Taiwan’s Asymmetric China Plan

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Taiwan’s Asymmetric China Plan

The US decision not to sell Taiwan the latest F-16 fighter is a sign ties could be unravelling. Washington should back a Taiwan breakout strategy.

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.