Capstones: Defending this Century’s West Berlin
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and all the consequences flowing from it—the human and economic costs, the geopolitical fallout, the humanitarian tragedy, the military-security ramifications—have given us a glimpse of what lies ahead if Xi Jinping keeps his word and tries to absorb Taiwan (ROC). Deterring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from taking that step must be viewed as a vital national-security interest of the United States.
Xi’s words and actions—not unlike Putin’s in his buildup to war—suggest he is ready to move against Taiwan.
Consider the PRC’s published military strategy, which describes “the Taiwan issue” as key to “China’s reunification and long-term development.” Xi declares, “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland…will definitely be fulfilled.” Xi ominously adds, “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures” against Taiwan, which he considers the PRC’s 34th province.
These words are deeply problematic.
First, Taiwan has never been ruled by the PRC, so “reunification” is inaccurate. Beijing is purposely misusing the word in an effort to legitimize plans to absorb Taiwan—and delegitimize Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Second, 67 percent of Taiwan’s population identifies as “Taiwanese” (up from 17 percent in 1992), only 2.4 percent of the population identifies as “Chinese” (down from 22 percent in 1992), and more than eight in 10 Taiwanese oppose Beijing’s idea of unification. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, calls the island democracy “a sovereign independent country.”
This chasm between how the PRC views Taiwan and how Taiwan views itself is leading to a perilous test of wills.
If Beijing’s words are problematic, its actions are downright warlike.
After Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, the PRC unleashed waves of cyberattacks and days of missile tests, naval maneuvers and mock airstrikes that amounted to an air-sea blockade of the island democracy.
Earlier this year, Beijing deployed 39 fighter and bomber aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on a single day. Last year, Taiwan weathered 969 of these PRC incursions—up from 380 in 2020. A four-day stretch last year saw Beijing hurl 149 warplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ—testing the island’s defenses and prompting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to conclude, “It looks like a rehearsal.” Also in 2021, Beijing conducted simultaneous wargames off Taiwan’s east and west coasts.
In 2020, while the world tried to cope with a made-in-China pandemic, Beijing conducted provocative naval exercises around Taiwan; violated the median line separating PRC-ROC airspace; practiced large-scale amphibious assaults; test-fired missiles in the South China Sea; and then—in violation of international treaties and in an unmistakable signal to Taiwan—forcibly absorbed Hong Kong.
In 2018-19, Beijing interfered in Taiwan’s elections—employing misinformation and manipulation of social media to weaken pro-autonomy candidates and boost pro-Beijing candidates.
In 2017, the PRC menaced Taiwan with fighter-bombers and an aircraft-carrier deployment.
In 2015-16, Beijing ordered bombers, fighter escorts and spy planes into the skies around Taiwan; a PRC aircraft carrier circled the island; and satellites snapped images of PRC military-training grounds featuring mockups of key infrastructure in Taiwan: the presidential complex, Taichung Airport and the foreign ministry.
The Pentagon concludes Beijing is “preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.” If such a conflict comes, it won’t be a fair fight.
According to the Pentagon, PRC assets based near Taiwan include: 416,000 troops, six amphibious ships, 700 fighter aircraft, 250 bombers/attack aircraft and 253 warships. The PRC also has two aircraft carriers and more than 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan.
Taiwan has 88,000 troops total; 109 navy and coastguard vessels total; 400 fighter aircraft total; zero amphibious ships; 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; massively expanded its nuclear arsenal and nuclear-missile beds; exploded military spending by 514 percent (since 2000); claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea; and erected illegal, militarized islands to back up those claims.
A PRC attack on Taiwan would directly affect America’s third- and eighth-largest trading partners, disrupt one-third of global shipping, and put at risk more than half the world’s semiconductor production.
Moreover, a takeover of Taiwan would give Xi reason to believe he can move against other targets with impunity. In addition to Taiwan, Beijing has territorial disputes with 16 nations—including U.S. treaty allies Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, along with close security partners India, Singapore and Indonesia. If America failed to come to Taiwan’s defense, those allies and partners would doubt America’s security commitment, and Beijing would exploit those doubts to great effect.
If, as Henry Kissinger concludes, America and China are in “the foothills of a cold war,” then Taiwan is arguably this century’s West Berlin: a tiny island of freedom under constant, immediate threat from a communist behemoth.
Now, as during Cold War I, it’s imperative that the Free World defend this patch of free government. Now, as during Cold War I, showing readiness and willingness to repel an attack will help deter such an attack. However, deterrence only works if the enemy believes the costs of aggression are greater than any potential benefits of aggression.
The bad news is that Taiwan and the U.S. haven’t done enough in recent years to deter Beijing.
Compare Taiwan’s defense spending as a share of GDP (1.9 percent) with that of countries under similar threat: Israel invests 5.6 percent of GDP on defense, India 2.9 percent, South Korea 2.8 percent.
Taiwan is working to correct its deterrence gaps. In 2019, Taiwan announced its biggest defense-spending increase in a decade. Taiwan’s defense spending is now at its highest level since the 1990s. Taipei plans to allocate 2.3 percent of GDP to defense and has outlined plans to increase defense spending by 13.9 percent for 2023. “We’re increasing the budget not to provoke wars, but to tell Beijing not to start wars,” explains ROC lawmaker Tsai Shih-ying.
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/occupation so painful as to dissuade Beijing from even attempting it—would eschew high-tech, high-priced systems and instead focus on antiship missiles, “smart” maritime mines capable of remote activation/deactivation, inexpensive drones capable of swarm attacks, shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, nondigital communications operable despite cyberattacks, a citizenry trained in and equipped for small-unit operations.
These are the kinds of countermeasures that have bled Putin’s army—and inspired Taiwan’s people. As Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, recently declared, in an echo of President John Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner” speech: “I am Ukrainian.”
Indeed, Xi must be made to understand that attempting in Taiwan what Putin has done 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.
Toward that end, the U.S. should expedite and expand delivery of such countermeasures. Those defenses need to start flowing now. Unlike Ukraine, which shares land borders with four NATO allies—representing numerous overland delivery corridors allowing for resupply—Taiwan is hundreds of miles away from the nearest U.S. base and thousands of miles from U.S. territory. America’s Indo-Pacific allies probably won’t be as eager as their European counterparts to join a resupply operation, especially once PRC missiles start flying. Indeed, Beijing has trained its vast antiship-missile arsenal on the maritime approaches to Taiwan.
A timeless insight from President Franklin Roosevelt serves as a sharp counterpoint to objections from Xi and his apologists: “Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.” Deterring aggression, in other words, doesn’t constitute aggression.
America also needs to invest more in its own deterrent strength. America’s deterrent was credible for much of Cold War I—but not the early phases, when Moscow blockaded West Berlin and greenlighted the invasion of South Korea. America may be facing a similar deterrent deficit today vis-à-vis Beijing.
Recently, near the end of his tenure commanding U.S. Army-Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown noticed that his PRC counterparts “don’t fear us anymore.” That’s regrettable but understandable. As America’s defense budget limps away from sequestration and struggles to stay ahead of inflation, the calculus is rapidly shifting in Beijing.
The U.S. defense budget is 3.2 percent of GDP. The average during Cold War I was twice that. Thus, America’s Navy deploys just 296 ships—and those ships are dispersed around the world, while China’s 355 warships are concentrated in its neighborhood. At the height of President Ronald Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships.
Today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than yesterday’s, but deterrence is usually about presence. America’s Navy lacks the ships to be present in all the places it’s needed. According to CNO Adm. Mike Gilday, “We need a Naval force of over 500 ships.”
If the U.S. wants to prevent Taiwan, from going the way of Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Crimea and the Donbas, the U.S. needs to make sustained investments in deterrent military strength. Given the yo-yo effect of sequestration and corrosive effect of inflation, U.S. investment in defense has not been sustained in recent years.
But to keep Beijing at bay, we also need a clear commitment to Taiwan’s security. From Kiev to Kabul, Washington’s commitment to non-treaty partners has been anything but clear in recent years.
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 the TRA’s lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security or obliges the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s defense. This policy of “strategic ambiguity” may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a recipe for disaster today.
There’s a reason Washington crafted mutual-defense treaties during Cold War I with clear statements of U.S. commitment, a reason U.S. troops stayed in West Berlin, a reason U.S. forces have been on the 38th Parallel since 1953: Attacking U.S. troops and/or treaty allies means you’re going to war against America’s military—no ambiguity or doubts about the consequences. That certainty of response—the promise that the costs of aggression will be greater than the benefits—is the essence of deterrence. And it works. The ambiguity that characterizes the TRA, on the other hand, is leading to miscalculation, which often leads to war.
What’s puzzling about this situation is that even the most hardened of realists recognize that the United States would fight to defend Taiwan in the event of a PRC invasion of the island. Chief among them is John Mearsheimer, who concludes, “It’s unthinkable that the United States would stand by and allow China to conquer Taiwan.” The consequences of not defending Taiwan—the crippling impact on critical global resources, the geopolitical consequences of Beijing’s reach radiating outward from Taiwan into the Pacific, the corrosive effect on America’s treaty commitments to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Europe, the stain on American honor—would force America to act. So, wouldn’t it be less costly and more prudent to do all we can now to deter Beijing from taking that fateful step?
The good news is that the American people and their elected representatives recognize it’s time to shift from ambiguity to clarity.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans support recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, 53 percent support a formal U.S.-ROC defense alliance and 52 percent would favor deploying U.S. troops to defend Taiwan.
In Congress, there’s an effort to clarify America’s stance. If passed into law, the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) would replace the vagueness of the TRA with clarity—authorizing the use of force “to secure and protect Taiwan against…direct armed attack.” There’s risk in this, to be sure. But the history leading up to World War I shows there’s greater risk in leaving defense guarantees opaque. The history leading up to World War II shows that making necessary investments to deter war is far less costly—in blood and treasure—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.
Washington is sending increasingly strong signals to Beijing. In 2015, after a PRC bomber menaced Taiwan, U.S. F-18s landed on the island (the first such landing in 30 years), citing what the Pentagon called a “warning light” issue. In truth, Washington was reminding Beijing that Taiwan isn’t alone. The Obama administration also approved $14 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan.
President Donald Trump broke the taboo of communicating directly with Taiwan’s leader by phone, increased freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS) through the Taiwan Strait, authorized some $15 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, and dispatched a cabinet official to Taiwan (the highest-level U.S. government visit since 1979). U.S. Navy vessels docked in Taiwan in 2018 and 2019. In addition, the Trump administration quietly deployed Marines and special-operations units to the island to train ROC troops.
The Biden administration then let it be known that U.S. troops were on the island. Calling Taiwan “a critical economic and security partner,” President Joe Biden invited Taiwan’s top diplomat to his inauguration. The tempo of FONOPS has increased. And when asked if “the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense,” Biden bluntly responded, “Yes.”
More good news: Key partners and allies also are sending signals.
Japanese defense officials declare that “The peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.” Australia’s defense ministry says it would be “inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the U.S.” in defending Taiwan. India invited Taiwan’s ambassador to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. And India and Taiwan recently signed a cybersecurity agreement focused on threat detection.
Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have spoken up for Taiwan. The most powerful of these was Milos Vystrcil, president of the Czech senate, who traveled to Taipei to address Taiwan’s legislature. Like Kennedy in Berlin and Wu in Ukraine, Vystrcil declared, in Mandarin: “I’m a Taiwanese.”
In Taiwan today, as Kennedy said of West Berlin during Cold War I, Washington must make “unmistakably clear” that freedom will not be surrendered “either to force or through appeasement.”
Yes, Taiwan is relatively remote; yes, it’s in the crosshairs of a military juggernaut; yes, that juggernaut has conventional military advantages in the theater. But each of these factors applied in West Berlin, which was literally surrounded by Soviet bloc armies. Kennedy called West Berlin “a defended island of freedom.” It remained free only because it was defended.
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 the June 2022 issue of American Legion Magazine.