Capstones: Trials and Tests in Taiwan
In the wake of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the PRC has unleashed weeks of wargames around Taiwan that amounted to an air-sea blockade of the island democracy; tested (and demonstrated) its ability to use civilian vessels in an amphibious assault; launched a wave of cyberattacks against Taiwan; and pounded Washington for allowing the visit. Beijing’s post-Pelosi tantrum offers a glimpse of the PRC’s military plans and internal problems—and points the way toward how America and its allies can posture themselves to prevent a war.
While Xi Jinping’s military hurled dozens of warplanes into the airspace around Taiwan and surrounded Taiwan with flotillas of warships, his diplomats went ballistic. China’s foreign ministry yelped about Pelosi’s “provocations,” labeled Americans “troublemakers,” declared the United States the “biggest destroyer of peace across the Taiwan Strait,” accused the U.S. of “provoking trouble,” said the U.S. “inflates tensions and stokes confrontation,” concluded that the effect of the visit was “to undermine…stability,” and huffed that Pelosi’s 24-hour layover flouted “the basic norm of international law.” A PRC media mouthpiece added Pelosi’s visit was “reckless and dangerous” and America was “greatly increasing the possibility of a war.”
All of these words, it pays to recall, are being spewed from a regime that built and then militarized illegal islands in the South China Sea; illegally claims waters and territories of Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan; has territorial disputes with 16 nations; violated international treaties to absorb once-free Hong Kong; interferes in the elections, political systems and processes of the Free World; began violating Taiwan’s airspace and seaspace long before the Pelosi visit; assaults India without cause; unleashes swarms of fishing vessels to plunder and despoil the waters of other nations; refuses to cooperate with the international community in response to an international contagion born inside its borders; litters space with vast debris fields that threaten commercial satellite activity; uses cyberspace to wage a hack-and-steal siege of the Free World’s innovations and wealth; constantly threatens ships and aircraft transiting the global commons; alternately fetters and unfetters its Frankenstein monster in Pyongyang to game the Free World; and totally flouts the norms of international law and human decency by dominating Tibetan Buddhists, imprisoning Christians in laogai camps, and enslaving, sterilizing, aborting and erasing Uighur Muslims.
But it’s Americans who are troublemakers, who engage in provocations, who stoke confrontation, who are reckless, who undermine norms of behavior and international law?
Moreover, it pays to recall that Xi’s mock airstrikes, naval blockades and missile tests were in response to a visit by a 5-foot-5 octogenarian who commands no army, whose offense is offering words of support for a free people that have the misfortune of living 100 miles away from an expansionist-communist behemoth.
But it’s Pelosi who is provoking trouble? It’s America that undermines stability, inflates tensions and increases the possibility of war?
The PRC—the very nature of the regime—is the problem here. Not Taiwan’s democratic government. Not Pelosi’s travel plans. Not norms of behavior the civilized world long ago embraced. Not America’s and Australia’s and Japan’s and India’s and NATO’s refusal to roll over and just cede the South China Sea, East China Sea, Pacific Ocean, Himalayas, cyberspace and the moon to the PRC. And the nature of the PRC regime is the byproduct of a toxic mix of Marxist determinism, aggressive and often-racist nationalism, and intense insecurity.
Taiwan’s resolve to remain independent feeds into that insecurity. It is “a humiliating rejection of Beijing’s Asian centrality by an undeniably Chinese people,” as historian Robert Kagan explains. “If Taiwan will not accept China’s leadership in East Asia, who else can be expected to?”
Thus, the PRC’s military strategy 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.” He 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). Thus, 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 isn’t widened or worsened by visits from U.S officials, and it cannot be bridged by U.S. efforts to mollify Beijing (see the percentages in the above paragraph).
The silver lining here is that Beijing has revealed a glimpse of how it will move against Taiwan: cyberattacks and a blockade forcing Taipei to choose surrender or war; if Taipei chooses the former, the rapid installation of a PRC puppet and a Hong Kong-type absorption of the island; if Taipei chooses the latter, blockades of key sealanes connecting the island with the world, torrents of missile strikes and airstrikes, and ultimately some sort of amphibious, clandestine and/or airborne insertion of PRC troops.
Between now and whenever Xi delivers that terrible ultimatum to Taipei, he seems content to turn these “exercises” on and off at will—threatening international trade, holding Taiwan in a kind of stasis between sovereignty and subservience, expanding his anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2AD), putting allied vessels in nearby international waters at risk, and posturing his military to attack the island without warning.
The U.S., too, would face a choice in the event of such attacks: answer Taiwan’s call for help or allow the island to go the way of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hungary in 1956, Crimea in 2014. The U.S. would undoubtedly, if warily, come to the island’s defense. Even though no treaty binds the two democracies (more on that in a moment), the cascading costs of not coming to Taiwan’s aid—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.
Unlike the wars America has fought since 1945, a U.S.-Taiwan-PRC war wouldn’t be confined to some faraway desert or jungle. Nor would it be fought solely on America’s terms. Instead, Beijing would exploit its capabilities to inflict heavy damage on America’s Navy, dare U.S. air assets to venture into its layered air-defense kill zones, saturate America’s island bases with waves of missiles, carry out attacks against U.S. space and cyberspace assets (thus blinding our forces and putting at risk our economy), cut off critical supplies, target infrastructure and sow chaos inside the U.S., and perhaps threaten use of nuclear weapons. The fact that the U.S. would be doing these very same things to the PRC is of little comfort given the level of death and destruction the two would unleash.
All of that explains why the goal must be deterring the Xi regime from taking that fateful step against Taiwan, by convincing Beijing that the costs far outweigh any potential benefits.
First, to loosen the noose around Taiwan, the U.S. needs to counter Beijing’s A2AD strategy.
Relying on swarms of antiship missiles, the PRC’s A2AD strategy aims to hold at risk U.S. warships in a time of hostilities, with the goal of preventing U.S. intervention in any defense of Taiwan. But two can play the A2AD game. As researchers at RAND detail, as U.S. civilian and military leaders have argued, and as U.S. military units downrange have demonstrated, the U.S. could stand up a deterrent A2AD network by knitting together antiship missile systems in the region and/or nesting new antiship missile systems in the region. The purpose of this effort, as RAND explains, would be to “challenge Chinese maritime freedom of action should China choose to use force against its island neighbors.”
America’s diplomats would need to explain to regional allies that such an A2AD coalition would rebalance the security equation, promote regional stability and thus deter war. That may not be a simple task. But one key ally—Japan—is already planning to deploy missiles on its southern islands. With sufficient hand-holding, encouragement and other incentives, other allies can be persuaded to join the effort—just as the Carter and Reagan administrations proved in winning allied support for deploying Pershing IIs and other missile systems to counter Moscow’s destabilizing missile deployments.
Speaking of allied support, the U.S. isn’t alone on Taiwan. Canadian warships have joined U.S. warships transiting the Taiwan Strait multiple times this year. A French warship made the transit last October. Top Japanese defense officials say, “The peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan,” and have vowed, “We have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country.” Australian defense officials conclude it would be “inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the U.S.” in defending Taiwan. India and Taiwan recently signed a cybersecurity partnership focused on threat detection. India’s Narenda Modi, like President Joe Biden, invited Taiwan’s ambassador to his swearing-in ceremony. 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, Vystrcil declared, in Mandarin: “I’m a Taiwanese.”
Moreover, Pelosi’s visit has spurred other U.S. officials (House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy plans to travel to Taiwan if his party regains the majority) and legislative leaders from other countries (Germany, Britain and Japan are among those lining up) to plan similar visits to the island democracy. Lithuanian lawmakers visited just days after Pelosi’s visit, and a Canadian delegation is headed to Taipei later this year.
Second, the U.S. and Taiwan must make sustained investments in defense.
For far too long, Taiwan and the U.S. haven’t done enough to deter Beijing. Taiwan has invested less than 2 percent of GDP in defense every year since 2013. Compare that with 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. Taipei plans to allocate 2.3 percent of GDP to defense, is making emergency investments in its military, and will boost defense spending by 13.9 percent for 2023.
But 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, sea mines capable of remote activation/deactivation, inexpensive UCAVs and drones capable of swarm attacks, shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, nondigital communications operable despite cyberattacks, an army and citizenry trained in for small-unit operations. These are the kinds of countermeasures that have bled Vladimir Putin’s army. 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.
The U.S. should expedite and expand delivery—and the island’s own development—of such countermeasures. Those defenses need to start flowing now. A timeless insight from President Franklin Roosevelt serves as a 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.” Hardened against moral relativism, FDR understood that resisting and deterring aggression do not constitute aggression.
The United States also needs to invest more in its own deterrent strength. The U.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. We are 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 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.”
Third, the U.S. needs to make a clear commitment to Taiwan’s security.
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.” But 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: Attacking a U.S. treaty ally 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.
There’s an effort underway 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 reminds us there’s greater risk in leaving defense guarantees opaque. The history leading up to World War II reminds us 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.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this appeared in Providence.