Taiwan’s Defense Dilemma

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Taiwan’s Defense Dilemma

As the U.S. urges Taiwan to adopt a security strategy that requires foreign intervention, it also upholds a policy of strategic ambiguity, making it difficult for Taipei to commit to a purely defensive approach.

Taiwan’s Defense Dilemma
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan is now entering a busy season of election campaigns. Replete with its usual excitement and drama, the 2024 presidential election arrives at a moment of heightened anxiety in the Taiwanese political space, with the possibility of a Chinese invasion before mid-century. The defense policies adopted by Taiwan’s next president could make this election one of the most critical in recent history.

Whoever takes office next May will face a paramount dilemma in planning the country’s defense. Namely, Taiwan has limited time and resources to prepare for a cross-strait conflict, but the successful implementation of its current military doctrine requires considerable resources and time.

Under the most optimistic circumstances, fully preparing for a Chinese invasion would be challenging. Now, differing threat perceptions between the United States and Taiwan have slowed the development of a strategy previously regarded as a practical solution to Taiwan’s defense dilemma.

The Porcupine in a Pickle

The porcupine strategy, despite obstacles it faces in becoming fully embraced, remains the most popular solution to Taiwan’s defense problem. The strategy relies on Taiwan’s unique island geography to create localized advantages, allowing Taiwanese forces to repel an otherwise quantitatively superior People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In 2017, Admiral Lee Hsi-min, then general chief of staff of Taiwan, developed the  “Overall Defense Concept (ODC)” to formally codify the porcupine strategy into Taiwan’s defense doctrine. Unlike Taiwan’s past military doctrines, which sought deep-strike capabilities and the destruction of its adversaries,  the ODC redefined its military objectives as denying the enemy a successful takeover of Taiwan. The ODC suggests Taiwan abandon plans to establish sea control and air superiority, taking a more cost-effective and defensive approach in thwarting Chinese aggression.

The ODC is a deterrence-by-denial strategy that integrates concepts of asymmetry into all levels of military conduct, including training, force structure, command and control, and logistics. It recognizes that Taiwan can no longer compete with China symmetrically and assumes that large weapons systems and immobile infrastructure will be destroyed at the beginning of an invasion. To survive the early stages of a cross-strait conflict, the ODC prescribes the use of survivable and mobile weapons, commonly called “asymmetric weapons.”

But weapons alone do not offer guidance on military conduct. Acquiring weapons perceived as asymmetric is meaningless without an overall asymmetric approach to defense. Taiwan can only fully benefit from asymmetric warfare if it integrates the philosophy of asymmetry into a theater strategy.

For many involved in U.S. defense policy, the ODC presented an opportunity to work with Taiwan on a common concept of asymmetric defense. An early version of the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 called for an assessment of Taiwan’s commitment to the ODC. In a recent wargame, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also encouraged Taiwanese forces to adopt asymmetry. But Taiwan has not been enthusiastic in the uptake of the ODC. Some argue that it has abandoned the strategy completely.

Taiwan’s Response to Asymmetric Defense

President Tsai Ing-wen has sought to move Taiwan toward asymmetric defense. In her May 2020 inaugural address, Tsai noted that Taiwan would accelerate the development of its asymmetric capabilities, reform its reserve and mobilization systems, and improve its military management institutions. But the ODC has since disappeared from Taiwanese defense literature.

Taiwan’s 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the latest such review, alludes to asymmetric capabilities and warfare but does not mention an asymmetric strategy. Instead, it designates “Resolute Defense and Multi-domain Deterrence” as its primary objective, calling for air superiority, sea control, and long-range strike capabilities. This is an ambitious doctrine. It would essentially pit Taiwanese forces against the PLA plane-to-plane, ship-to-ship, and soldier-to-soldier.

In April 2023, leaked documents from the Pentagon revealed an alarming assessment about Taiwan’s military readiness: Its air defenses are unlikely to prevent the Chinese military from asserting air superiority in the event of a conflict. As disconcerting as this assessment may seem, the leaks bolster the claim that Taiwan’s defense doctrine is overly optimistic. Given the PLA’s quantitative superiority, Taipei cannot afford to seek dominance in every domain. Even the United States would have difficulty fighting symmetrically against China in the manner that Taiwan’s QDR prescribes.

“Taiwan has abandoned asymmetric defense reform in all but name,” Michael Hunzeker wrote for War on the Rocks. “Instead, [Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense] is now planning to deter an invasion by threatening to retaliate with missile strikes against the Chinese homeland and by pitting Taiwanese units in direct combat against the vastly superior People’s Liberation Army.”

A recent report by The Economist on Taiwan’s defense commented that “Taiwan’s government repeats American talking-points about asymmetric warfare,”  but “its army has yet to commit to it.”

It is difficult to assess whether Taiwan has genuinely abandoned asymmetric defense without knowing what’s discussed behind closed doors. Similarly, one cannot determine whether Taiwan’s slow adoption of an overall asymmetric defense strategy results from holdups in the weapons procurement process. Authoritative sources suggest significant delays in weapons deliveries to Taiwan. In any case, Taipei faces a defense dilemma that may impede Taiwan-U.S. cooperation during a conflict.

The Asymmetry Paradox

Could Taipei and Washington be defining asymmetry differently? The term “asymmetry” is imprecise and misleading. In war, two opposing forces rarely fight symmetrically at any time and space, though many political commentators have erroneously equated asymmetry to small and mobile weapons systems. Imprecision in language, however, is not the source of Taiwan’s defense dilemma.

Among other reasons, Taipei’s reluctance to adopt the ODC may stem from differing risk perceptions and tolerance from that of the United States. The ODC takes the worst-case scenario as its foundation of analysis, but Taiwanese policymakers must plan for a range of potential PLA aggressions, from customs quarantines to full blockades and missile strikes. There is thus a strong incentive to maintain large conventional platforms that work against non-invasion scenarios. Conventional weapons can counter China’s increasingly coercive gray-zone activities. Their visibility also improves public morale and confidence in Taiwan’s defense.

By contrast, Washington is primarily concerned with a Chinese invasion because it is the scenario that presents the greatest security challenge. A successful naval blockade, for instance, may be an operational success but a strategic failure for Beijing because it falls short of achieving the political victory of taking over Taiwan yet risks international opprobrium and sanction. For the United States, Taiwan should thus focus on the invasion scenario and direct its limited resources to smaller weapons systems.

But the crux of Taiwan’s defense dilemma is uncertainty over whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. Taking a primarily defensive approach in thwarting a PLA invasion, the ODC asks Taiwan to hold out for as long as possible, presumably awaiting the arrival of foreign military assistance. Yet there is uncertainty about whether and how the U.S. and its allies would support Taiwan during a cross-strait conflict. Taiwanese policymakers must prepare for every scenario; they cannot only prepare for the worst-case invasion scenario and take a purely defensive posture by only purchasing and using small and mobile weapons.

Taiwan’s defense dilemma, therefore, revolves around a paradox. As the United States urges Taiwan to adopt a strategy suited for an invasion scenario that requires foreign intervention, it also upholds a policy of strategic ambiguity, making it difficult for Taipei to settle on the ODC conclusively.

Moving Forward With Transparency

Taiwan cannot be expected to adopt a strategy that requires U.S. military assistance without promises of such assistance. Many have therefore proposed strategic clarity as a solution to this paradox, including Taiwanese American organizations like the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, where I currently work as a policy associate. President Joe Biden has verbally guaranteed U.S. military assistance to Taiwan on multiple occasions, but that falls short of an official commitment. The United States’ role during a cross-strait conflict remains uncertain.

Today, cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan has grown at the tactical level, but there are insufficient formal conversations on strategy. For Taiwan to develop a pragmatic defense strategy, Washington should offer greater transparency about the forms U.S. assistance to Taipei might take. A recent bipartisan bill, the Taiwan Protection and National Resilience Act of 2023, attempts to clarify U.S. options in the event of a cross-strait conflict. Investigation of U.S. options is a good start, but U.S. policymakers should also articulate these options to their Taiwanese counterparts. Discussions could be held in private if there are concerns about startling Beijing.

Taiwan needs transparency from the U.S. to achieve pragmatism and clarity in its defense strategy. This strategy must reflect the limited time and resources available to Taiwan, while allowing room for cooperation with the United States and its allies. Fortunately, both U.S. and Taiwanese policymakers are cognizant of Taiwan’s defense dilemma, and efforts to resolve it appear to be underway. As Beijing grows increasingly bellicose toward its neighbors, Taiwan’s defense dilemma is one of the most significant challenges to Taiwan-U.S. cooperation today.