Ukraine’s Dream Could Be Taiwan’s Nightmare
Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine has bolstered the hopes of those who seek to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, but there is reason to expect that Taiwan would be more difficult to defend than Ukraine. Defenders of territorial sovereignty and a peaceful world order may be cheered by Ukraine’s success, but there is danger that success could decrease the urgency of efforts to strengthen Taiwan. China is investing in its military and will seek to learn from the problems Russia has had in Ukraine. Will the United States and other supporters of Taiwan do the same?
This isn’t to say that China would have it easy if it chooses to intervene in Taiwan. Amphibious invasions are notoriously complex and difficult, and the People’s Liberation Army hasn’t engaged in a large-scale operation recently. Prominent defense figures have called for the U.S. military to take significant steps to bolster its, Taiwan’s, and other allies’ capabilities to counter Chinese aggression, and the Biden administration has made progress in building capabilities that would help deny Chinese military war aims.
The current conflict in Ukraine offers a wide range of lessons. Some relate to strategy, some relate to the use of information, some relate to logistics, and some relate to the tactical fight. Not all of these lessons will help to prepare for Chinese aggression in Taiwan. Taiwan’s defense problems differ greatly from Ukraine’s, stemming from the fact that Taiwan is a small island country that does not share borders with U.S. allies. It would be a mistake to underestimate the difficulty of defending Taiwan.
The United States can go beyond its current course to better prepare to defend Taiwan. The National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy both highlight the need to compete with China, but the Department of Defense needs to adopt a generational approach to China similar to the one that it followed with respect to the Soviet Union. The United States was able to support Ukraine off the cuff, but wouldn’t have the same opportunity with Taiwan. Instead, the Department of Defense and Congress should plan now, with urgency, and devote significant resources and organizational focus to the problem. Discussion of great power competition and integrated deterrence have created confusion in the defense world, and both concepts broaden the focus of U.S. strategy beyond defense. It is not wrong to harness a range of tools of national power, but to develop the concepts of operation and capabilities necessary to deny Chinese aggression against Taiwan, the United States also needs a clear, focused, and appropriately resourced approach.
Help Taiwan Early and Often
Many have drawn different types of lessons for a potential Taiwan conflict from the war in Ukraine. Some have noted that Taiwan might be less likely to receive support from the United States and Europe than Ukraine. Others have noted that China’s position in the international economy could make it more difficult to isolate than Russia and that the concentration of advanced microchip production in Taiwan puts the American and global economies at risk. Diplomatic and economic factors may loom large in defending Taiwan, but it would also be wise to consider the military problem as well.
Supporting Taiwan’s defense could require tremendous investment well prior to a conflict there. The scale of U.S. military aid pledged to Ukraine is quite large. Estimates range from $17 billion to $25 billion since the Russian invasion. This is much more security assistance than the United States government is even contemplating for Taiwan. For example, the United States has proposed selling $1.1 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, and at present the Senate’s version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act calls for $10 billion of assistance over five years. To be sure, wartime military aid to Ukraine is different than peacetime weapons sales to Taiwan. Not having to engage in active fighting gives Taiwan, the United States, and others more time to develop and deploy defenses.
Part of the problem is that China can intervene when it chooses, so it is impossible for policymakers to know exactly when conflict might occur. Timing is key. The bulk of U.S. and allied assistance to Ukraine has come after the Russian invasion in February. The many land routes of supply across Europe have allowed the United States and its allies to transport arms, humanitarian aid, and other assistance during the conflict. Taiwan, of course, is an island, and it would be much more difficult to send in the same level of supplies during a conflict. China could contest both sea and air access to Taiwan. The United States and other supporters of Taiwan may need to employ military and merchant shipping to provide humanitarian and military aid. U.S. commanders have expressed confidence that they could break a Chinese blockade, but air and sea resupply of Taiwan during a conflict could be a challenge. It would be much better to stockpile supplies in Taiwan prior to a conflict, but the United States is not known for acting with urgency in the absence of a crisis.
Now is the time to sell arms, develop and deploy forces, and plan with Taiwan and other allies and partners. To successfully deter Chinese aggression will likely require an effort on the scale not seen since Cold War-era preparations to deter Soviet aggression in Western Europe. Eisenhower’s reorientation of the U.S. military to adopt an approach of massive retaliation comes to mind, but that initiative was accompanied by a reduction in defense spending. There is little talk of reductions in the U.S. defense budget at present, but it is unlikely that Congress or the American people have much appetite for increased investment in defense at this point. Instead, the Department of Defense will need to be much more efficient in its operations and apply the profits of efficiency to the problem of Taiwan.
Taiwan Can Help Itself
Taiwan is working to make itself and its leadership a more difficult target for Chinese intervention. Analysts and others have called for Taiwan to invest in relatively simple platforms and large quantities of munitions to deny a Chinese military assault — or at least to delay one while the United States and others mobilize and deploy their forces. Taiwan began to prepare itself through its Overall Defense Concept, which set out a program to make itself a harder target and to use mobility, camouflage, concealment, and deception to raise the costs of a Chinese military intervention. There are questions about whether the concept will prove viable, but the example of Ukraine has helped inspire Taiwan to take steps to prepare its people to engage in civilian resistance by providing courses to its people on medical rescue, self-defense combat, and rescue and evacuation.
Taiwan’s military budget is more than double Ukraine’s, which bodes well for the island nation. However, Ukraine has had eight years of fighting its adversary, which has helped it to build a capable military force. In contrast, Taiwan is much less prepared for the type of challenges that the People’s Liberation Army could pose. There are questions about the adequacy of the training it provides to its reserve forces, and there is criticism that it has bungled its transition from a conscription-based force to a professional one, creating a range of problems with its personnel.
Another problem is that there are a variety of ways that China might act. China could engage in an amphibious assault of Taiwan and on its offshore islands, likely combined with air assault and bombardment from the land, air, and sea. It could also engage in a coercive campaign that combines economic and diplomatic pressure along with limited missile strikes using its growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. China might also seek to blockade, or quarantine, Taiwan. Coercion, quarantine, and attack are different enough that they could require Taiwan and its supporters to do more to prepare than if they could concentrate on a single course of action from China.
The war in Ukraine has followed a specific and, it turns out, fairly fortuitous course. It isn’t advisable that we prepare for Beijing to act as thoughtlessly, to prepare as little, or to make the as many errors in Taiwan as Russia has in Ukraine. China will no doubt face obstacles if it acts against Taiwan. China needs to upgrade its helicopters and other elements of its amphibious fleet. Even if it lands forces in Taiwan, the Chinese military might have to engage in urban warfare and counterinsurgency. The point here is that there is danger in finding too much comfort in the known events of Ukraine as we prepare for the unknown in Taiwan.
It also is not clear which military lessons we draw from Ukraine will be applicable to Taiwan. Russia has failed to obtain air superiority over Ukraine, but Russian aircraft are different than those operated by the People’s Liberation Air Force, and Taiwan’s air defense systems are very different from those employed by Ukraine. The Russian military’s reluctance to delegate authority has put its general officers in jeopardy, but there are some indications that emerging Chinese military concepts might seek to delegate some decisions to lower levels. China is working to upgrade its military capabilities, and like us, Taiwanese policymakers will learn from the Ukraine war — but it is not clear whether any of us will learn the right lessons.
In addition to supplying aid to Taiwan, the United States and other supporters may choose to intervene militarily in a fight over Taiwan, which they have not had to do in Ukraine. Since the establishment of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, the United States has been deliberately vague about its security commitment to Taiwan, although relatively recent statements by President Biden have been interpreted as clarifying the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. If the United States and other countries do intervene directly in a conflict over Taiwan, it is possible that China could threaten — much as Russian President Vladmir Putin has — and even use nuclear weapons. This brings to mind Cold War debates about whether or not Washington would trade New York for Paris to stop Soviet aggression. Fortunately, the United States never had to make that trade. Would it contemplate similar risks for Taiwan?
So far, observers have speculated that Putin’s nuclear threats at this point relate to tactical weapons. The Russian military has a history of planning for tactical nuclear use in conflict. U.S. defense analysts and war gamers have speculated that the Chinese military might threaten to use nuclear weapons against the United States in the event of a clash over Taiwan. Despite China’s adoption of a “no first use” policy, there are signs that it could be rethinking that now after witnessing the Russian misadventure in Ukraine. At this point, we don’t know what might provoke China to use nuclear weapons or what nuclear options China might employ.
The sheer scale of munitions, platforms, and other capabilities that Taiwan and its partners will need to successfully deter or deny Chinese military aggression suggests that we need to act promptly and with no small degree of urgency. Bureaucratic delay and inefficiency are never welcome, but in this case, they are outright obstacles to meaningful and timely preparation that could make the difference between successful deterrence and war, or between victory and defeat. This is troubling, because it is much easier to motivate partners and government departments in crises than in peacetime. The conflict in Ukraine shows how we can act during a crisis, but we won’t likely have the same opportunity in Taiwan. The Biden administration has made it clear since its first days that deterring Chinese military aggression in Taiwan is a priority, but U.S. support for Ukraine and other dynamics have led some to question if the current administration is truly prioritizing Taiwan.
Some defense analysts and members of the public have been encouraged by the plucky Ukrainian defense of its territory and sovereignty against a seemingly indestructible Russian military, reminding some of the battle between David and Goliath. A similar dynamic could materialize if it becomes necessary to protect Taiwan from China, but the prospect of success in Taiwan could improve with early preparation.
Michael Spirtas is associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Program, part of the RAND National Security Research Division, and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.