Much has been made in recent months of the United States’ so-called “pivot” to Asia, which, according to some, could represent the beginning of a new era of engagement in the Asia-Pacific amid China’s rise.
However, one state that should be part of Washington’s strategy has been conspicuous by the absence of any reference to a possible role for it in that emerging multilateral architecture. That is Taiwan. The lack of mention of the longstanding U.S. ally in the region is no accident; rather, it’s a calculated effort on Washington’s part to avoid making its “return” to Asia too controversial in Beijing, which already regards the pivot as the latest in a long list of exercises in containment.
Given this, it’s unlikely that Taiwan, however eloquently Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao may have argued the benefits in a recent article, will be made a partner as an ad hoc partner in any emerging AirSea Battle concept spearheaded by the U.S.
While the benefits – to Taipei and Washington – of a Taiwan role in such an alliance are difficult to argue against, political considerations will take precedence, and Taiwan will likely remain out in the cold. And whatever impact being part of such an alliance would have had on Taiwan’s deterrence capabilities won’t materialize.
To this we must add rising doubts as to whether the U.S. would intervene, or has even enough assets deployed within the region to be able to do so, on Taiwan’s side should armed conflict break out between Taiwan and China. This apparent lack of resolve on Washington’s part to clearly state its determination to assist its ally in time of need, combined with Taiwan’s exclusion from the fledging “new order” in Asia, if such a concept is indeed to emerge, leave Taiwan dangerously exposed and invites aggression. While, for the time being, political developments in the Taiwan Strait are playing in Beijing’s favor and don’t call for the application of force, there’s no knowing what the future has in store with regards to Taiwan. The widely held view that unification is inevitable is as near-sighted as it is dangerous, and future developments could very well see conditions emerge that make use of force by the People’s Liberation Army feasible, if not attractive.
Consequently, Taipei and Washington should both be preparing for such contingencies, which in many respects they are not. Assuming the continued exclusion of Taiwan from any regional security alliance, what can be done to ensure the island’s ability to defend itself?
The only viable option militarily and financially is deterrence. While sales by the U.S. of defensive military articles under the Taiwan Relations Act may have been sufficient in the past, the rapid development and modernization of the PLA in recent years makes it clear that such acquisitions no longer meet Taiwan’s defense requirements. A case can be made for the political utility of high-profile arms sales, in the form of billion-dollar upgrades, attack helicopters and air defense systems, but that alone will fail to deter Beijing from launching an attack against Taiwan should it see the opportunity to do so. Nor will those dispel the notion in Beijing that military aims could be accomplished relatively quickly and painlessly.
What this calls for, therefore, is a change in how the U.S. defines defensive, which should now include the concept of deterrence. Such a change wouldn’t be without controversy, as a credible deterrence requires some offensive capability. Some could argue that Washington in last year’s $5.2 billion arms package already made a move in that direction by including a variety of joint-direct attack munitions (JDAM) on the shopping list. However, alluring though such armaments may be on paper, given the prevalence and reach of China’s surface-to-air (SAM) network facing Taiwan, no Taiwanese fighter aircraft could conceivably get close enough to China to drop the satellite-guided bombs before being shot down. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that China already enjoys air superiority in the Taiwan Strait, a situation that will only become even more pronounced as Taiwan decommissions ageing aircraft and takes others out of circulation as they get upgraded, which applies to its 145 F-16A/Bs and F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighters.
Rather, what Taiwan needs is the means to raise the cost of military adventurism by China in a manner that’s both economically viable and not too controversial politically. One possibility, which some defense analysts have been arguing for years, is the development and deployment of ballistic and cruise missiles as well as long-range artillery. Despite facing strong opposition from the U.S., Taiwan has embarked on a number of such programs in recent years, most successfully the Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile and Hsiung Feng III anti-ship cruise missile. While mass-production and deployment of those two types of missiles has begun, their utility as means of deterrence is undermined by a technological bottleneck, with critical implications in terms of range and size of their warheads. The principal reason behind this is that the U.S. State Department enforces Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulations on Taiwan and has applied pressure on Taiwan not to pursue the Hsiung Feng programs. Some industry sources even claim that the initial refusal by Washington to sell more advanced F-16C/Ds to Taiwan resulted from Taipei’s decision to embark on the HF-2 program.
Although MTCR play an important role in countering proliferation, their enforcement on Taiwan, a state that has no expansionist ambition whatsoever, while China continues to extend the range and precision and destructiveness of its own missile arsenal thanks to technology passed on by (or stolen from) Russia, makes no sense. In light of this, and to rectify the “balance of terror” in the Taiwan Strait – which under current conditions is one-way – the U.S. should within reason allow Taiwan, if not quietly assist it, to develop longer-range ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as artillery capable of acting in a counterforce role, and coastal suppression munitions, which is already found on some of Taiwan’s air-launched Harpoon missiles. Dispersing the deployment of such forces, as well as making them mobile through the use of transport erector launcher (TEL) vehicles rather than fixed bases, would also increase the deterrence value.
In return, Taiwan should commit to ensuring that whatever missile technology is acquired from the U.S. won’t be proliferated, while boosting efforts to ensure that critical information isn’t passed on to, or stolen by, China. While self-evident, Taiwan should also commit to a no-first-use policy, thus making its offensive capability a purely defensive one. One advantage for the U.S. in adopting such a strategy of assistance for Taiwan is that the political cost of doing so in terms of Washington’s relations with Beijing would likely be smaller than, say, in releasing F-16C/Ds or approving a submarine program. Another benefit in the long term is that the resultant deterrence capability for Taiwan would make war in the Strait less, rather than more, likely, as the cost for the PLA of launching an attack on Taiwan would have been increased. For Taiwan, embarking on such a program would prove far less straining on its finite military budgets than the acquisition of billion-dollar platforms of questionable utility in a modern Taiwan Strait context.
A more formidable missile deterrent for Taiwan could even play a role in the future as a negotiation chip with China, whereby Taipei would agree to dismantle its missiles only if China agrees to do as much. This, however, would only have limited utility, as the Second Artillery Corps is steadily increasing the range of its ballistic missiles to address contingencies other than strictly Taiwan. As such, asking China to completely dismantle a DF-15C or DF-21 missile unit as a quid pro quo for cuts in missile deployments by Taiwan could prove problematic if the unit in question happens to be a “swing unit” capable of targeting not just Taiwan, but other regional competitors of China’s, such as India or Vietnam. Limitations notwithstanding, a greater deterrent would give Taiwan more weight at the negotiation table as both sides discuss the political future of a region that, for decades, has threatened to spark a war of unimaginable costs between the U.S. and China.
For Taiwan’s principal ally, building in some flexibility into regulations on the transfer of missile technology to Taipei would be relatively cost and risk free, could be conducted behind the scenes, and would avoid the “red lines” set by Beijing that have threatened to sour a bilateral relationship of growing importance globally. Furthermore, allowing Taiwan to develop a credible deterrent would, if managed properly, make war in the Taiwan Strait less, rather than more, likely.