Has the United States
Image Credit: flickr/ GlobalCitizen01

Has the United States "Lost" Taiwan?


On Saturday I have the honor of addressing members of the Formosa Foundation in Washington D.C. The topic of my talk — not for the light hearted on a Saturday morning at 9 AM — is titled, "Has the United States Lost Taiwan?"

Now, to be fair — I don't actually hold the view that the United States has lost Taiwan, at least not yet. However, the question is important for a number of reasons — mainly that Taiwan's armed forces have faced a steady, relative decline over the last decade compared to China's growing military might. If not addressed, Taiwan's very future could be placed in jeopardy.  Combined with China's deployment of a robust A2/AD-centric military strategy that seeks to keep U.S. forces at bay, were a crisis to erupt in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei’s declining military assets is a problem that many have discounted in recent years.  Now is the time address this important challenge.

To be fair, Taiwan-Chinese relations have warmed considerably. Bilateral trade totaled over US$168 billion last year, direct flights between the countries occur on a daily basis, and there is talk that the two might open up "representative offices."

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

While such news should be applauded, there is a darker aspect of bilateral ties that deserves equal attention. Beijing, for instance, has yet to renounce the use of force when it comes to reunification. In fact, it has hedged its bets — as both sides have built a robust economic relationship, Beijing's armed forces have undergone a rapid modernization across all domains (land, air, sea, cyber, space). China's has over  1,600 missiles of various capabilities—including the DF-21D "carrier-killer" anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)— just across the Taiwan Strait.

At the same time, Taiwan's armed forces have not kept pace with China's growing military power. For example, as China marches towards developing and deploying 5th generation stealth aircraft like the J-20 and possibly others, Taiwan is upgrading older F-16s that will be obsolete compared to Beijing's newest airframes. Taiwan's Navy also faces a Chinese fleet that is on the rise with the commissioning of its first aircraft carrier along with a growing modern submarine force. On the flipside, Taipei's Navy has aged significantly with one commentator noting its two last submarines “belong in a museum."

Truth be told, despite my fondness for strategic and defense issues, one cannot give an accurate assessment of the risks and rewards in the Taiwan-China relationship by only gazing through the lens of how their militaries match up in a potential conflict. What does concern this author, however, is the multiple cases of espionage committed against Taiwan by the People's Republic. Such cases could show China’s true intentions towards Taiwan in attempts to weaken its defenses through a robust program to use clandestine means to understand the islands defenses and military technology.

Considering the growth of China's economy over the last two decades, while also taking into account the size and rapid advancement of its armed forces, Taiwan is long past the point of matching the PRC in a symmetrical fashion. However, Taipei need not place all its hopes on expanded ties with the mainland. If it plays its cards right, Taiwan does have options to craft its own hedging strategy.

First, Taiwan must take the defense of its territory and its population seriously. Allowing the atrophy of its armed forces is a self-inflicted wound that won't easily be healed. Taiwan must continue the modernization of its armed forces — the example of the recent upgrade of its American made F-16s is a good first step — but more must be done to ensure that Taiwan is capable of defending itself if relations with Beijing were to take a turn for the worst.

Second, Taiwan must fully embrace a robust asymmetric military strategy that would impose high costs on the PRC if it were to try to reunify the country militarily, engage in some other type of conflict during a crisis. As I have noted in the past, Taiwan could look to recent Chinese military strategy as a model.  Beijing has crafted a robust, asymmetric strategy of anti-access to deal with the conventionally superior U.S. military. Taiwan should adopt a similar strategy to guide its future military planning towards China. Taipei must continue efforts to craft a defensive force utilizing small and stealthy fast-attack boats. Such vessels armed with new anti-ship missiles like the HF-3 could develop into a strong asymmetrical deterrent. This could then be combined with robust cyber capabilities that would target vital command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities (C4ISR).

With upgraded F-16 fighters, hardened military sites and rapid reaction teams prepared to mend runways damaged by first-strike missile salvos — Taiwan could improve its defensive posture quite dramatically. To be clear — Taiwan would be unable to overwhelm or completely deny Chinese command of air, sea or cyber domains. However, Taipei could develop a robust military that has the ability to deter an attack through signaling high costs to any aggressor.  

Third, the United States has a critical role to play in Taiwan's defense and future. As Washington is committed to Taiwan's defense should a crisis ensue, America must ensure Taipei has the arms it needs to defend itself as well as a credible conventional deterrent as presented above. As rumors persist that China could acquire advanced S-400 air defenses from Russia that could blanket all of Taiwan by 2017, America may have to consider selling Taiwan advanced stealthy fighters like the F-35 to maintain strategic balance. America must also help Taiwan find partners to replace its antique submarine force and increase its numbers to something credible, or possibly help Taipei develop a domestic industry that could field such forces in the future.

Fourth, and most importantly, Taiwan and the United States must jointly consider the challenge China's A2/AD strategy presents to both parties. If China were to develop a robust force that could create a "no-go" zone for U.S. forces around Taiwan, China could be in a position to dictate the terms of its relations with Taipei. Combined with a weakened military, Taiwan would be at the mercy of Beijing's goodwill. While America has developed operational concepts like AirSea Battle to negate such A2/AD challenges, the United States and Taiwan must consider ways to ensure access across all domains of possible conflict.

Simply stated –Taiwan, like China, also needs to hedge its bets. There’s no guarantee today's warming relations will continue into the future. Taiwan simply cannot place all its hopes in stronger relations. Just like China, Taiwan must have a dual-track strategy to protect itself if ties sour. The stakes are too great otherwise. 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief