asymmetric capabilities for Taiwan. The pipeline acquisition of E-2D early warning aircraft by Taiwan appears to have suffered a similar fate.

By being mistrustful of Taiwan and overly directive on matters of procurement, Washington could damage the bilateral relationship. The Taiwanese military has already experienced a history of betrayal, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan after the derecognition of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979. The current approach by the United States could deepen the rift between the two militaries, which would be counterproductive in pursuit of the shared goal of deterring and, if necessary, defeating a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempt to annex Taiwan. Rather than being “rock solid,” it appears that U.S.-Taiwan defense relations are deteriorating. What happened? Taiwan embraced and then pivoted away from the ODC.

Whatever its merits or shortcomings, the ODC served as a common language between the United States and Taiwan. It was a clearly defined procurement prioritization and reform plan, putting forward that Taiwan needed a more balanced force buildup in terms of conventional and asymmetric capabilities. Both Washington and Taipei understood the ODC, agreed upon it, and used it as a communication platform for maintaining the status quo: the existence of two legitimate governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The ODC sought to build a U.S.-Taiwan joint working group that would encourage greater senior- and working-level exchanges, including joint contingency simulations and exercises and guidance in key areas such as force restructuring, doctrinal reforms, logistical support, and operational tactics.

Such a platform could enable greater jointness and begin building the foundations for alliance management, a large part of which would be the discussion and delegation of roles and missions during different scenarios.

Unfortunately, this is no longer a point of emphasis. The ODC was a bold step forward, but without an American commitment to intervene should deterrence fail, Taiwan must be prepared to defend itself in all manner of scenarios, alone.

Taiwan faces two categories of threats from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): coercion and invasion. Coercion, commonly referred to as gray-zone operations, is already occurring. Below the threshold of military conflict, Beijing is waging a multi-faceted coercive campaign against Taiwan that includes escalating incursions by PLA aircraft and naval ships into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and near its territorial waters. The CCP has used import and tourism bans to inflict pain upon Taiwan’s economy, and has orchestrated a sharp increase in cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns intended to manipulate hearts and minds in every pocket of Taiwanese society.

In recent weeks, the conflict in Ukraine has underscored the grim reality that coercion may get far worse, and the invasion scenario is the one that poses an existential threat. For the CCP, the annexation of Taiwan is central to its “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This is nothing new: destroying the ROC government and conquering Taiwan has been the PLA’s core mission for decades. If coercion fails to induce capitulation, the CCP could launch a full-scale invasion to occupy Taiwan. Barring nuclear annihilation, this is the most dangerous scenario for Taipei. However, Taiwan’s military is arguably less prepared for an invasion than it is for countering coercion, and both threats are worsening.

China’s meteoric economic rise has allowed Beijing to invest heavily into a massive military buildup. After years of investment, the PLA today enjoys a growing qualitative and quantitative advantage over Taiwan’s military. China’s population is sixty times greater than Taiwan’s, and Beijing’s totalitarian system allows it to extract private resources to further military objectives. Given this disparity in both actual and latent capability, it is inconceivable that Taiwan could directly redress this imbalance. By 2027, the Chinese military could be capable of successfully attacking Taiwan, as former U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander Admiral Philip Davidson testified before Congress. Unless the United States plans to actually defend Taiwan, the PLA could be optimally positioned to invade as soon as 2025, according to Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng. How to effectively allocate limited material and time resources is a key issue.

For these reasons, the ODC focused primarily on the invasion scenario. It was a strategy for how Taiwan should effectively allocate limited resources to defend itself, exploiting PLA vulnerabilities to the point that the success of Beijing’s amphibious attempt would be in serious doubt. The ODC sought to integrate force buildup directly with its concept of operations. It stipulated that large, expensive weapon systems could be effective during peacetime against coercion, but that asymmetric weapons would be critical during war. Asymmetry is relative, and as perspectives and conditions can vary widely, a definition is essential. The ODC defined asymmetric defense capabilities for Taiwan as mobile, resilient, lethal, cost-effective, numerous, and survivable. As Taiwan has historically invested less in such asymmetric capabilities compared to conventional platforms, the ODC called for a greater emphasis on the former. But importantly, military investments were not considered a binary choice. Planners in Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense believe they need a mix of conventional and asymmetric capabilities. Both types of systems are important for Taiwan in the absence of assured security arrangements with the United States.

Taiwan’s defense architects envision a PLA attack starting with devastating missile strikes followed by an all-out amphibious invasion. They anticipate that this could occur regardless of whatever amount of punishment Taiwan is able to inflict on targets in China. Counterstrikes against critical military nodes (such as Chinese ports) are implied, as it would be both a strategic and operational mistake to sit back while the PLA mobilizes and loads its invasion fleet. Nonetheless, once the war starts, Taiwan could run out of long-range missiles within days, leaving Beijing free to choose the best time, place, and manner to launch its amphibious landing campaign.

Taiwanese units employing short-range weapons could hide during the first phase of missile strikes and maintain the capacity to strike back against amphibious landing platforms and other sea lift assets as they closed in on Taiwan. The most vulnerable points for the PLA would be in transit and disembarkation. In an era of smart missile technology, ships at sea make for large, slow targets. Taiwan’s joint fire strikes from air, sea, and shore assets would focus on sinking the invasion ships in the littoral. Ground forces could then mop up disorganized and stunned PLA units on the landing beaches. If all went to plan, this would be the natural progression of a failed Chinese invasion. But what if the Taiwanese plan failed?