James Holmes

America’s Pivot, Taiwan and Anti-Access

Will the U.S. pivot to Asia help enhance or degrade Taiwan’s security? Our Naval Diplomat weighs in.

Strong allies help weak allies who help themselves. That's the message the Naval Diplomat will be conveying next Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, down in Washington, DC. The organizers asked me to comment on whether the U.S. pivot to Asia will enhance Taiwan's security, degrade it, or somewhere in between. My bottom line: it will bolster security if the islanders rededicate themselves to their own defense while helping U.S. forces pierce Chinese anti-access defenses. Beijing is trying to deter Washington from intervening on Taiwan's behalf; Taipei must mount a reciprocal effort to bias American decisionmaking toward coming to the island's rescue.

As recently as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, a U.S. president could order naval forces to the area with little fear for the safety of those forces. The PLA had little capacity to detect, let alone target, U.S. Pacific Fleet carrier groups operating off Asian coasts. No longer. President Obama and his lieutenants must tote up the likely costs and hazards of operations in China's near abroad, as well as the likely repercussions of combat losses for America's standing as a superpower. The United States remains a seafaring power; it depends on its sea services to preside over the system of global trade and commerce. Losing a major part of the Pacific Fleet in battle would set back U.S. vital interests far beyond the immediate expense of repairing or replacing damaged hardware. America's standing in the world could suffer irreparable damage while fighting for Taiwan.

No U.S. president can lightly make a decision that consequential. Strategy poobah Carl von Clausewitz notes that the value a nation assigns its political goals governs how many resources it's prepared to spend to achieve those goals, and for how long. This is straightforward cost/benefit analysis: what price will the nation pay, and what are the opportunity costs of the effort? Beijing wants to drive the price sky-high. The purpose of anti-access is to inflict heavy damage on a superior opponent, inflating the costs of the effort to unbearable levels. Once the immediate costs or opportunity costs are too steep, Clausewitzian logic prompts leaders to abandon the venture — or forego it altogether.

This is the unforgiving logic Taipei must counteract. Showing Americans that fighting for Taiwan won't impose unacceptable losses or take too long is critical to swinging U.S. cost/benefit calculations toward intervention. That means devising strategy and forces that hold Chinese assailants at bay long enough for the U.S. Navy to force entry into maritime Asia. Taipei must stage some anti-access measures of its own, taking a strategically defensive stance that imposes prohibitive costs on PLA attackers. It means deploying sea and air forces to the island's east to help clear a corridor for American relief forces. And in all likelihood it means spending more on the armed forces. With defense spending hovering just over 2 percent of GDP, Taipei barely meets the standard set by NATO — an alliance whose members face no threat. This bespeaks a society in denial about the dangers it confronts.

Taiwan, then, must pivot to its own defense, helping the United States pivot to the Western Pacific. If the island's leadership appears unwilling to do so, Americans will understandably ask why they should run severe risks for an ally indifferent to its own defense — indeed, to its own political survival. To that Taipei will have no good answer.