Wary of Mainland China’s relentless military buildup, provocative words and downright threatening actions, Taiwan has announced plans to increase defense spending 20 percent by 2025. Strengthening the island nation’s defenses is an important ingredient to deterring Beijing, but the United States should add more to the mix in order to prevent a war no one wants.
Before getting into what Taipei and Washington need to do to keep the peace, it’s important to spend a moment on what Beijing is doing to undermine it.
Beijing makes a habit of criticizing other nations for provocative actions—Beijing was especially bothered when President-elect Donald Trump accepted a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan in December 2016 —but the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is doing far more to upset the status quo than Taiwan or the U.S.
Consider the PRC’s recently-released military strategy, which vows to “safeguard the unification of the motherland,” describes “the Taiwan issue” as key to “China’s reunification and long-term development” and declares “reunification…an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation.”
These are worrisome words.
First, Taiwan has never been ruled by the PRC, which explains why 64 percent of Taiwanese oppose unification.
Second, Beijing is underlining its provocative words with provocative actions. Last month, the PRC sent a flotilla of warships, led by an aircraft carrier, into the Taiwan Strait. In December, the PRC flew fighter-bombers around Taiwan. (PRC warplanes regularly fly around the democratic island.) Just after the Trump-Tsai call, the PRC’s only aircraft carrier menacingly circled Taiwan. And in June 2015, long before Trump and Tsai were elected, Beijing practiced amphibious operations aimed at Taiwan. As The Diplomat magazine reports, satellite images reveal PRC training grounds featuring mockups of key infrastructure in Taiwan—the presidential complex, Taichung Airport, the foreign ministry—suggesting “a new level of aggressiveness.”
Third, Beijing has increased military spending 150.9 percent since 2008. A Pentagon report concludes that Beijing “continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter and, if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, or to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force” and that the People’s Liberation Army “is increasingly armed and trained in ways that prepare it for a Taiwan invasion scenario.”
- The PRC has190,000 troops and 2,000 tanks in the Taiwan Strait region. Taiwan has 130,000 troops and 1,100 tanks total.
- The PRC has 237 warships (including 47 amphibious transports and landing ships) in the Taiwan Strait region. Taiwan has 117 warships total.
- The PRC has 130 fighter aircraft, 200 bombers and 150 transport aircraft within range of Taiwan. Taiwan has a total of 384 fighter-jets and no bombers.
- The PRC has deployed 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan, up from 200 in 2000.
All of this explains why the Tsai administration has begun the long-overdue process of investing in Taiwan’s defense. Taiwan spent 2.9 percent of GDP on defense in 2001, but today invests just 2 percent of GDP in defense.
Taiwan wants new submarines, mobile missile launchers, drones, electronic warfare systems, fighter aircraft and missile defense systems, according to the Ministry of National Defense. Taipei also has expressed interest in F-35s and F-16C/Ds, but those hopes have been dashed by Washington’s tilt toward Beijing. Yes, the Obama administration authorized in 2015 a $1.83-billion arms package for Taiwan, and the Trump administration recently approved a $1.4-billion arms package. But U.S. military aid has fallen short of Taiwan’s needs. And it’s telling that while Egypt’s autocrats get advanced F-16s, and the not-so-friendly government of Turkey gets high-tech F-35s, Taiwan’s pro-U.S. democracy gets what one defense analyst calls “1970s technology.”
The good news is that Washington seems to have awakened to the challenge.
The last defense bill President Obama signed into law directed the Pentagon to “carry out a program of exchanges of senior military officers and senior officials between the United States and Taiwan…to improve military-to-military relations.” The first defense bill President Trump signed into law called for “expanded exchanges focused on practical training for Taiwan personnel by and with United States military units,” endorsed “bilateral naval exercises,” and urged defense policymakers to “consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States Navy and the Taiwan navy.”
President Trump’s National Security Strategy declares, “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
Speaking of the TRA, Defense Secretary James Mattis, who always measures his words, made a point during an address at the Asia Security Summit last June to note, “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in the Taiwan Relations Act, because we stand for the peaceful resolution of any issues in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” It was the first time Taiwan had been mentioned at the event since 2002. Beijing noticed.
These are strong signals, but more must be done to keep the peace in the Taiwan Straits. Even a brief war between Taiwan and the PRC would cut off Taiwan and its 24 million people, affect America’s largest and tenth-largest trading partners, and disrupt the $5 trillion in trade that transits the South China Sea annually. Worst of all, allowing Beijing to absorb Taiwan without the consent of the Taiwanese people would leave a stain as ugly as Munich. Preventing that requires both words and actions.
First, the TRA needs to be updated. The TRA declares that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be a “grave concern to the United States,” commits the U.S. to provide Taiwan “arms of a defensive character,” and pledges that the U.S. will maintain “the capacity…to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
There’s nothing in these lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security or obliges the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s defense—nothing like the North Atlantic Treaty, which declares “an armed attack against one or more…an attack against them all” and obliges each signatory to “assist the party or parties so attacked by taking action”; or the U.S.-Philippines treaty, which obliges each party to “act to meet the common dangers” in the event of “armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties”; or the U.S.-Japan treaty, which declares “an armed attack against either party” as “dangerous to its own peace and safety” and obliges both to “act to meet the common danger”; or the U.S.-South Korea treaty, which obliges each party to “act to meet the common danger.” In short, the TRA seems more an exercise in obfuscation than reassurance.
Neither side of the Taiwan Strait knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of war. This policy of “strategic ambiguity” may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a recipe for disaster today, especially given how Beijing and Taipei view the situation.
Beijing sees Taiwan as the PRC’s 34th province, which will one day—one way or another—be absorbed by the Mainland. “China has yet to realize complete unification,” Gen. Xu Caihou of the PRC’s Central Military Commission noted in 2009.
Taiwan sees itself as separate and distinct from the Mainland. Sixty percent of the people of Taiwan identify as “Taiwanese”—not “Chinese.” Tsai, whose party has advocated independence, calls Taiwan “a sovereign independent country.” Even so, Tsai says she is “committed to maintaining the cross-strait status quo.” But she warns, “We will not succumb to pressure from China.”
Tsai’s words remind us that, no matter the history, no matter Beijing’s plans, Taiwan is a self-governing democracy today. It will not allow itself to be absorbed by force or incorporated by coercive policies.
If Washington remains ambiguous about Taiwan, what’s to stop Beijing from giving Taipei an ultimatum? Equally worrisome, what’s to stop Taipei from declaring independence—and thus forcing a test of wills with the Mainland?
In short, the time for “strategic ambiguity” has given way to a time for clarity. Washington’s goal should be to preserve Taiwan’s security, to prevent Taiwan from turning its de facto independence into de jure independence, and to persuade Beijing that pursuing any alternative to the status quo would threaten U.S. interests. The only unification the United States should countenance is one initiated by Taiwan—and reflecting the will of the people of Taiwan.
Enunciating a preserve-prevent-persuade doctrine could go a long way toward deterring Beijing from reincorporating Taiwan by force—whether incrementally (à la Beijing’s illegal “Made in China” islands dotting the South China Sea) or overtly (à la Putin’s annexation of Crimea).
But words are not enough when dealing with dictators. That brings us to a second step in securing Taiwan and preventing war: enhancing deterrent capabilities.
“It is imperative that we make credible our commitment to assist Taiwan if China uses force to unify the island to the Mainland,” former Sen. Richard Lugar has argued. “The credibility of our commitment will determine the validity of our deterrence.”
Regrettably, the credibility of America’s deterrent is increasingly in doubt. By definition, naval power is a prerequisite for deterrence in a maritime domain such as Taiwan’s neighborhood. But sequestration has hacked away at America’s maritime capabilities: At the height of the Reagan rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s Navy has only 272 active ships. These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
This is the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.” A wiser course is to rebuild America’s deterrent military strength. Toward that end, Congress approved a $700-billion defense budget late last year—a 13.2-percent increase over the previous year. However, one budget cycle is not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” Mattis explains. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”
Given the size of the defense budget, the balance of power would still seem to favor America—until we consider that America’s military assets and security commitments are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood, which brings us back to Taiwan
As long as Taiwan remains committed to a peaceful status quo, it deserves the weapons systems necessary to defend itself—delivered on a routine and transparent basis. With less economic, demographic and military heft than the Mainland, Taiwan would be wise to invest in “anti-access/area denial” assets (“A2/AD” in Pentagonese), such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missilery.
These systems are relatively inexpensive (compared to F-35s), wholly defensive (they could not be used to attack the Mainland) and yet would exact a heavy toll on PRC military forces if they attacked Taiwan (which would give Beijing pause).
Pentagon officials, PACOM commanders and RAND analysts have discussed the possibility of “using ground-based anti-ship missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2/AD strategy” to “vastly expand the set of military problems that the People’s Liberation Army would face should it consider initiating a conflict with its neighbors or U.S. partner nations.” A RAND study argues that the U.S. could link several partner nations—including Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition.
The purpose would not be to wage war, but quite the opposite: to prevent war. As President Washington observed, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace, as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”