Home inFocus Reassessing Our World (Summer 2022) Defending Taiwan: Not a Sideshow

Defending Taiwan: Not a Sideshow

LTG. Earl Hailston USMC (Ret.) and Stephen Bryen Summer 2022
Taiwanese soldiers watch as a Chinook helicopter carrying a large Taiwan flag flies over a military camp.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Stephen D. Bryen and LTG Earl Hailston, USMC (Ret) chaired a panel for the Center for Security Policy to reconsider Washington’s current plans for the defense of Taiwan. The results are presented here.

While the war in Ukraine has lessened public focus on the growing challenge in the Pacific, the fact is that China today is more powerful than Russia, has a bigger arsenal of precision-guided weapons, and poses a significant security challenge in the region for the United States, its allies, and friends. Because of China’s political system, its human rights record, and its antipathy to liberal democracy, China is competing for dominance in east Asia that would replace democratic governments and the rule of law with Chinese centralized authoritarian rule. 

Nothing better illustrates what happens than the case of Hong Kong, where despite solemn undertakings by the Chinese government, Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and its courts have been systematically undermined and pro-democracy leaders jailed. In equal measure, in the South China Sea, China has illegally occupied and militarized several islands and reefs despite an International Court of Justice arbitration that found that the Chinese had no sovereign claims on these territories. China has disregarded solemn agreements and flouted international claims at will and it is anticipated will continue to do so. 

China’s Territorial Claims

China promotes several specious territorial claims. For example, China claims a large part of Laos and Cambodia, all of Korea, all of Mongolia, and disputes parts of India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Bhutan, and Japan. In addition to the above-mentioned South China Sea islands, China also claims the Macclesfield Bank, Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands. Japan’s dispute with China involves the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea and Ryukyus islands and Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and Exclusive Economic Zone in the East China Sea. China also has claims on Okinawa and on parts of Nepal. China has enforced some of these claims in military clashes (e.g., India) and in using its Navy and Coast Guard to try to enforce its sovereignty claims (e.g., Senkaku islands). 

China has continually threatened Taiwan since the Kuomintang forces of Chiang Kai-shek withdrew from the mainland to the island, then known as Formosa, starting in August 1949. Recently, China increased its military operations focused on Taiwan, sending large formations of fighter aircraft, bombers, and electronic warfare aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, requiring Taiwan to scramble its aircraft and keep its air defenses on high alert. Meanwhile China has been practicing different invasion tactics and methods to attack U.S. aircraft carriers that China believes might be called to help Taiwan if an attack occurs, as happened in May 1996, when Washington ordered two carrier task forces to respond to Chinese threats against Taiwan. 

Chinese military power, especially in and around the First Island Chain, has grown significantly and today includes: 

A navy that is larger and more modern than the United States Navy, including three aircraft carriers, nuclear and diesel electric submarines, and air defense systems. 

An air force with fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft, bombers, surveillance, and electronic warfare (EW) platforms. 

Sophisticated tactical and strategic missiles, cruise missiles and drones; and 

A sizeable amphibious force that is improving its capabilities and also effectively “fusing” civilian maritime transport resources to support a potential invasion across the 110-mile Taiwan Strait separating the island and its 24 million people from continental Asia and China, population 1.4 billion. 

Intimidating the U.S.

The goal of China’s Communist Party dictatorship is to intimidate the United States and its allies to the point at which China believes it will have a free hand to pressure democratic Taiwan and, that failing, to carry out an invasion or launch attacks leading up to a full invasion if deemed necessary by Chinese authorities. 

Unfortunately, many of the studies, war games, simulations, and statements by experts have created, whether intentionally or not, a defeatist atmosphere in Washington and among allies and friends, including in Taiwan. Such attitudes are strongly encouraged by Beijing. 

In recent years the Pentagon has carried out unclassified and classified war games and simulations to assess U.S. ability to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan against an increasingly powerful Chinese threat. Other than one or two of these exercises, the simulations projected significant losses if the United States tried to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion. The few classified exercises that found the U.S. might be able to hold its own in any conflict made some big assumptions, for example that the U.S. would be fielding sixth generation fighter jets, something that won’t happen for at least a decade and probably even further into the future. One article put it this way: 

 ‘The casualties that the Chinese could inflict on us could be staggering,’ said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at Rand and formerly a China analyst at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. ‘Antiship cruise missiles could knock out U.S. carriers and warships; surface-to-air missiles could destroy our fighters and bombers.’

Deterring China

Earlier this year, the Washington-based Center for Security Policy convened a panel of experts, all of whom have extensive experience in the Pacific and with the U.S. Pacific command. The CSP panel believes the U.S. can deter China from attacking Taiwan even without sixth generation fighter jets or future weapons and believes further that if China decides to attack that the U.S. and its allies can come to Taiwan’s assistance and under the right conditions, turn back a Chinese invasion. 

There are several steps, especially if taken in peacetime, that can better position the U.S., its allies, and friends, to counter any military operations against Taiwan or themselves. A “whole of government” approach is required to deter potential Chinese aggression and not leave U.S. defense forces to act unilaterally. At the political level the U.S. must energetically seek the support of its friends in the region, making it clear to them that their cooperation and military support is essential if they want to maintain their independence in the future. For the armed forces, the China danger requires a joint, combined approach to the growing threat posed by China’s military expansion. This means not only that U.S. forces must be better integrated, but also regional military assets need to be part of the response to Chinese threats. 

The time has passed that the U.S. can, or for that matter should, be the sole provider of security in Asia. 

Other nations need to do their part and support a common effort to maintain regional peace and security. This means greater investments in defense systems, combined command and control responsibilities, and mutual support in the form of bases, weapons, stockpiles, communications, intelligence, and other steps to assure the successful sharing of responsibility. 

Much more must be done to bring Taiwan’s military into the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) and help Taiwan improve its tactical capabilities, particularly command and control. 

What Must be Done

Every step taken to improve U.S. and friendly forces; acquire new bases, operating locations, and depots; and coordinate them, is a challenge to China and improves deterrence. It is especially important, given what happened in Afghanistan and the limitations of NATO in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to convince China that the United States and its allies and friends will not yield to the Chinese threat or any attack by China on Taiwan. Above all, there is near certainty China will be testing America’s resolve in various ways, ratcheting up the challenge in the months and years ahead. 

On the reverse side, if decision-makers in Washington are convinced that counteracting China is a losing proposition, they will pull back from any confrontation or signal to China that the U.S. won’t intervene militarily. This is what Washington, London and others signaled as Russia built up its troops near Ukraine preparatory to a land invasion. Therefore, while the panel thinks a combined warfighting capability can deter China, this message must reach decision-makers in the U.S. government in a timely way to have any affect. 

A whole of government approach in the United States, and a collaborative defensive posture with allies and friends, together with a common command and control system will revolutionize deterrence in east Asia and help assure Taiwan can be defended if a crisis occurs. Once fully operational, uncommitted actors along the First Island Chain, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, will have more confidence and ought to be more willing to participate in this endeavor to maintain regional peace and stability. 

This is an entirely new way to assure peace in east Asia and beyond, but well within reach. The Quad Alliance (U.S., Australia, India, Japan) is indicative of how to proceed at the highest political decision-making level. But the Quad needs to be expanded and its work followed up with operational components including a Common Command Structure for the region, and the parties need to register a clear understanding of their responsibilities and required action in case of a crisis. 

Strategic Ambiguity

In recent years, successive American administrations have taken an approach known as “strategic ambiguity,” which traces to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA did not try to undo the U.S. decision to no longer recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China but sought to provide reassurance to the island and encourage peaceful negotiations between Taiwan and China. The U.S. sought to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons so the self-governing island alone could deter China. That was, perhaps possible for a time, before China embarked on the modernization and expansion of its conventional and nuclear capabilities. 

A good example is the provision of fighter jets. In 1991, after 12 years of deliberation, the U.S. finally decided to sell modern F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, but the jets that were delivered were limited in mission and lacked ground or sea attack capability. It took until 2014, 23 years later, to get the Peace Phoenix Rising 2 program in place upgrading Taiwan’s F-16 A/B jets. That upgrade effort is still in progress. Five years later, in 2019 the U.S. agreed to sell Taiwan 66 new F-16V fighters, the first sale of new fourth-generation-plus fighters in 28 years. None of the new F-16V jets has been delivered so far. 

The U.S. did not offer to sell Taiwan F-35s, the multi-mission stealth fighter, something that should have been considered. Worse still, Washington tended to provide cast-off equipment to Taiwan such as worn-out, thin-skinned naval frigates and obsolete army tanks. For example, Taiwan acquired M-48A3 tanks in 1958 and only now – after 64 years – is retiring most of them. Taiwan also has some old M-60 tanks, but has developed an indigenous tank, the CM “Brave Tiger.” They do not have up-to-date guns. 

Even more unacceptable, the U.S. –often under pressure from China— or policymakers’ own preemptive fear of Chinese criticism, kept Taiwan’s military at arm’s length or worse; little training was provided; almost no joint training was conducted; communications were limited; U.S. military officers were prohibited from visiting Taiwan as were high-level civilian officials. Cutting off Taiwan in this manner made it difficult for the island to modernize its forces or to be confident the government and military could defend the island, even for a short time until help arrived (if ever). 

Recently, relations with Taiwan and its military have begun to improve, and the U.S. is more willing to sell some advanced equipment to Taiwan, although sales are still well behind need. The U.S. is also offering more training to Taiwan’s military and U.S. trainers are visiting the island for this purpose. 

It is of great importance that Taiwan’s forces improve their internal communications and command and control, information sharing capabilities, and create links that currently do not exist to U.S., allied and friendly forces. Hardware alone is unlikely to solve Taiwan’s defense problems. The government needs to address manpower issues, adequately fund, and provide needed support to the Taiwan Armed Forces, attract recruits, and bolster morale. Reserves and Civil Defense similarly need urgent attention. 

Strategic ambiguity has undermined deterrence. Instead of making the area safer, it has encouraged China to systematically increase military pressure on Taiwan. At the same time, aware of U.S. ambivalence, China is also sharpening its training for a Taiwan invasion. 

Strategic ambiguity should be removed from the U.S. lexicon for the defense of Taiwan. 

Stephen D. Bryen, Ph.D., and LTG Earl Hailston, USMC (Ret), Co-Chairs. Panel participants included GEN Robert B. Brown (U.S.A, Ret.), former Commanding General, U.S. Army, Pacific; ADM Scott Swift (USN, Ret.), former Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet; LTG David Deptula (USAF, Ret.) first U.S.AF Chief of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; LTG Lewis A. Craparotta (USMC, Ret.) former Commanding General, 1st Marine; Seth Cropsey, Yorktown Institute; COL Daniel S. Roper (U.S.A, Ret.), Director of Strategic Studies at the Association of the U.S. Army; COL Grant Newsham (USMC, Ret.) former reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific and Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy; and Adam Savit, Center for Security Policy.