The Painful, but Necessary, Next Steps in the U.S.-Taiwanese Relationship
China is once again rattling its saber at Taiwan. This past weekend, Beijing repeatedly sent fighter jets and bombers across the so-called median line, which has long served to unofficially demarcate Chinese and Taiwanese airspace over the Taiwan Strait. Chinese leaders were ostensibly reacting to U.S. Undersecretary of State Keith Krach’s trip to the Taiwanese capital, a move that Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs held up as a symbol of the growing relationship between Washington and Taipei. Yet China’s hard-line Global Times hinted at an even more unsettling motive. It called the exercise a dress rehearsal that showed the speed with which China could strike Taiwan if it so chose.
Regardless of the specific message Chinese leaders wanted to send, Taipei and Washington will see the move as yet another indicator that Beijing is considering military action to bring the island under its control. Indeed, Friday’s “exercise” is just the latest example of Beijing’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric, policies, and actions at home and abroad.
Chinese aggression is also propelling a tectonic shift in U.S.-Taiwanese relations. As views toward China harden across the American political spectrum, prominent commentators are calling for an end to strategic ambiguity — Washington’s long-held policy of deterring a war over Taiwan’s status by remaining vague about whether it might intervene. The U.S. government recently announced that it intends to sell Taiwan $7 billion in coastal defense missiles, drones, and mines on top of the nearly $11 billion in weapons it sold the island in 2019. U.S. officials are even considering a potential bilateral trade deal. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy ships have passed through the Taiwan Strait at least 10 times since January.
Such a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Taiwan is overdue. At the same time, there are better and worse ways to approach the next phase in bilateral relations, especially since many Americans will be skeptical about adding yet another commitment to their country’s already imposing portfolio of alliances and defense pacts. American voters will want to know that Taiwan is already doing everything in its power to prepare for a potential cross-strait conflict before Washington extends any new security commitments. The United States should make its security guarantee conditional on Taiwan embracing an asymmetric defense posture vis-à-vis China, reinstating universal military conscription, and holding bilateral training exercises.
From Capability to Resolve
In recent years, a consensus emerged among military experts that the best way for Taiwan to offset China’s growing military advantages is to heavily invest in asymmetric weapons, such as anti-ship missiles, air defenses, and drones. They argue that Taiwan cannot afford to buy enough “traditional” weapons — platforms like surface ships and advanced fighter jets — to keep up with the Chinese military. However, by using its limited resources to acquire large numbers of relatively inexpensive weapons, Taiwan could make it more costly for China to project power across the Taiwan Strait and harder for China to achieve a quick military victory.
Last week’s proposed arms deal shows that Taiwan is serious about improving its defensive capabilities. By buying the sorts of asymmetric weapons included in this package (e.g., coastal defense missiles and mines) instead of flashier, high-profile platforms like main battle tanks or advanced fighter jets, President Tsai Ing-wen is making it clear that the country is serious about addressing the island’s actual security needs.
Acquiring the “right” military capabilities to defend against Chinese aggression represents an essential first step. The next step should involve strengthening Taiwanese resolve. After all, even the best weapons in the world will not make a difference if the people are not willing to fight.
Unfortunately, recent public opinion surveys suggest that many in Taiwan do not yet take the risk of a war with China seriously. In early August, a poll commissioned by the Chinese Association for Public Opinion Research found that only 20 percent of the Taiwanese public believed a military confrontation over Taiwan’s status might happen. It also revealed that less than half of those polled would be willing to fight if such a war did happen.
The poll also asked respondents whether they thought the United States would send troops to defend the island from attack and how they thought Taiwan should react to a war between China and the United States. Nearly 60 percent said they had faith that the United States would intervene in a cross-strait conflict. Yet a mere 20 percent indicated that Taiwan should return the favor by fighting alongside the United States in a war against China. In contrast, two-thirds indicated that Taiwan was better off remaining on the sidelines.
It is worth pointing out that these sorts of public opinion polls should always be taken with a grain of salt. Minor differences in framing and wording can yield major differences in how those surveyed respond. Moreover, in Taiwan’s case, these surveys do not take place in a vacuum. Rather, they occur under the omnipresent shadow of potential violence. Respondents know Chinese officials will pay attention to the results, so they face incentives to strategically misrepresent their true views.
Nevertheless, some scholars and pundits will invariably overreact by taking all of this to mean that the United States should abandon Taiwan alongside strategic ambiguity. The fear is that unambiguous support for the island will irrevocably undermine U.S.-Chinese relations, while risking a war that the United States has little chance of winning.
We disagree. It is far from evident that abandoning Taiwan will yield a sudden improvement in U.S.-Chinese relations, let alone reduce regional tensions. After all, China would be far from the first great power in history to respond to accommodation by deciding it wants more.
Instead, we think American policymakers should look for ways to build Taiwanese resolve and resilience, especially in light of the fact that the Taiwanese public may be both overly confident that the United States can intervene and overly pessimistic about its own ability to fight. Washington can dampen this quixotic optimism, while helping to improve Taiwan’s faith in its own warfighting abilities, by making its security guarantees conditional on continued defense reform, and by playing a more active role in training Taiwanese military forces.
Crucially, the United States should take these steps before it can begin to seriously contemplate abandoning strategic ambiguity. After all, the risk of war increases to the degree that Beijing thinks it might have a window of opportunity to act while U.S.-Taiwanese relations are in flux. If Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisers sense that Taiwan’s deterrence posture rests on shaky foundations, the United States could easily find itself fighting the very war it had hoped to deter.
Improving Resilience and Resolve
The United States can start by ensuring any future security guarantees are predicated on a clear understanding of the painful, but necessary, reforms it expects Taipei to undertake. In particular, the United States should insist that any new commitments to the island will be contingent on Taipei’s continued willingness to invest in truly asymmetric capabilities. Even though last week’s proposed arms sale suggests this shift is already underway, defense reforms are always difficult, costly, and controversial. Previous Taiwanese governments faced public pressure to reduce defense spending. And some senior Taiwanese defense officials oppose the idea of embracing asymmetric weapons and capabilities. By placing conditions on its commitments, Washington can help elected officials in Taipei undertake politically and financially expensive long-term change by allowing them to credibly claim that their hands are tied.
By linking its security commitments to Taiwan’s defensive reforms, the United States can also give Taiwan the external push it needs to reintroduce two-year compulsory military service. Doing so would ensure Taiwan can field an active-duty force that is large enough to meet its defensive needs while also sending a clear signal to leaders in China and voters in America that the Taiwanese people are willing to make major sacrifices to provide for their own defense. Prior to 2000, all Taiwanese men were required to spend two years in the army. The government slowly reduced this obligation as part of an attempt to transition to an all-volunteer force. Conscription still technically exists, because Taiwan’s military has struggled to recruit enough volunteers to join the military. Nevertheless, conscripts now spend only four months in uniform. Even the reduced training is seen as a “waste of time” in the eyes of many young Taiwanese. Taiwan’s active-duty units likewise see conscripts as a burden, not a force multiplier. Combat readiness suffers as a result.
More appropriate weapons and a fully manned military represent urgent first steps. Yet missiles and men alone may not convince many Taiwanese voters that the island is ready to stand up to China in a conflict.
Thus, if and when Washington decides to drop the curtain on strategic ambiguity, the U.S. military will also need to actively help Taiwan’s armed forces prepare for war. At a minimum, U.S. forces should be ready to immediately begin hosting and participating in high-profile bilateral training exercises with their Taiwanese counterparts. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps can also play an instrumental role helping Taiwan organize a territorial defense force. Such a force would consist of reservists, volunteers, or both, trained and equipped to wage a guerrilla campaign against an invasion force. Several NATO allies, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, have created similar forces to deter Russian aggression.
Organizing a territorial defense force in and around the neighborhoods it will exist to defend and letting it train alongside combat-tested U.S. Army and Marine units can help enhance resolve and resilience across Taiwanese society. After all, highly visible, demanding, and realistic training will make the Taiwanese military more combat capable while demonstrating the same to the Taiwanese people. Deterrence and defense are enhanced to the degree Taiwanese families believe they are sending their sons and daughters to fight for a winning cause, not die for a hopeless one.
High-profile, bilateral military exercises also yield two additional benefits. First, they will help make America’s security commitments to Taiwan more credible. Indeed, U.S. training units can serve as a de facto tripwire, especially if they maintain a “constant rotational” presence on the island.
Second, a robust training effort will help reassure Taiwan that the United States is serious about its newly clarified security commitments to the island. Although it is always important to reassure allies you can and will come to their defense, it is doubly important in Taiwan’s case. After all, even if Taiwan embraces an asymmetric defense posture, its geographic location and size mean it can hold for only so long in the absence of an intervention by the United States and potentially other partners.
Beijing will undoubtedly take umbrage at any increase in U.S.-Taiwanese military cooperation. This inevitable reaction makes it all the more imperative and urgent that American and Taiwanese policymakers begin taking these steps while China’s military still faces major gaps and obstacles that would prevent it from undertaking an invasion.
What Comes Next
Our suggestions are undoubtedly provocative. They should be. America’s ambiguous posture toward defending Taiwan is decades old, and embracing our recommendations would upset the status quo. However, strategic clarity cuts both ways, and neither American policymakers nor Taiwanese voters can afford to delude themselves into acting like China is a paper tiger that will fold at the first sign of resistance. Deterrence is costly and talk is cheap. If Washington truly believes that it is in America’s national interest to deter China from attacking Taiwan, Washington should also be willing to pay the price — and assume the risks — associated with credibly enhancing Taiwan’s deterrence posture. Arms sales are only the first step toward this end. The next steps — implementing defense reforms, reinstating military conscription, and holding bilateral training exercises — will be harder.
U.S.-Taiwanese relations are changing, but change takes time. Time, unfortunately, is not necessarily something Taiwan has in abundance. Therefore, as policymakers on both sides of the relationship contemplate what comes next, they should be clear about what it will take — and how long it will take — to prepare the Taiwanese military and people for war. Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait could well depend on it.
Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an assistant professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. His book on wartime learning in World War I is forthcoming with Cornell University Press. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006.
Dennis L. Weng (@DennisWeng) is an assistant professor of political science at Sam Houston State University, where he teaches comparative politics and international relations with a focus on East Asia. He currently serves as the Conference Group on Taiwan Studies coordinator at the American Political Science Association.