Lying roughly 2,000 km south of North Korea, Taiwan is within striking range of seven separate missile varieties being tested in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). While the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains Taiwan’s primary security threat, the Tsai administration should consider how to prepare the Taiwanese military to address potential threats stemming from increased instability and militarization on the Korean Peninsula. Although instances of Chinese preparatory military action toward Taiwan are numerous, restricting Taiwan’s military readiness solely to the traditional operating environment of a cross-Strait conflict is increasingly limiting. Reframing Taiwan’s military preparedness and capabilities to include a regional focus on North Korea-related contingencies will better prepare the Tsai administration for military developments in the “post-patience” era of East-Asian nuclear politics.
A string of missile tests conducted by the North Korean military throughout 2016-2017 have greatly heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. These missile launches are cause for grave concern. Global stability rests on ensuring the North Korean nuclear program is addressed safely and succinctly. With new administrations in the United States, Taiwan, and South Korea, regional actors must all begin to re-configure their military strategies to address the DPRK’s increasingly bellicose and credible threats. Taiwan must follow suit.
Recent DPRK missile tests and significant modifications in launch systems and strategies indicate that the North Korean threat is increasingly advanced, dangerous, and frighteningly credible. With the integration of solid fuel propellants, multi-staged delivery vehicles, and sophisticated steering and boost technologies, the DPRK is seeking to counteract potential adversaries’ conventional defense systems.
North Korea’s reliance on developing asymmetric and nuclear capabilities offers insight to what a future operating environment might look like in the USPACOM region where warfare is no longer confined between great powers. Instead, smaller powers operating in an ambiguous space between hegemons will have a greater incentive to pursue, not only their own weapons research and development (R&D), but first strike capability.
To counter the likelihood of a reactionary arms race in East Asia, it is important that proactive approaches to address North Korean weapons systems be taken multilaterally. Clear communication must be maintained between all parties. This collaborative approach will also be helpful in preparing shared defensive strategies as North Korea’s own strategies advance.
After a DPRK test launch towards the US Marine Corps base at Iwakuni, Japan in 2014, it seems, as scholar Jeffrey Lewis points out, that the North Koreans are not simply “trying” missiles out, but are practicing for a nuclear offensive against potential adversaries in the region. South Korea and Japan would be primary targets, as both countries harbor American forces, but in the event of a conventional or nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan would not be immune to the subsequent negative externalities of war. Taiwan’s unique military relationship with the United States and pronounced interest in regional stability could draw its forces into shared efforts to neutralize the North Korean threat.
Given its regional saliency, Taiwan should make strategic military and diplomatic investments that reflect the larger goal of stability. The provision of a THAAD missile system to Taiwan would not only have limited utility but would serve only to further strain relations across the Strait with China. The tragedy of great power politics leaves Taiwan in an ambiguous space where Taipei must tread lightly concerning its weapons investments, research, and development. To avoid greater regional conflict, it would be diplomatically prudent for Taiwan to make exceptionally clear to the PRC that its military adjustments are calibrated to fend off North Korean threats rather than Chinese advancements.
Crafting a focus on broader regional contingencies would also mirror recent PLA exercises. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reform process in its command-control doctrine has demonstrated that they are more concerned about developing conventional joint-operational, denial capabilities in the South China Sea than about dealing with concerns about THAAD deployment to South Korea. Recent deliberations regarding American deployment of THAAD systems in Taiwan have come to a head with Taiwanese Minister of Defense Feng Shih-Kuan’s (馮世寬) rejection. Citing the possibility of becoming embroiled in a war between global powers and sacrificing the Taiwanese military, Minister Feng struck a more independent tone in advocating for the development of indigenous Taiwanese military capabilities. Furthermore, even if THAAD’s interceptor precision lived up to its expected accuracy, the sheer number of Chinese short- and medium-range missiles, along with submarine-launched ballistic missiles would overwhelm primary targets on the island.
Such an investment would be quite expensive for a questionable marginal value of defensive return. The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense would thus benefit from buying US arms for broader regional threats and to bolster cyber, drone, air, anti-submarine, and asymmetric capabilities. A recent meeting between US and Taiwanese defense officials gave rise to speculation that the US might be willing to develop an arms package including AH-64E Apache helicopters, UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, AAV-7 Assault Amphibious Vehicles, short-range portable air-defense missile systems, Raytheon Phalanx close-in weapons systems and P-3C Orion aircraft. Such systems could help the Taiwanese prepare for both a Chinese invasion and a North Korean regional strike. In other words, Taiwan should play to its natural, industrial strengths when expanding the scope and readiness of its military through more useful American assistance.
President Tsai announced recently her support for a new initiative to move forward with the construction of indigenous Taiwanese submarines. The Taiwanese military is weak in their subsurface warfare, having only two outdated, combat-ready vessels. With a projected ten-year operational gap, the project will be time consuming, but will pay dividends for Taiwan’s broader security interests in the long run. Moving forward with the project will also signal to arms sellers that Taiwan is doing its part to maintain its overall security, not just against China.
As tensions on the Korean Peninsula rise, the Tsai administration would benefit greatly from refocusing the Taiwanese military to address regional threats. This refocus should include, not only greater efforts to develop independent Taiwanese military technologies, but also the establishment of a communication “hotline” between Taiwan and the United States. Such a “hotline” would be mutually beneficial, as it would ensure the clear and timely transfer of information regarding nuclear negotiations and military preparation on the Korean Peninsula. Overlooking Taiwan’s long-standing status as a partner and its geostrategic importance in the East China Sea would be a critical mistake for the Trump administration. If the DPRK continues to accelerate its rate of missile advancements, the United States, Japan, and South Korea will need a wide variety of logistical, intelligence, and military supports to counter the North Korean threat. Well-established contingency plans with Taiwan would be essential in securing effective assistance.
Main Point: Taiwanese military capabilities are often gauged against the barometer of how effective its forces would be in the event of a Chinese invasion. Though Taiwan should continue to prepare for such an engagement, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense and the United States should recognize Taiwan’s need for certain weapon systems over others, specifically regarding a North Korean first strike on a regional actor close to Taiwan.