There is trouble in Taipei. With a defense budget less than 10 percent of China’s, Taiwan has a great challenge in maintaining credible deterrence. This has fed a perception in the United States — Taiwan’s most important guarantor of security — that Taipei is insufficiently committed to its own security. Yet a portion of Taiwan’s citizenry increasingly sees defense spending as an existential sunk cost. Taiwan’s defense policy decisions must therefore be made in the context of this tricky trinity: military threat from China, pressure from the United States to do more, and calls at home to spend less. This situation demands that decision-makers in Taipei and Washington must reexamine their strategy for deterring China and evaluate how — if deterrence fails — Taiwan will defend itself. Given Taiwan’s international position, its defense strategy options must be analyzed not just in terms of efficacy but also with concern for their financial and political costs.
Taiwan’s January 16 presidential election will likely bring the historically pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate, Tsai Ing-Wen, to power. Twelve blue papers present the likely incoming DPP government’s defense plans, continuing current programs, strengthening legislative oversight and interagency coordination, joint dialogue with the United States, and expanding in areas like cyber and expansion of indigenous defense industries. Taiwan’s current and outgoing Kuomintang (KMT) president, Ma Ying-Jiu, has presided over a period of unprecedented economic and cultural rapprochement with China. This culminated in a recent meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping. China may have undertaken this meeting as part of a burst of public diplomacy initiatives in Asia, but it also serves as a baseline, consolidating progress made by Ma’s government. In the future, Xi can ruefully point to this moment in time when calling the incoming administration to task for any damage to the relationship caused by its intransigence.
Officially called the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan island functions as a de facto independent country, but the People’s Republic of China (PRC) still considers it a de jure province. Recent polls in Taiwan show favor for an indefinite continuation of the status quo. Worries over how China will react to a DPP government and Xi’s recent statements that the Taiwan “issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation” make Taiwan’s defense situation more urgent.
Taiwan’s defense is often framed in terms of raising costs for China and enduring assault until rescue (not so much to accommodate mobilization times, but the U.S. political decision cycle). Even if the United States is willing to use extreme strategies like blockading China, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan will likely be a fait accompli if the People’s Liberation Army achieves its objective quickly with decapitation strike, bombardment, or invasion. Beyond forestalling such an outcome, strong defense could also give Taiwan a stronger position to bargain for terms in any reunification dialogue. Under the broad umbrella terms of “credible deterrence” and “resolute defense” several distinct strategic concepts emerge. With maintaining the cross-Strait status quo as the goal, the following strategies cover both military and other elements of national power that Taiwan can use to enhance its security.
Engage to Forestall
This strategy supports the notion that the best defense against China is friendly cross-Strait ties. Ma’s strategy of engagement prioritized economic engagement with China and all but precluded major increases in defense spending. Ma defined Taiwan’s security in terms of three pillars: good cross-Strait relations, increased participation in the international community, and defense as the third, and some would say neglected, priority. Experts who called for a strategy that includes both engagement and an increase and reallocation of defense spending focusing on China’s weaknesses felt that defense was neglected in the Ma era.
Ma’s presidency has largely pleased the People’s Republic of China, and led to an easing of cross-Strait tensions, but China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and obvious Taiwan-scenario military exercises serve as a reminder of its growing military strength and continued focus on Taiwan. To the extent that the people of Taiwan feel that Ma has brought them too close to China without adequate democratic process and neglected defense, the DPP provides an attractive alternative.
U.S. officials initially praised Ma’s efforts to strengthen ties, but were dismayed that defense spending never reached the pledged level of 3 percent of GDP. In DPP’s blue papers Tsai has advocated increasing the defense budget to 3 percent, and castigates the KMT for misunderstanding the strategic situation. Just because Taiwan’s external environment improves, she contends, does not mean it can risk spending less on defense. The question is how China will react to her presidency. In an important speech in the United States, Tsai promised to honor the Ma administration’s agreements with China, a promise which implicitly includes the “1992 Consensus“ agreement that there is only one China. On this basis, Tsai plans to continue engagement, even while diversifying Taiwan’s economy to reduce economic dependence on China.
This strategy assumes the best defense is to prevent China from reaching Taiwan. As explained in a paper by retired U.S. Navy Commander William Murray, the porcupine strategy argues for hardening key facilities and using mobile short-range defensive weapons to deny airspace, repel an invasion, and defy a blockade. This deterrence strategy is attractive for those who aim to keep the fight for a decisive battle off-shore, as it would make Taiwan a less attractive military target.
Some assume that Taipei is like Paris in 1940, in that if China successfully lands a sizeable force on Taiwan, the fight will be over because Taipei will succumb. To prevent a landing and make Taiwan into a porcupine, some defense officials in Taiwan think its armed forces should develop anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities. However, with those systems under Taipei’s control, some U.S. experts fear losing control over escalation in a cross-Strait conflict.
Despite these concerns, this strategy makes military sense. A missile-based defense is a particularly attractive asymmetric option, given budget constraints and the high costs of a layered defense strategy. The area 48 kilometers out, from anchorage to the beach, is the most lethal range. But, particularly when it includes long-range counter-strike missiles, something pursued by Chen Shui Bian but discontinued by Ma Jing Jiu, versions of the porcupine strategy run the risk of being more provocative to the PRC. As such, they are politically challenging to fund in Taiwan and to support in the United States.
This strategy assumes the best defense for Taiwan involves showing that invasion would result in a costly, protracted struggle. With a focus on sea denial, air defense, and layered ground defense with irregular ground forces, the hard ROC strategy aims to raise the costs for China of a potential invasion.
Lately the favored strategy of the outgoing Ma administration, the hard ROC strategy accepts the possibility that the decisive battle for Taiwan’s fate may take place on land, once PLA forces have hit the beaches. It eschews some offensive platforms such as long-range counter-strike missiles (which is received more favorably in Beijing) in favor of a layered defense and hardening of key facilities. Pursuing this strategy could include expanding reserve forces, which could have long-term benefits for Taiwan’s civil-military relations and support for defense spending.
But, as a more army-centric strategy, this strategy could have political backlash with the navy and air force. It may be difficult to implement in a defense bureaucracy that typically favors the home service of the defense minister and favorite projects of the individual services.
Under this strategy, the best defense is seen in Taiwan’s non-military capabilities. Advocates for this strategy argue for an organization of Taiwan’s military capabilities along humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) lines. Expanding regional HADR efforts would help to increase Taiwan’s prestige and international role. It is also the least threatening strategy to the PRC. Additionally, emergency management infrastructure and C4ISR (command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities can dual purpose for both security and environmental threats. This could help Taiwan to innocuously expand spending and minimize resistance for defense spending from both the domestic and foreign audience.
Taiwan has a soft power advantage as one of the strongest democracies in Asia. It can increase its support among democracies that would oppose any change in its status by force by promoting democracy and liberal economic policy in Asia. U.S. experts may look favorably on Tsai’s platform of “New Asian Value” as a counter to Beijing’s authoritarian system, which could make Taiwan attractive as a partner for the United States to promote stability and democratic norms.
Asymmetric, Innovative, and Mobile
This strategy would seek to defend Taiwan with mobile, cheap, lethal technologies. The words “asymmetric” and “innovative” are very familiar to Taiwanese defense planners. They have been emphasized over the past decade by U.S. advisors who want Taiwan to invest more resources in defense platforms that address realistic defense scenarios and place less emphasis on U.S. capabilities.
Because of its size, Taiwan cannot compete against the defense industries of major countries. But, advocates of this strategy argue, it can compete on the basis of its competitive advantage in areas like cyber. Defense budget increases for developing weapons indigenously are politically attractive when presented as a way to strengthen economy and trade through weapons sales. Submarine development, with U.S. and Japanese technical assistance would not only enhance deterrence but be a point of national pride as Taiwan works to close the qualitative military capability gap with China.
As a senior Taiwan defense expert explained to me in an interview, “we need something offensive as tools to tango to convince our cousins not to move.” Stealth platforms like small ships and planes, submarines, and guided missiles are needed to make a statement. He continued, “I hate fire and forget systems. These are not policy tools because you can’t use them.” Asymmetric options like subs allow for counter-blockade and limited response to Chinese provocation.
The Big Brother Strategy
Or is Taiwan’s best defense a strong, committed United States, after all? There is a school of thought that labelling any of the island defense concepts laid out above “strategic’ is a misnomer. The above strategies, in this line of thought, are in fact tactical, designed to delay and raise costs only. The only real defense strategy involves the United States. Publicly demonstrating a strong alliance for deterrence purposes, and ensuring good communication and discussion to prepare for contingencies is Taiwan’s best strategic posture. As such, announcements of large weapons purchases are good defense tools. But other indicators also contribute to the Big Brother effect: Technology assistance, defense cooperation, even economic policies (such as including Taiwan in TPP) also send a signal of U.S. support to China, and may have the same deterrence value as an aircraft carrier or a number of fighter jets.
Which Strategy Will It Be?
America’s commitment to assist Taiwan with its defense is enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act. The U.S. interest is in a peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait issue without unilateral action by either side. Taiwan’s future defense strategy will undoubtedly include U.S. support in some capacity. U.S. policymakers who advocate withdrawing from the security commitment should bear in mind that a Taiwan under threat could potentially restart its nuclear program, raising the danger of a future conflict.
So far, Tsai Ing-Wen has acted in a way that calms U.S. experts who fear a return to the volatile pro-independence rhetoric of the first DPP president, Chen Shui-Bian who served from 2000 to 2008. Tsai can use ambiguity to avoid explicitly accepting the 1992 Consensus since doing so would alienate her supporters and could cause her to take a more DPP-traditional pro-independence stance. This could increase support for defense spending, but endanger relations with the United States as it seeks a stable cross-Strait situation to avoid disturbing its relationship with China.
If Tsai is elected on the 16th, she will begin to implement the DPP’s defense plans, which have been designed with U.S. suggestions in mind to invest in defense and focus on platforms that are asymmetric and innovative. In addition to hard power, Taiwan will do much to attract U.S. support by using its soft power to support economic and political freedom in Asia, a democratic ally to balance against China’s influence.
Defense issues were relatively neglected during the Ma era. Tsai has an opportunity to push through reforms to reverse this trend, and secure U.S. commitment and regional prestige by continuing Ma’s soft power initiatives and HADR efforts. The key unanswered question is how China will respond to the next DPP government. Tsai would do well to sustain Ma’s economic successes and strengthen Taiwan’s defense posture. There are a number of ways to succeed. Suggestions that Taiwan should develop its own A2AD capability could fall under several of the above strategies that can be pursued in combination to achieve a credible defense posture under political and economic constraints. If things go well, Tsai may even have opportunities to pursue military confidence-building measures with China, something the KMT could not do in the current political context without being criticized for “selling out.” An important element of national power is the ability to mobilize resources to translate policy into action. Ultimately, the implementation of Taiwan’s defense policy will depend on the government’s ability to build consensus about the importance of defense policy in Taiwan’s diverse, opinionated electorate.
Jennifer M. Turner is a graduate student in the China Studies department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She previously served as a Navy civilian electrical engineer and as a U.S. Army officer in Korea. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or U.S. government.
Photo credit: 玄史生