James Holmes

Partner in the Pivot?

Taipei needs to undertake a pivot of its own, aimed at ensuring that its chief protector can, and will, come to its aid in wartime.

James R. Holmes

Editor's Note: Below is the full text of the Naval Diplomat’s essay for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on February 26, 2013. It appeared in Shihoko Goto, ed., Taiwan and the U.S. Pivot to Asia: New Realities in the Region? Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, March 2013, pp. 25-32.

Apathy kills. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia—a politico-military endeavor that combines strategic mass, strategic maneuver, and geography in intensely competitive surroundings—may well bolster Taiwan’s security vis-à-vis the mainland.Yet the pivot’s capacity to dissuade or defeat China hinges on whether U.S. Navy relief forces can reach the island’s vicinity, do battle, and prevail at a cost acceptable to the American state and society. This is an open question—but one that Taiwan’s armed forces can, and must, help answer in the affirmative. The island must bear a vigorous hand in its defense rather than passively awaiting rescue. Otherwise it may stand alone in its hour of need.

Get Serious

Taiwan, then, must think of itself as a partner in as well as a beneficiary of the United States’strategic pirouette.Why? Because the remorseless logic of self-help, whereby nation-states bear primary responsibility for their own defense, still rules international affairs. And because appearances count in alliance politics. A lesser ally that covets help from a stronger one must demonstrate that it merits the effort, lest the strong stand aside during a crisis. Taipei’s performance is suspect in both military and diplomatic terms.Defense budgets, a rough gauge of political resolve, have dwindled from already meager levels. Military spending stood at 2.2 percent of GDP in 2012, down from 3.8 percent in 1994.

For comparison’s sake, 2 percent of GDP constitutes NATO’s benchmark for defense expenditures. Taiwan barely meets the standard fixed by an alliance whose members face no threat. This is not the behavior of an ally serious about its defense.

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

Taipei thus remains on a peacetime footing even as the cross-strait military balance tilts more and more lopsidedly toward the mainland. Its armed forces’ capacity to withstand assailants long enough for U.S. forces to reach the theater is increasingly doubtful. Only by conspicuously upgrading its defenses can the island’s leadership help a U.S. president justify the costs and hazards of ordering increasingly scarce, and thus increasingly precious, forces into battle against a peer competitor. Otherwise the American people and their elected officials may ask why they should risk vital interests for the sake of an ally that appears unwilling to help itself.

Granted, this is a dark picture to paint at a time when knowledgeable observers proclaim that peace has broken out in the Taiwan Strait. But think about it. America’s superpower status—among the most vital of vital interests—hinges on sea power. Losing a major part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in an afternoon would set back the republic’s standing in the world. Even in victory, a costly encounter could carry dire consequences for both the United States and the global order over which its sea services preside.

In short, U.S. presidents can no longer blithely send forces into combat in the Western Pacific. It is no longer 1995-1996, when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft-carrier task forces to the island’s vicinity to deter Chinese aggression during presidential elections. The prospective adversary is far more capable, the costs of battle mounting in relative terms. After all, each ship or aircraft lost in combat constitutes a bigger proportion of a smaller force. Beijing is counting on the increasing “lumpiness” of U.S. military capital to help dissuade Washington from involving itself in a cross-strait war.

The decision will be doubly difficult if Taiwan seems indifferent to its own security—indeed,to its own political survival.The island must help America pivot to the region rather than assume help will automatically arrive during times of strife.

Competing to Mold Washington’s Cost/Benefit Calculus

Theory helps clarify such matters. Strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz urges statesmen and commanders to impose rationality on international strife—an arena for chance, “friction,” and dark passions—as best they may. The value of the political object, writes Clausewitz, should govern the magnitude and duration of the effort a belligerent puts forth to gain that object. In other words, how much importance a combatant attaches to its goals determines how many resources—lives, weaponry, treasure—it should expend on theundertaking, and for how long. It is the price a belligerent is willing to pay.

Should the costs come to exceed the likely gains, adds Clausewitz, the leadership should write off its losses and exit the conflict as gracefully as possible. Such hard scrabble logic should trouble Taipei, raising the prospect of American abandonment. And it gets worse. No enthusiast for alliances, Clausewitz adds laconically that

"One country may support another’s cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own. A moderately-sized force will be sent to its help; but if things go wrong the operation is pretty well written off, and one tries to withdraw at the smallest cost."

Allied commitments, that is, are typically tepid. Harvard professor Steve Walt maintains that common interests and threats, cultural and social affinities, and incentives or coercion furnished by the leading partner can bind together alliances and coalitions. If so, his taxonomy offers scant comfort for Taipei.

Consider. The same things are not at stake for Taiwan and the United States in East Asia. Washington must uphold regionwide and global interests while keeping the peace in the Strait. Taipei concerns itself mainly with cross-strait relations. Taipei clearly cannot pay off or compel Washington to fight on its behalf.That leaves sympathy for a fellow democracy under threat as the chief motive impelling the United States to intervene.Yet Walt declares that social and cultural affinities are relatively weak adhesives. Doubtless Clausewitz would agree.

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

To bias a stronger patron’s cost/benefit calculus in favor of military intervention, accordingly,a lesser ally like Taiwan must shoulder as much of the burden as it can, demonstrating it remains a going concern while keeping down the costs to its ally. To help the United States pivot to its defense, Taiwan must demonstrate that the fight will not be too costly or take too long. Showing the American people and their leaders that they can advance a worthy but secondary—for them—cause at an acceptable price will easeWashington’s decision to intervene.

In effect Taipei must counter a reciprocal Chinese effort to shape U.S. calculations. Beijing hopes to persuade Washington it will take a protracted, bloody struggle to keep Taiwan independent, and that the island isn’t worth the costs and dangers.In Clausewitzian terms, Beijing’s “anti-access/area-denial” strategy will drive up the magnitude and duration of any effort to intervene across the Pacific Ocean. To see how this strategy works, consider what the military pivot is. It is a foreign-policy enterprise by which U.S. joint forces concentrate for action in remote theaters. The military must mass strategically significant quantities of manpower and armaments in a contested theater like the Far East, surmounting both transoceanic distances and regional antagonists’ attempts to veto intervention.

That it can do so is hardly a foregone conclusion, notwithstanding hopeful claims that U.S. forces remain overwhelmingly superior at sea and aloft, and that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) trails far behind in numbers, technological sophistication, and human prowess. Respect for prospective foes is a healthier attitude. Clausewitz warns statesmen and commanders not to assume the red team is some inert object on which the blue team can work its will. The opponent is a living, thinking agent determined to thwart the blue team’s strategy. It means to prevail in the “collision of two living forces,” or continual grappling for strategic advantage, that impels competition and conflict among nations.

True to Clausewitzian logic, China has fashioned a maritime strategy meant to erect a “contested zone” in the Western Pacific, raising the costs of forcible entry into the region. Indeed, the Chinese Communist way of war is premised precisely on wearing out and turning the tables on a superior adversary fighting far from home. Maoist strategy envisioned luring an enemy in deep, letting him overextend and exhaust himself—much as a “savvy boxer” gave ground at the outset of a bout while readying a devastating counterpunch. Picking off hard-to-replace ships, aircraft, and armaments as the U.S. Pacific Fleet lumbered toward Asia would compel Washington to consider the larger repercussions of fighting for a secondary object like Taiwan. The rational cost/benefit calculus could well bias Washington against undertaking such a campaign.

The PLA, then, need not defeat U.S. expeditionary forces outright to exact unbearable costs. Clausewitz observes that there are two routes to victory apart from the obvious one, namely overthrowing the enemy on the battlefield or unseating his regime. One antagonist can convince the other he cannot win, or that the price of winning is too steep. Anti-ship missiles, diesel submarines, shore-based tactical aircraft, and fast patrol craft are some implements by which Beijing can impose heavy losses on U.S. Navy reinforcements steaming to the relief of Asian allies—and thus inflate the price of victory. These implements are already in the PLA inventory. Their numbers are swelling by the day.

Grasping the perils posed by anti-access strategy, a U.S. president might hesitate before committing forces to combat—or forego the venture altogether. If so, the PLA will have delayed or interrupted the pivot, isolating Taiwan militarily for long enough to fulfill its purposes.

A Strategic Pivot for Taiwan

What to do? In a sense Taipei needs to undertake a pivot of its own, aimed at ensuring that its chief protector can, and will, come to its aid in wartime. Two general recommendations: Taiwan needs to spend more, and it needs to spend wisely. Spending more on defense is about more than amassing capabilities to help right the cross-strait military balance, important though that is. Demonstrating fortitude is as important as backing strategy with steel. GDP figures offer a simple, readily intelligible index for Taiwan’s commitment to its independence. A U.S. president could use such indicators to persuade American constituents the island merits the expense, loss of life, and hazards of war. Islanders who show pluck look like a good cause. Americans would rally to Taiwan’s defense, just as they rallied to Great Britain’s defense seventy years ago.

Spending wisely means devising strategy where by Taiwan’s armed forces hold out long enough for U.S. forces to pierce Chinese anti-access defenses. Taipei long thought in offensive terms, assuming its navy and air force could command the seas and skies, outmatching a large but backward PLA. Command is no longer tenable. Nevertheless, all is not lost. Executed smartly, a strategically defensive posture would harden Taiwan against assault while turning the logic of anti-access to its advantage. If China can ratchet up the costs and hardships for a superior U.S. military surging into its nautical environs, Taiwan can replicate its approach on the micro level—punishing superior PLA forces along its shorelines. On land, dug-in anti-ship and anti-air missile sites could take a high toll from an amphibious assault force. Swarms of light combatants could wage guerrilla warfare at sea, rendering nearby waters and skies a no-go zone for invaders.

Such active defense measures would grant the island and its protector a precious commodity, time. Furthermore, commanders could deploy such residual offensive air and sea assets as the armed forces retained to the island’s east. Clearing a corridor of PLA anti-access forces would lighten the burden on the U.S. Pacific Fleet—reducing American combat losses while holding down the magnitude of the effort required simply to reach the theater. In short, boosting the means available for Taiwan’s defense while aligning these means with strategy befitting the weak would turn cost/benefit logic in favor of allied solidarity. And the allies’joint pivot would be complete.