The US-Taiwan partnership remains robust under Presidents Donald Trump and Tsai Ing-wen, who could understand each other well. Both inherited security challenges. Trump places priority on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and dealing forcefully with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s threats. Tsai inherited an erosion in Taiwan’s self-defense against China. Taiwan also has an opportunity, one that might never arise again in such positive, triple alignment: support for a stronger Taiwan in the Congress, Trump Administration, and US Pacific Command (PACOM). Yet, concerns are rising about Taiwan’s insufficient urgency for deterrence and defense against coercion and conflict. Trump and Tsai could carry on this conceivable conversation.
Trump-Tsai Phone Call
Trump: President Tsai, you lead a magnificent democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan has never had a better friend in the US than now. We have a golden opportunity for a fantastic economic and security partnership. Taiwan is our 10th largest trading partner. I am leading the strongest ever pressure for North Korea’s denuclearization. Taiwan has banned all trade with that menace and has a tremendous US radar for missile defense. Taiwan stands in solidarity with freedom-loving nations. In October, you reached out to China for a breakthrough—an excellent speech. Taiwan has bought billions of dollars in U.S. weapons—the world’s best!
Tsai: President Trump, Taiwan appreciates the strategic partnership with American friends.
Trump: I want the US military to be at the strongest level and defense spending at $700 billion. But international security is a shared burden. Invest in your military. You won one election. Hopefully, Taiwan will hold future elections and not see the end of your beautiful democracy!
Tsai: What do you mean? Taiwan’s people defend our democracy. But we get different, conflicting answers when we ask for assistance from your State Department, particularly for our Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program.
Trump: I’ll look into that, believe me. I did tell Congress that I would go ahead with $1.4 billion in arms sales—long overdue. But as a fantastic friend, I must be honest. You inherited tremendous problems—like I did. We discuss with your Defense Ministry—in many meetings—that its budget is not sufficient. It’s worse than par. Right after you stopped in Hawaii, I stopped there for my long trip to Asia. The great Admiral Harris at PACOM told me his formula for deterrence: Capability x Resolve x Signaling = Deterrence. You need all three. Taiwan must show the will to protect your prosperity and homeland. It’s peace through strength. Defend against threats and stand strong against tyrants. You are running out of time. The longer you wait, the bigger the danger, and the fewer options for Taiwan. Thank you. Terrific call.
The Most Serious Threat Since 1949
This scenario of a plausible, second exchange reflects rising concerns about three gaps. There is a gap between Taiwan’s leadership and some military officers who worry about the most serious threat since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. Taiwan’s actions do not adequately match its rhetoric for credible deterrence and defense. The United States has a gap with Taiwan on the urgency to upgrade armed forces against the PRC.
Remarkably, a reminder to Taiwan in 2005 is still salient. At that year’s US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless issued a critical speech. The US stressed that the Taiwan Relations Act entails mutual obligations and intends for Taiwan to fulfill its obligation for sufficient self-defense. The United States warned Taiwan’s people, “we cannot help defend you if you cannot defend yourself.”
Taiwan lost at least a decade to modernize its military. President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) resumed cross-Strait dialogue but weakened Taiwan’s defense. He ordered the shift from conscription to a volunteer force. However, a volunteer force needs bigger budgets, and Ma failed to grow defense spending to 3 percent of GDP (Taiwan’s own objective). The Pentagon reported that in 2016, Taiwan’s defense budget totaled $10.5 billion, compared to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) budget of $32.8 billion. Both Taiwan and the ROK confront existential threats.
Taiwan has Lost Time
Tsai became President with high—but as yet unmet—expectations to reverse the erosion in Taiwan’s defense. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) indicated boosts in the budget for strategic, military, political, and economic reasons, given its stress on indigenous defense programs. Partisan politics no longer offer an excuse, since Tsai’s party also won control of the Legislative Yuan (LY). The DPP might be defensive against political criticism that Taiwan, under Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) administration, did not face China’s threat. In reality, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued to focus on Taiwan despite any lower tension, as the Pentagon warned in every report to Congress about China’s military power from 2009 to 2016.
With louder alarms, Washington is waking up Taipei from complacency. Last June, National Security Council Advisor Matt Pottinger and other officials gave a blunt message to Taiwan’s visiting former officials. The US side reminded Taiwan that its security has depended on China’s restraint and possible US intervention, but Taiwan needs to rely on self-defense. US officials posed a question for Taiwan: “what about four or eight years from now?” They commented that Taiwan’s defense budget has fallen no matter which party was in power and that Taiwan’s shift away from conscription was a mistake.
After more warnings to Taiwan in the summer, the Defense Department publicized the Administration’s coordinated speech in October. David Helvey, who was then Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, pointedly pressed Taiwan. At a US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, he purposefully cautioned Taiwan that the PLA’s growing capabilities, large-scale exercises, and increased ability to conduct joint operations “present a growing threat of a credible invasion force.” He warned that China is building the capability to coerce and, if directed by the Communist Party of China (CPC), to “compel unification by force.” Also, “today, it is incumbent upon Taiwan to spend more on defense; it is incumbent on Taiwan to invest, modernize, train, and equip its armed forces with a 21st century deterrent,” he urged. The KMT refused to send a representative to the conference.
In other words, Taiwan cannot fight the PLA of ten years ago. Frustration about Taiwan’s insufficient military manpower and money is focused on instability, not US arms sales (as Taiwan wrongly assumes).
The “Pottery Barn Rule”
Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush about war in Iraq: if you break it, you own it. Even if Tsai did not “break” Taiwan’s defense, she “owns” it now.
Moreover, Taiwan must deal with dangerous developments. In 2015, Xi Jinping ordered structural reforms to improve the PLA’s joint operations. The PLA’s new Strategic Support Force (SSF) could target Taiwan, especially with cyber operations, according to the Pentagon. As part of Xi’s strengthening of power at the 19th Congress of the CPC in October, he masterminded the PLA’s largest purges of senior officers. The younger, more professional PLA will accelerate advancement of potential war-fighting for unification as Xi’s legacy.
The DPRK regime has increased its ability to threaten catastrophe. The Trump administration departed from past “business as usual” by leading intense international pressure against the DPRK and its patron, the PRC regime. In Taiwan, some ask wrong questions about whether the tension with the DPRK is good (foolish) or bad for Taiwan (fearful of a US-PRC deal). Actually, Taiwan faces different precarious problems. Taiwan is close to the DPRK’s and PRC’s dangers, while the US military stretches its readiness from Afghanistan to Africa to Asia.
Policy Impasses and Options
There is progress. The United States and Taiwan have developed multiple channels of candid, constructive communication, especially around the time of Tsai’s stop in Honolulu in October. Taiwan’s leadership recognizes requirements in the short term, not just requests for the long term (such as next-generation F-35B fighters). Taiwan asks about programs in which it should invest. Helvey already articulated US support for some of Taiwan’s indigenous systems as asymmetric deterrents to the PLA’s invasion force. These systems include land-based and sea-based anti-ship cruise missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems, small fast attack boats, unmanned aerial vehicles, coastal defense artillery, and naval mines.
Still, Taipei and Washington need straight talk about military training or exercises, equipment, and personnel (the paramount factor). With Tsai’s requested 3.9 percent uptick from 2017’s budget, Taiwan’s 2018 defense budget would be NT$331.8 billion (US$11 billion)—only 1.9 percent of GDP—if not cut in the LY. Taiwan could raise readiness of more reserves, conscripts, and volunteers. Taiwan could see that its Navy needs MH-60R helicopters. Dealing with Ching Fu Shipbuilding’s case, Taiwan needs to protect defense technology and the honor of military officers who devoted their careers to their country. The State Department could end obfuscation and convey credible, consistent decisions about assistance for Taiwan’s IDS program. The United States and Taiwan could agree about Taiwan’s Air Force, including its decisions on outdated F-5 fighters, expensive Mirage fighters, and trainers. One option is to add to the US upgrade of Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighters to F-16V fighters by deciding on a program of new F-16 Block 70/72 fighters. As Helvey acknowledged, “Taiwan still requires some major end-items.”
The main point: Taiwan’s people are not doing enough with urgency for deterrence and defense against China, risking democracy, destabilization, and divergence in bilateral cooperation with the United States.