The Biden administration entered office at a critical inflection point for the United States. President Joe Biden inherited a world order and in particular an Indo-Pacific region that is undergoing profound change with China’s rise and an ongoing geopolitical shift toward Asia. The new administration has begun laying out its agenda to address the issues facing U.S. vital interests in this critical part of the world.
Within this broad expanse, the Taiwan Strait is increasingly a critical military flashpoint. Tensions are mounting as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ramps up its political, economic and military pressure on Taiwan and its other neighbors. There are warning signs that Beijing may be accelerating its plan to seize Taiwan by force if necessary. Adm. Phil Davidson, then the commander of Indo-Pacific Command, recently stated: “Taiwan is clearly one of their [China] ambitions before then . And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Predicting the timeline for a probable invasion of Taiwan is a very difficult task and widely debatable. What is indisputable is that the threat – both in terms of sharp and hard power – to Taiwan’s security and the Indo-Pacific region’s peace, stability, and prosperity is growing. The United States, along with its allies and partners, need to respond. Blunting the threat to Taiwan is the critical first step.
China has used a variety of “sharp power” strategies that fall short of military force to coerce Taiwan into adopting a more subordinate stance, as a preliminary to physically compelling the island to accept Beijing’s alien sovereignty. Significantly, the PRC has never renounced the use of force, and in fact has taken concrete steps to enhance its ability to conquer the island militarily as a last resort. This refers to the “hard power” we will analyze later. Optimally, however, Beijing would like to woo or coerce Taiwan into accepting its terms of capitulation without the use of force; hence the use of “sharp power” techniques.
China and its increasingly autocratic leader Xi Jinping would prefer to eliminate all alternatives to Taiwan accepting its terms of surrender, and gain its goal peacefully. But over the past several years, the PRC has trampled on one of its few remaining means of achieving this objective. The crushing of the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” may have satisfied the short-term goals of Beijing’s leadership, but it has deeply eroded any hope that the democratic people of Taiwan would willingly accept Chinese hegemony. The subservience of China’s own population is further proof that the “Beijing model” offers nothing of value to Taiwan’s 23 million citizens.
Why Xi has decided to go down this path is puzzling. Perhaps he feels his autocratic rule would be strengthened by the crushing of a very different model of Chinese development just 145 kilometers across the Taiwan Strait. If so, he has badly miscalculated. In reality, all indications suggest that the determination of the people of Taiwan to resist all attempts – gentle or brutal – to bring their nation to heel has only strengthened.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party has grown stronger in Taiwan, commanding a majority in the legislature and most local governments. This assures her of a solid homeland as she faces down the latest attempts by China to bully her into some deal. With three more years left in her term, this tension isn’t going to abate for some time. Meanwhile, the disarray of the opposition KMT makes any comeback at the national level unlikely, even after Tsai’s term limits expire in 2024.
While an imminent invasion seems unlikely, this is not to say that we should not be greatly concerned by the growing arsenal of hard power that is directed against Taiwan. Xi wields more power than Mao. He has unmatched capability to project force into the East and South China Seas, and within the First Island Chain, far beyond the land-bound power of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army
The destructive potential of China’s forces is openly displayed. They publicize practice assaults on replicas of Taiwan’s government buildings and hold amphibious drills. Rockets are regularly rolled out for admiration and intimidation. The PLA Navy responds aggressively to the lawful activities of other nation’s naval forces, including those of the United States.
Power projection by these forces occurs daily. The airspace of other nations is violated, and fishermen are bullied by Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels asserting what Beijing describes as “undisputed historical sovereignty.” Yet, these hard power assets are not primarily employed for conflict. Instead hard power supports sharp power coercion of Taiwan, and it is meant to counter any potential U.S. response to China’s aggression.
Of particular interest to Taiwan is the gray zone power projection that emerged in 2013. Beginning in December and continuing for nearly two years, China dredged up enough sand, coral, and gravel from the bottom of the South China Sea to create around 1,200 hectares of new territory in an international waterway. These new features now host 3,000-meter runways and deep-water ports, extending China’s surveillance and defense network far into the sea, to the immediate southeast of Taiwan. The world took little notice beyond a successful arbitration case brought by the Philippines, which China ignored.
One obvious element of this psychological pressure is the ever-present allegation by Beijing that Taiwan’s situation is hopeless. This is often emphasized in Chinese professional military journals in articles written by serving officials.
Countering that narrative, resisting coercion, and strengthening deterrence requires Taiwan, with U.S. collaboration under its obligations and in support of its own vital national interests, to establish and maintain an undoubted capability to prevail against armed attempts at subjugation. U.S. intentions and capability to counter armed aggression against Taiwan must be clear.
Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept (ODC) is a great step forward and it presents a very realistic view of Taiwan’s challenges. It is not the final answer, but it points in the right direction. The ODC describes the primary threat as an “Anaconda Strategy.” The metaphor seems apt. The threat combines forcible coercion, market seduction, isolation from international organizations, and compressing Taiwan through the manipulation of Washington.
The ODC way forward includes a review of current force structure, enhancement of reserve force capability, improvement of military medicine, revision of military law, and – most critical in our minds – coherent joint doctrine and professional military education. These efforts should be continuous as the threat grows and changes.
The United States has a clear and compelling vital interest in Taiwan’s undoubted ability to prevail over China’s “Anaconda Strategy.” Moreover, the United States and Taiwan now face the same strategic and operational challenge, that of how to ensure sea and air superiority – or at a minimum to deny the same to an enemy — while within the Chinese weapons engagement zone. All of Asia’s maritime nations – and the United States – face the same challenge. This challenge must be met by all in a combined effort.
Taiwan’s training and exercise opportunities are limited by its geography. Without rigorous exercises involving force-on-force action, the needed modifications will be impossible. A full application of realistic simulation capabilities linked and integrated across the Pacific with INDOPACOM simulation engines is necessary to test concepts and capabilities in a realistic and exacting manner. Observations and conclusions from exercises involving varying combinations of live, virtual, and constructive forces aided by modern simulation capabilities will indicate future directions while greatly enhancing the training of leaders at all levels. Force structure building, doctrinal development, professional military education, and training must all proceed together. Taipei also needs to continue bolstering its defense spending as a percentage of GDP, to ensure the funding necessary for these vital programs.
Some observers have expressed concern that a new U.S. administration might bring with it an opportunity for Beijing to launch a military attack across the Taiwan Strait. We are not of that mind. There is a great deal of continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations’ determination to prevent any attempt to coerce or threaten democratic Taiwan. The U.S. Congress is a reliable partner in this effort. The U.S. military regularly trains to protect friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific region. There are U.S. forces in Okinawa and the rest of Japan, as well as in other Pacific bases, ready to move expeditiously whenever necessary.
Xi should soberly contemplate the downside of any adventurism now, or in the future. China’s economy slumped badly during the latest global downturn. Despite the shrill propaganda, many citizens of China know the leadership in Beijing is much to blame for this state of affairs. Enough of them have traveled to Taiwan to understand the dramatic difference between the two places, and presumably harbor some sympathy for the free and democratic society across the strait.
Reflecting growing bilateral ties, the United States and Taiwan should take further steps to enhance “extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations.” This would be consistent with the language of the Taiwan Relations Act as well as the Taiwan Travel Act, The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), and the TAIPEI Act.
Taking into account all these significant steps that have broadened the legislative foundation of Taiwan policy, a policy review is needed, along with strengthened conventional deterrence. Some ambiguity, strategic or otherwise, will always be present. Alliances always generate fears of entrapment and entanglement. The Taiwan Relations Act is premised on peaceful resolution. U.S. policymakers must make clear that we are dedicated to that proposition.
Taiwan must ensure its ability to integrate security efforts, including “hard power” deterrence, across all threatened elements of national life, and strength to better respond to Chinese “sharp power” and protect Taiwan’s liberal values and democratic institutions.
A strengthened National Security Council operational role to integrate all elements of national power and a fundamental armed forces redesign to meet today’s challenge are also necessary. This demands a redesign of Taiwan’s national security structure, a revised force structure, new automated training and professional military education systems, and new ways to ensure effective deterrence.
Taiwan’s ground forces must be integrated in the fight for air and sea supremacy. That conclusion leads to what kind of weapons may be needed. A jointly developed powerful simulation system is needed to test force structure options, operational concepts, and doctrine to ensure effective deterrence and to support improved training at all levels.
Cooperation with the United States and other nations in the region that face the same threat is essential. An Alliance of Democracies in the region and beyond must be energized to support democratic ideals and demonstrate the appeal of representative government to all captive populations in China and the region.
Demolishing the myth that Taiwan has no hope is critical. The United States along with its allies, especially Japan, in close consultation with Taiwan, should develop a coordinated messaging campaign to counter that narrative, resist coercion, and strengthen deterrence.
A holistic approach to enhancing Taiwan’s resiliency must include economic measures. This is a critical to countering Beijing’s strategy of creating economic dependencies to enhance its coercive leverage over Taiwan. The Biden administration should continue the newly launched Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue and actively consider pursuing a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan.
While the United States has managed to deter Beijing from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach inches dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Greater clarity and assurance of U.S. commitments to defend Taiwan are critical for purposes of deterrence and stability.
The Biden administration, in close consultation with the U.S. Congress, should review current policy toward Taiwan with an eye toward strengthening the scope and breadth of the cooperative relationship – economically, politically, and militarily. This should include an early signal that the United States will not tolerate threats or actions aimed at intimidating or attacking Taiwan. Washington should also continue to closely monitor the growth of PLA threats to the island, and send an unmistakable warning that the U.S. will stand by its commitments to the people of Taiwan and their government.
While hard power deterrence is essential, Taiwan’s soft power is one of its greatest strengths. Coupled with favorable geographic conditions and the near certainty of U.S. intervention should China choose to use force, this makes Taiwan a formidable opponent. A wiser and more prudent leader in Beijing would acknowledge this state of play and rely more on carrots to ease tensions across the strait, rather than rattling sabers.
As co-authors of the published report “David and Goliath: Strengthening Taiwan’s Deterrence and Resiliency,” we referenced the biblical tale of David and Goliath to describe the competition between Taipei and Beijing. Useful as this is, there is one small flaw in the analogy. Young David had only one stone in his slingshot to bring down the mighty giant. Taiwan has two: its solid friendship with the United States and its vibrant democracy. Together, they are enough to face down any threats and blandishments that Xi might fall back on.