Taiwan’s Asymmetric China Plan
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Taiwan’s Asymmetric China Plan


China’s success in limiting advanced arms sales to Taiwan is spurring an unintended consequence in the form of Taiwan’s asymmetrical military strategy. The United States’ recent decision to upgrade Taiwan’s aging F-16 A/B fighters, but not to sell new and advanced F-16 C/D aircraft, suggests that the transfer of high-tech military systems to Taiwan will be increasingly blocked by China’s growing economic and political clout. But while cross-strait stability has improved markedly in recent years, peaceful unification is hardly around the corner, a fact underscored by China’s vast array of missiles and comprehensive military modernization.

Clearly, Taiwan needs a new strategy, and now senior officials from Taiwan are privately hinting that such a strategy is underway. While not abandoning closer economic and diplomatic engagement with the mainland, Taiwan appears to be turning its focus away from trying to maintain a conventional military balance and toward acquiring unconventional capabilities that could thwart any future Chinese aggression. Advanced aircraft and stealthy submarines will remain on Taiwan’s military wish-list, but in the meantime Taiwan will forge ahead with a variety of very real asymmetrical instruments of power. These instruments are under review, but they are likely to include anti-access capabilities and operations employed by countries like Iran (think small-boat swarm tactics combined with mines and missiles) and emerging technologies for conducting cyber warfare.

At the heart of what has catalysed Taiwan’s emerging asymmetric strategic thinking are China’s steady military modernization and at least the perception of diminishing US power. Relations between Taiwan and China today are remarkably positive compared with just a few years ago. However, the short-term reduction of tensions doesn’t vitiate the fact that the People’s Republic of China’s influence over Taiwan is accelerating over time. The economic, political, and military ties that bind Washington and Taipei together appear to be unravelling, one strand at a time, and the balance of leverage for each of these three foundations is shifting in favour of Beijing.

China became Taiwan’s largest trading partner in 2005. Since the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010, China has continued to further displace the United States, which now accounts for only one-tenth of Taiwan’s total trade volume. Meanwhile, China’s mounting economic ties with Taiwan haven’t been matched by an easing of political pressure. To be sure, China has stopped trying to buy off the remaining countries around the world that still recognize Taiwan over China, but China also continues to obstruct Taiwan’s participation in the international community. Whether at the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or other organizations, Beijing’s approval is ultimately required for Taiwan’s involvement. This lingering political coercion, despite growing economic cooperation, partly reflects the fact that last year’s economic framework deal represented the ‘low hanging fruit,’ and that any future cross-strait agreements will prove much more difficult to realize.   

The United States needs to support Taiwan across all three arenas of economic, political, and military power. At present, the United States is trying to pivot from a fixation on the greater Middle East to deeper engagement across the Indo-Pacific region. Part of that gradual pivot must include continued close ties with Taiwan in order to buttress regional stability. The US-Taiwan relationship allows Taipei to negotiate more confidently with Beijing and better resist the coercion tactics that Taiwan has faced in the past. While the immediate cross-strait tensions have been reduced, the long-term prospects for Taiwan’s freedom and ties to the United States are far from clear. 

The traditional vehicle through which the United States has been able to bolster Taiwan’s security forces faces an increasing number of obstacles.  The pattern of arms sales from Washington to Taipei is growing more erratic in the face of a vociferous Beijing. President George W. Bush pledged an $11 billion arms package back in 2001. After the Obama administration announced the second part of that same package (some $6.4 billion of the original $11 billion arms package), China responded by cutting off US-China military-to-military exchanges; bilateral relations continued their downward trajectory for months afterward. Concerns over the potential danger and costs of this type of behaviour from China has factored into the decision making of US officials, as suggested by the Obama administration’s decision to put off any sale of new aircraft to Taiwan.

To reverse this seemingly inexorable trend and avoid being trapped by Chinese tactics, the United States needs to support a Taiwan breakout strategy. The goal should be for Taiwan to become more integrated in the fabric of the region, both economically and politically, and to maintain its sense of security as it builds relations with the mainland. With respect to military power, the United States should assist Taiwan as it continues to think through its requirements for anti-access tactics, operations, and hardware. Indeed, US officials announced this week that new arms sales to Taiwan are being considered, and it’s therefore probable that hardware aimed at building up asymmetrical, anti-access capabilities will be at the top of any list. Security in cyber space will also be vital, given that this domain has quickly become both a leading vulnerability and a stellar opportunity for defence.

The United States needs to work creatively and actively with Taiwan on all three fronts, but above all it should help Taiwan to develop more effective asymmetric strategies for the defence of Taiwan. As Taiwan celebrates is centennial on October 10, China should have no doubt that an armed attack on Taiwan would result in significant losses to the Mainland. 

Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.  

February 3, 2013 at 11:14

Yes I believe the mainland will become democratized one day, hopefully we will live to see it. I hate CCP they are the real theif and brain washers!!

February 3, 2013 at 11:06

If you mainlanders want to celebrate this xin hai revolution, then lose your Communist Fascist thoughts and embrace real three principles of the people, it is no difference than your Marxism thoughts except is adds a protection against the abuse of power. Like what the CCP is doing right now. 

December 3, 2012 at 11:19

Oh yes…….and Obama can start reprinting more usa dollars so america can pay the salaries of all these military dreamers and weaponry, and one day they will all wake up and wonder why they are living the lifestyle of a third world country, poor and miserable as hell, maybe sharing the bed with N Korea.

Johnny Mnemonic
February 12, 2012 at 01:26

@John Chan:

(It’s somewhat intriguing when I see someone on the Internet with the same “real name” as me…..) I have to disagree. You can’t commit treason against a “country.” You can only commit treason against an established government.

If you seek independence from a larger country, that isn’t treason if you already have an established government in place. To think it is treason is to fall back on 19th century colonial attitudes. Governments are more important than nationality. What’s a country without a government? What good is it to be proud of a country where the government treats people badly?

Johnny Mnemonic
February 12, 2012 at 01:04


Perhaps I might add in much the same way that the people in the Falkland Islands accept Britain as the sovereign state, the people in Taiwan have the right to decide what government they want. It is the same with Ireland. To force people to accept a particular nationality is tyranny.

I am not at all saying that if you live in the UK and you don’t want to be British, that you have a right not to be British (and likewise with being American). You can either be deported, lose your rights and/or become stateless.

In the case of some individual declaring they no longer belong to a particular nationality, such thinking doesn’t make sense because there is already a formally established authority and jurisdiction over the piece of land on which they are standing, one which the majority of his/her neighbours acknowledge. It is only when your neighbours start agreeing with you that you have a right to oppose the state.

But in the case of Taiwan, the PRC has no authority over the people in Taiwan. In Taiwan it is the ROC that is the established authority. Treason and sedition is not rebellion against one’s nationality, but armed opposition to a formally established authority.

I can commit sedition against the Commonwealth of Australia, but not “Australia.” You can’t actually commit treason or sedition against a country, only its laws and political system. When you violate its laws and its constitution, you violate something that may or may not have been designed to protect the people under them. If the Constitution and laws of a country are fair, then you violate something good. If they are not fair, then maybe you have a good reason to break them.

For someone like me who lives in a liberal, secular democracy, nationality or country doesn’t matter. I want good laws. I want good governance and accountable government. If I do decide to fight for my “country,” it is to fight to defend something good, to defend good laws. That is what I consider honourable.

October 16, 2011 at 22:40

We have to sell weapons to Taiwan, we want to sell weapons to Taiwan. In 1989 the Chinese on the mainland were saying we want to be like Taiwan, when the mainland is democratic their will be reunification between Formosa and the mainland.

These people have been operating in democracy for years and holding elections, the communists that seek to re-brand themselves as democrats will be no match for the slick Chinese from Formosa.

In free and fair elections, the Prime Minister and President will come from the island. What would have happened in Russia if a part of it was democratic, after communism broke down who would have won the elections, the professionals or the amateurs.

So it is smart to have good ties with those that will run China.

October 12, 2011 at 12:50

Absurd, yes, this is the idea when talk about the chance CCP win KMT at the beginning of Chinese Civil War shortly after WWII. History has it’s own answer,despite people think absurd or not. Chinese history are full of fantasy, but if you carefully look into it, everything has a rational answer. Amazing, right?

October 11, 2011 at 11:36

@ JC….

But the CCP aint China!

That’s the point you miss.

Don’t forget, the KMT is an older government than the CCP and is perfectly legitimate by any measure.

You’re effectively saying that all Chinese should yield to the Mainland government, whoever that should be… this is entirely childish and unreasonable thinking.

Chinese is an ethnicity and NOT an inherent citizenship that one can’t escape from. Ethnic Chinese are free to choose which citizenship they wish, where ever that may be. This is not treason against whichever fat-cats happen to be on the throne in Beijing/Nanjing at any given time.

By any measure, Taiwan is a sovereign nation and the notion that it some how “mystically” belongs to the serving Mainland government is pure whimsy. By this measure, countries all across the planet have purchase on others lands because sometime in the past they had some kind of dominion over it.

Via this logic – Britain still belongs to Italy because of the Romans…. it’s just pure nonsense.

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