Real Friends Twist Arms: Taiwan and the Case for Conditionality
Reports that Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to go to Taiwan next month have introduced the newest twist in an increasingly fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship. Beijing reacted with predictable outrage and a dramatic response cannot be ruled out if she goes through with the trip. Meanwhile, the White House appeared less than thrilled by the news, yet it reiterated Pelosi’s independent prerogative as a member of a separate and co-equal branch of government.
No matter how the episode ultimately plays out, it serves as a pointed reminder that Congress has long stood out as a steadfast and vocal friend of Taiwan. It was Congress that insisted on a Taiwan Relations Act, and four decades on, Taiwan continues to enjoy widespread and bipartisan support among senators and representatives alike. Further, Congressional leaders have sought to improve U.S.-Taiwanese relations through a flurry of legislative activity and repeated visits in response to rising cross-Strait tensions.
Unfortunately, Taiwan needs more than just friendship right now, because time is running out for the beleaguered democracy. Xi Jinping’s rhetoric and actions make it clear that he intends to solve the ‘Taiwan problem’, and that military force remains an option.
The urgency of the moment suggests that it is time for Congress to move beyond the symbolic visits and resolutions that may have helped Taiwan in the past, but which are no longer up to the task of deterring an increasingly assertive and capable China. If anything, such moves now run the risk of precipitating a crisis without meaningfully improving Taiwan’s ability to cope with the fallout.
The truth is that if Congressional leaders are as serious about helping Taiwan as they say they are, then it is time to stop planning trips to Taipei and start finding better ways to prepare Taiwan for war. A good first step is to ensure that provisions for conditional arms sales, prioritized arms production and delivery, and large-scale training assistance for Taiwan’s ground combat units are part of upcoming legislation, including the 2022 Taiwan Policy Act and the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Ticking Clock
A cross-Strait war is not inevitable, but it certainly becomes more likely to the degree that Beijing thinks it can overwhelm Taiwanese defenses before outside forces can intervene. From the Cold War to the early 2000s, Beijing knew that its prospects for a quick military assault on Taiwan were dim at best. Obviously, prior to 1979, Taiwan enjoyed a ‘mutual’ defense treaty with the United States. But even after Washington abrogated that arrangement, the Taiwan Relations Act ensured that Taiwan’s military had access to sufficient American weaponry to keep China’s quantitatively superior, but technologically inferior, military at bay.
Unfortunately, a combination of Chinese modernization, Taiwanese insouciance, and American complacency allowed the cross-Strait military balance to shift in China’s favor. As a result, the notion that Taiwan could use an ever-shrinking inventory of expensive, but increasingly outdated, American jets and ships to withstand a sustained Chinese attack before U.S. forces could swoop in to save the day has become increasingly tenuous.
As early as 2008, security scholars and defense analysts started calling on Taiwan’s military to reorient the island’s defenses around large numbers of small, cheap, and lethal capabilities — weapons like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defenses, naval mines, and drones — for use as part of a prolonged campaign of denial.
The view that Taiwan should embrace a so-called asymmetric posture has now achieved the status of conventional wisdom, at least in Washington. It is also a perspective that is now shared by the Biden administration, which has gone about quietly rejecting Taiwanese requests for arms that are incompatible with this way of warfare.
But until recently, Taiwan had a different perspective. Specifically, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense had long resisted asymmetry and denial, because reform meant relinquishing its preference for high-profile ships, jets, tanks, and warfighting concepts that call for it to battle the People’s Liberation Army for control over Taiwanese airspace, sea lanes, and territory. And despite paying lip service to asymmetric defense reform, the Tsai administration was more or less willing to tolerate its military’s foot-dragging.
A Window of Opportunity
Putin’s renewed invasion of Ukraine created a rare opening for change. The unprovoked and brutal attack shocked Taiwanese voters and leaders alike, making it impossible to pretend that wars of conquest were a relic of a bygone era. Ukrainian forces also accomplished what years of American writing and punditry could not: They showed the Taiwanese people what resolute defenders could achieve with cheap and modern weapons.
One consequence is for Taiwanese voters to become more willing to consider measures previously deemed implausible, if not laughable, including extending conscription and civil defense. Taiwanese leaders were quick to follow suit, calling on the nation to ready itself for the worst while reminding Taiwanese (and American) voters that Taiwan’s defense is first and foremost a Taiwanese responsibility.
These developments are encouraging, but windows of opportunity do not stay open forever. Much work remains to be done, especially when it comes to preparing Taiwan’s military to hold out against an all-out invasion. After all, asymmetry means more than just buying the ‘right’ kinds of weapons. Missiles, mines, drones, and civilians training in the park with Airsoft pistols will not, by themselves, deter Chinese aggression. To enhance deterrence meaningfully, Taiwan must show Beijing that its soldiers, sailors, pilots, and aspiring guerrillas possess the right weapons and the concepts, training, and stockpiles needed to hold out against an all-out invasion for as long as possible.
Yet the Ministry of National Defense has yet to articulate a coherent warfighting concept to replace the Overall Defense Concept it scrapped years ago. Training remains scripted and insufficiently realistic, and no evidence exists that the government has amassed even a fraction of the energy, food, munitions, and medical supplies it would need to survive a prolonged assault and isolation from the rest of the world. These sorts of changes will take years to implement and will demand sustained commitment from Taiwan’s government, military, and people long after the shock of Ukraine wears off.
Nor should Washington make the mistake of assuming that Taipei’s embrace of asymmetry is a foregone conclusion. To be sure, the Tsai administration is, once again, saying all the right things about asymmetry. Anecdotal stories about civilians flocking to grassroots civil defense training seminars seem to reinforce the idea that Taiwan is transforming itself into some sort of poison frog porcupine. But without active buy-in and aggressive support from the Ministry of National Defense, asymmetric reform is bound to languish.
How Congress Can Help
Congress now needs to show Taiwan that it is a true friend. And as genuine friends sometimes must when intervening to help a partner in need, Congress should be willing to communicate both what the United States can do to help Taiwan, but also what Taiwan must do to help itself.
The 2022 Taiwan Policy Act and 2023 National Defense Authorization Act represent the fastest, clearest, and most practical mechanisms for Congress to accomplish these things. Congress routinely incorporates Taiwan-related legislation in these annual defense bills. For example, the 2022 version of the National Defense Authorization Act called on the United States to help Taiwan acquire asymmetric capabilities, directed the Department of Defense to maintain the ability to resist a fait accompli attack, authorized a feasibility study on cooperation between the U.S. Army National Guard and Taiwan, and called on the Biden Administration to include Taiwan in this year’s Rim of the Pacific naval exercise.
This year’s draft includes similar provisions. The problem is that even now — with the threat of war on the horizon — relevant legislation remains couched in toothless ‘sense of Congress’ language. Hence the need to identify “improvements in Taiwan’s ability to use asymmetric military capabilities” or that Taiwan should be invited to participate in joint exercises and the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise, something the Biden administration has thus far ignored. Nor does the legislation include anything resembling a meaningful carrot or stick that would incentivize Taiwanese defense reform.
Fortunately, Congress still has time to clarify how much the United States is willing to help Taiwan, provided Taiwan demonstrates tangible progress toward helping itself. Given the urgent nature of the threat, Congress should consider including three concrete provisions in the Taiwan Policy and National Defense Authorization Acts.
To begin with, Congress should require that all future arms sales to Taiwan be conditional. By conditional, we mean that Congress will make clear that it will only sell arms that are congruent with a genuinely asymmetric posture as defined by the Department of Defense, and that such sales will only continue for as long as the Ministry of National Defense makes meaningful progress toward such an end-state.
The logic is straightforward: the Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and that such capabilities be made available “in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The act in no way stipulates that Taipei gets to define what constitutes sufficient self-defense. Moreover, given that no one expects Taiwan to defeat an all-out invasion alone — and that many expect the United States to intervene on its behalf — the United States has a strong self-interest to ensure that Taiwan has done everything it can to set the conditions for a successful U.S. intervention. Finally, conditional arms sales can help Taiwan’s political leaders push for politically difficult reforms by allowing them to credibly show voters and the Ministry of National Defense that their hands are tied.
That said, conditionality should not be all stick and no carrot. To this end, Congress should authorize annual grants of at least $2 billion per year that Taiwan can use to purchase asymmetric weapons from the United States, other partners, or — in cases where the U.S. government acknowledges that Taiwanese can domestically produce certain asymmetric weapons faster than it can acquire them from abroad — build them for itself. Congress should also make clear that Taiwan can use such funds to pay for training, stockpiling, and doctrinal development, as well.
The benefits of including billions of dollars worth of such carrots are threefold. First, such grants demonstrate that asymmetry is not some unfunded mandate and that the United States is willing to resource its commitment to helping Taiwan reform its defense posture. Second, annual grants will meaningfully improve Taiwan’s ability to undertake asymmetric reform. Although the Legislative Yuan approved nearly $17 billion for defense spending, along with a five-year, nearly $9 billion supplemental bill for arms procurement, in 2022, the reality is that personnel and maintenance costs consume a majority of Taiwan’s defense budget in any given year. Grants will ensure that asymmetric capabilities do not come at a severe opportunity cost to other important defense spending needs. Third, annual grants help disarm the oft-heard critique in Taiwan that U.S. arms sales are just a racket to fund American defense corporations at the expense of Taiwanese taxpayers.
Of course, weapons alone will neither deter Chinese aggression nor allow Taiwanese soldiers, sailors, and pilots to hold out. The Ministry of National Defense also needs an overarching asymmetric warfighting concept to replace the discarded Overall Defense Concept. Alternatively, it can just embrace the Overall Defense Concept. Either way, a blueprint is essential to ensure coherence and efficiency in Taiwanese procurement, doctrine, and training. Therefore, Congress should require the Department of Defense to include concept and doctrine development in its metrics for assessing Taiwanese progress toward asymmetry. Provisions to encourage the Ministry of National Defense to include territorial defense in its reforms would also be useful.
Thankfully, Congress need not start from scratch when writing conditional arms sales. Several relevant legislative proposals are already on the books, including the Arm Taiwan Act (versions of which exist in both the Senate and House) and the Taiwan Deterrence Act. Although these bills differ in their details, each of them offers a perfectly acceptable way forward in terms of injecting conditionality in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Congress should also fast-track the delivery of asymmetric arms to Taiwan. As things stand, there is already a glut of approved sales. In fact, Washington has authorized nearly $32 billion in arms since 2009. Yet many of these platforms will not reach Taiwan until the latter half of this decade. Take, for example, the 400 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and 100 launchers Taiwan agreed to buy in late 2020, which will not arrive until 2028. It should go without saying that it takes real military capabilities — not announced sales of weapons to be delivered at a future date — to deter. Moreover, Taiwanese units cannot begin the real work of training on these systems until they arrive in sufficient numbers. Again, proposals along these lines already exist in the Senate and the House and can serve as the basis for similar provisions in the Taiwan Policy and National Defense Authorization acts.
Finally, Congress should authorize and fund large-scale combined training exercises between the active-duty U.S. Army and both active and reserve Taiwanese Army ground combat units. Existing initiatives and legislation focus on inviting Taiwan to participate in Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, small-scale training detachments, and training with U.S. Army National Guard units. Although these efforts are certainly better than nothing, deterrence will remain on shaky foundations until Beijing believes its forces will have to fight for every inch of Taiwanese soil. Unfortunately, as things stand, Taiwan’s Army represents both the largest part of Taiwan’s military force and the one that is least prepared for war.
The most effective way to address the problem is to facilitate military-to-military engagement between frontline U.S. and Taiwanese ground combat units. Ukrainian forces clearly benefited from such efforts after 2014. These training exercises should occur continuously and on a much larger scale than existing efforts. Size and repetition are important to ensure that as many Taiwanese units as possible can participate. Responsibility for organizing and leading these exercises should also fall to the active-duty U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Although existing plans to let Taiwanese units train alongside U.S. Army National Guard units should move forward, there are myriad benefits to putting active Army and Marine units in charge of large-scale, high-intensity combat-focused training. The reality is that part-time guard and reserve units are not — and were never intended to be — as combat capable as their active duty counterparts, at least in peacetime. While part-time citizen-warriors are just as committed and professional as their full-time counterparts, guard and reserve units simply have a fraction of the time to train. Using active-duty units also sends stronger signals of deterrence and reassurance by demonstrating to Chinese leaders and Taiwanese voters that Taiwanese units are being trained by the best of what the U.S. military has to offer. There are at least two practical factors to consider as well. Active-duty units have more administrative and logistical capacity to manage large-scale training continuously. And having large numbers of active-duty American personnel train alongside Taiwanese units will increase familiarity and interoperability among those officers and non-commissioned officers who are most likely to be first on the scene if the United States intervenes in a cross-Strait war.
Accordingly, Congress should call on the Department of Defense to study options to either send large (unarmed) training teams from conventional and unconventional U.S. Army and Marine Corps units to Taiwan to train alongside their Taiwanese counterparts, or to rotate Taiwanese companies and battalions through training programs set up on U.S. bases in Guam, Hawaii, California, Georgia, and Louisiana.
Real Friends Twist Arms
Pushback to these recommendations is inevitable. Detractors will offer at least three criticisms. First, by focusing exclusively on a worst-case invasion scenario, Taiwan leaves itself vulnerable to other threats. Second, conditional arms sales are undemocratic and strip Taiwan of its agency. Third, allies and friends do not treat one another in this way. All three critiques are flawed.
The first criticism is easy to dismiss. After all, as long as the Taiwanese people are unwilling to acquiesce to Chinese control, the only way for Xi to achieve his ultimate goal of political annexation is to physically occupy Taiwan. The only way to physically occupy Taiwan is to mount a full-scale invasion. If the Taiwanese people are so irresolute as to give in to Chinese demands because of naval intrusions, aerial overflights, losing an outlying island, or suffering damage from long-range strikes, then there are deeper issues at play than what any military posture alone can fix. Furthermore, any coercive effort short of a full-scale invasion can only succeed at breaking the will of the Taiwanese people to the degree that the Taiwanese people believe that Beijing can follow up such moves with something far worse. Conversely, it stands to reason that the more the Taiwanese people are confident that their military forces can and will defend them against physical occupation, the less likely it is that an island grab, kinetic strike, or blockade alone will cause them to fold.
The second critique ignores the rather obvious fact that Taiwan’s democratic right to pursue its preferred defense posture does not impose obligations on the United States to support that approach, especially if doing so increases the risk of a war that could put American troops in harm’s way. Moreover, democracy requires that Congress and the White House be ultimately accountable to American voters, not Taiwanese preferences. Therefore, lawmakers and decision-makers need, at the very least, to frame their policies in a manner acceptable to those voters who care about the issues at stake. If Taiwan’s preferences were to override the interests of those American voters, then the Taiwan policy risks becoming truly anti-democratic. Ideally, the preferences of Taipei, Washington, and members of the Taiwanese and American publics would be aligned. Yet such alignment is rare even in the closest of alliance relationships, as with the case of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Great Britain or the security treaty between Tokyo and Washington.
It is not hard to see why: Countries simply have different interests, threat assessments, and priorities due to their geography, culture, military capabilities, and domestic political considerations. Indeed, states often sign alliance treaties not only because they face common challenges or share certain values, but also because they differ enough on strategically important issues that they must write an alliance treaty in such a way as to manage those disagreements. Knowing that voters would not approve of blank checks signed to allies, American negotiators insisted on some precise language and conditionalities that narrowed the scope of alliances, so that allies would not behave contrary to American interests. Hence, for example, the text of the United States-Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty includes conditions on what would trigger an American intervention, and NATO’s founding treaty limited its coverage of European colonial holdings to those north of the Tropic of Cancer.
This observation brings us to the third criticism: conditional arms sales are an unfriendly and unfair way to treat a close partner like Taiwan. Yet the historical record reveals that, for better or for worse, allies and friends treat each other in this way all the time. The United States has multiple motives for providing arms that can range from the strategic to the commercial. Rarely does it want to get nothing out of giving something. Although bolstering the strategic defense of an ally or a partner via arms might have intrinsic importance, the United States has attached conditions on military assistance to ensure that such aid would not be misused or to advance other interests.
Several examples illustrate this point. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the United States calibrated its military assistance to Israel with an eye toward maintaining a rough parity in the balance of power with its Arab neighbors while managing potential escalation risks. The Obama Administration conditioned its $300 million provision of security assistance to Egypt on human rights. In order to receive F-16s after 11 September, Pakistan had to agree to the presence of a U.S. technical security team that would monitor the use of those aircraft so as to prevent, in part, unwanted technological transfer. Taiwan itself has been subject to conditionalities, with the main one being that all weapons transfers would be of a “defensive character.”
These foregoing examples do not involve treaty allies, which is appropriate since Taiwan is not one, but even with treaty allies, the United States has asserted its unilateral interests. The United States tried to get West Germany to buy U.S.-made military equipment in the 1960s so as to ease the balance of payments crisis mounting at the time. It sometimes has objected to the potential transfer of its most technologically advanced equipment to its closest allies, as the United States very likely would have blocked any sale of submarine nuclear reactors that Canada might have been interesting in getting from France and Great Britain in the late 1980s.
Time for Clarity?
A final rejoinder is that the United States cannot possibly expect Taiwan to adopt an asymmetric posture in the absence of strategic clarity. After all, asymmetry limits Taipei’s options if the United States decides to remain on the sidelines in a cross-Strait conflict. Why should Taiwanese leaders lock themselves into a posture that makes inevitable a brutal and likely hopeless war of attrition in the absence of direct American military intervention?
Though apt, this observation misses the point. Far from being incompatible with a shift to strategic clarity, conditional arms sales, expedited arms deliveries, and combined ground training exercises represent tangible and meaningful steps in that direction. Indeed, implementing such measures will ultimately make a shift to strategic clarity — if that is what the administration, Congress, and the American people ultimately want — inherently more credible.
Reversing the order does not. Washington can proclaim its intent to defend Taiwan all it wants. But doing so before ensuring that Taiwan has a workable plan to keep the door open for American forces is unlikely to convince Chinese planners or Taiwanese voters that American intervention is inevitable, and invasion is no longer possible. It also raises the risk of moral hazard. After all, why should Taiwan undertake costly and painful reforms if the United States is going to save the day, regardless?
A window of opportunity exists in Taipei, but it is one Beijing is unlikely to let stay open forever. As much as we might hope that Russia’s struggles in Ukraine will dampen Beijing’s willingness to consider forcible annexation, China is more likely to learn from Russia’s mistakes. It could well dismiss Russian failures as the product of bad planning, a hollowed-out military, or both.
As one of Taiwan’s oldest and staunchest friends, Congress has a critical role to play in helping Taiwan take advantage of this fleeting opportunity. Doing so will require awkward conversations and a healthy dose of tough love. But the stakes for Taiwan and the American people are such that nothing less will do.
Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006.
Alexander Lanoszka (@ALanoszka) is an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century, published recently by Polity.