Capstones: A Biden Doctrine for Taiwan
On at least four occasions, President Joe Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan if the island democracy comes under attack. This apparent shift from “strategic ambiguity”—Washington’s long-held deliberately vague stance on Taiwan’s security—to what’s been termed “strategic clarity” is the right course of action. But Biden’s words have been inadequately explained—in fact, they’ve been explained away by after-the-fact staff clarifications—and inadequately bolstered by actions.
Before getting into how this policy change needs to be explained and what needs to be done to ensure that it deters rather than goads Beijing, it’s important to highlight why this change is necessary.
First, we should take Xi Jinping at his word. Xi has vowed “complete reunification of the motherland” and warned that “we make no promise to abandon the use of force.”
These words are deeply problematic. Taiwan has never been ruled by the PRC, so “reunification” is inaccurate. Beijing is misusing the word in an effort to legitimize plans to annex Taiwan and delegitimize Taiwan’s sovereignty. Moreover, 85 percent of Taiwan’s population oppose Beijing’s idea of unification; just 2.4 percent identify as “Chinese.” As for Xi’s willingness to use force, the forcible takeover of Taiwan would trigger a cascade of terrible consequences—the loss of life and liberty in Taiwan, the loss of much of the Free World’s capacity to produce semiconductors and microchips, the expansion of Beijing’s geographic reach, the collapse of the U.S. alliance system in the Indo-Pacific.
If Beijing’s words are problematic, its actions are downright warlike. That brings us to the second reason Washington must abandon “strategic ambiguity.” Xi’s regime is using military exercises to tighten the noose around Taiwan.
On a single day last year, Beijing deployed 71 fighter and bomber aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). In 2022, Taiwan weathered 1,737 of these incursions—“more than 2019, 2020 and 2021 combined,” as CFR reports. These provocations have continued into 2023.
“It looks like a rehearsal,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin grimly concludes. The CIA recently revealed that Xi ordered his military to be ready to take Taiwan by 2027.
If Xi chooses war, it won’t be a fair fight. According to the Pentagon, PRC assets based near Taiwan include: 416,000 troops, 52 amphibious ships, 700 fighter aircraft, 250 bomber/attack aircraft and 218 warships. The PRC also has some 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan. Taiwan has 88,000 troops total, 126 navy and coastguard vessels total, 300 fighter aircraft total, and zero bombers.
Beijing’s military buildup around Taiwan is just a microcosm of its wider military expansion. Beijing has built the world’s largest navy; expanded its nuclear arsenal; exploded military spending; claimed much of the South China Sea; and erected illegal, militarized islands to back up those claims.
If Biden is serious about deterring Beijing and defending Taiwan, he needs to underscore that seriousness with remarks delivered in a serious manner. How a president says something can be as important as what is said.
Like President James Monroe, President Harry Truman and President Ronald Reagan, Biden could enunciate his policy shift in a formal statement to Congress (written or spoken). Or he could choose an apt anniversary (December 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine) or a place of historical relevance (Berlin, more on that below).
Speechwriters could craft the right words, but the essence of a Biden Doctrine would sound something like this: “Any military attack on Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China—including any attempt to interfere with Taiwan’s access to international waterways or international airspace, or any attempt to interfere with international access to Taiwan’s waterways or airspace—would be regarded as an attack on the vital interests of the United States and would be repelled by any means necessary.”
The president need not define exactly what those means might entail, but he needs to make it clear to Xi that America will not allow Taiwan to go the way of Crimea or Hong Kong.
Like Truman and Reagan, Biden would need to bring his doctrine to life with classified policy directives. Congress could help by adding legislative muscle to any Biden Doctrine. A bipartisan reorientation of Taiwan policy may seem impossible in a bitterly divided Washington, but as Sen. John Cornyn recently pointed out: “If there’s one thing that seems to unify Republicans and Democrats today, it’s addressing the China threat.” Indeed, it’s worth noting that the House recently voted 365-65 to create the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. In addition, Congress and the president have agreed to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses and enhance Taiwan’s resiliency.
But more is needed from Congress. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), neither side of the Taiwan Strait knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of war. The TRA pledges America will provide Taiwan “capacity…to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.” There’s nothing in these lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security, obliges America to come to Taiwan’s defense or gives Beijing pause. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), which was introduced in the last Congress, offered a pathway toward deterrence by authorizing the use of force “to secure and protect Taiwan against…direct armed attack.” Although TIPA didn’t gain much traction, a formal policy shift along the lines envisioned by TIPA (and expressed by Biden) will help limit what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
The purpose of such a change in policy is, paradoxically, to prevent Beijing from changing the status quo. Washington’s stated and clear goal should be to preserve Taiwan’s security and liberty, while persuading Beijing that pursuing any alternative to the status quo would threaten U.S. interests.
The ambiguity that characterizes the TRA is leading to miscalculation, which is what led to World War I. The antidote is clarity plus strength—the promise that the costs of aggression will be greater than the benefits. This is the essence of deterrence, and it works.
If, as Henry Kissinger concludes, America and China are in “the foothills of a cold war,” then Taiwan should be viewed as this century’s West Berlin: a tiny island of freedom under threat from a communist behemoth. Yes, Taiwan is relatively remote; yes, it’s in the crosshairs of a military juggernaut; yes, that juggernaut has conventional advantages in-theater. But each of these factors applied in West Berlin, which President John Kennedy called “a defended island of freedom.” It remained free only because it was defended.
That brings us to what needs to be done to resource a Biden Doctrine.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated speaking softly and carrying a big stick, warned about the danger of doing the opposite by pointing out “the extreme unwisdom and impropriety of making promises that cannot be kept.” TR counseled that “If there is no intention of providing and keeping the force necessary to back up a strong attitude, then it is far better not to assume such an attitude.”
To date, Biden’s welcome words about defending Taiwan haven’t been reinforced by actions.
Given what Xi is planning to do, given what Vladimir Putin has done, given that Cold War 2.0 is upon us, America should shift toward Cold War levels of defense spending. The Pentagon’s budget represents 3.2 percent of GDP. The average during Cold War I was twice that.
As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” At the height of the Reagan rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s Navy has just 295 ships underway. Those ships are dispersed around the world, while China’s 355 warships are concentrated in its neighborhood. Today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than yesterday’s, but deterrence is about presence. America’s Navy lacks the ships to be present all the places it’s needed. According to CNO Adm. Mike Gilday, “We need a Naval force of over 500 ships.” We won’t meet that goal—or deter Beijing—if we fund the Pentagon as if it’s the carefree 1990s.
Taiwan’s defense spending as a share of GDP is barely 2 percent. Taiwan is working to allocate 2.4 percent of GDP to defense this year. But countries under similar threat are doing more: Israel invests 5.2 percent of GDP in defense, Poland 3 percent, South Korea 2.8 percent. Japan is doubling defense outlays.
How Taipei invests in defense is as important as how much it invests. What’s been termed “a porcupine defense”—one that would make an invasion so painful as to dissuade Beijing from even attempting it—would focus on antiship missiles, “smart” naval mines, drones capable of swarm attacks, shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, VSTOL fighter-bombers capable of operating without runways, nondigital communications operable amidst cyberattack, a military (and citizenry) trained for small-unit operations.
These are the kinds of countermeasures that have bled Putin’s army. Indeed, Xi must be convinced that attempting in Taiwan what Putin has attempted in Ukraine will lead not to victory parades and an ascendant legacy, but to his troops in body bags, his military hardware in flames, his invasion force and international standing in tatters.
Those countermeasures need to start flowing now. As Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, argues, “Surging hard power to the Indo-Pacific before the shooting starts and clearing the nearly $20 billion backlog of foreign military sales to Taiwan will give our friends confidence and our enemies pause.”
Unlike Ukraine, bordered by four NATO members, Taiwan is hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. base. Beijing has trained its missile arsenal on the approaches to Taiwan. This is part of Beijing’s anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2/AD), which is designed to dissuade the U.S. from intervening in the event of an invasion of Taiwan. Yet A2/AD can cut both ways. RAND details how Washington could forge a “U.S. A2/AD strategy” by knitting together partner nations in an anti-ship missile network. That network could be augmented by mobile, nimble ground units equipped with high-precision missilery, and by what Gallagher calls an “anti-navy” of land-based missile systems stretching from Japan’s southern islands to Australia and Alaska—all aimed at deterring Xi’s forces from moving on Taiwan.
There’s risk in all this. But World War I reminds us that there’s greater risk in leaving defense guarantees opaque. World War II reminds us that defense guarantees without adequate defense spending don’t deter aggressors. Cold War I reminds us that making the necessary investments to deter war is less costly than waging war. And Russia’s rampage through Ukraine reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion is preferable to scrambling to help them try to claw it back.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Real Clear Defense.