Taiwan is strengthening deterrence and defense against the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s threats of coercion and conflict. The prospects for US-Taiwan security cooperation are very good—the best in many years. However, the risks also are much greater if Taipei will not urgently reach results on asymmetric warfare and the two sides do not enhance and clarify communication to dispel misperceptions and promote mutual understanding. What are some options for Taipei and Washington with an opportunity of strong US support for Taiwan’s self-defense?
Debate over defense concept
Taiwan is undergoing critical debates at a historic juncture when the stars are aligned just right: stronger US support in the Congress, the Trump Administration, and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM); as well as new support in Taiwan for a realistic concept for asymmetric warfare to deter and defend against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Administration of President Tsai Ing-wen is requesting an increase of 5.6 percent in the 2019 defense budget with an amount of NT$346 billion (US$11.2 billion), or 2.1 percent of GDP.
Taiwan’s leadership is debating an Overall Defense Concept (ODC) for joint, survivable, innovative, and asymmetric warfare. The ODC redefines warfighting to focus on defense of the island and to prevent the PLA from occupying Taiwan. How can the ODC be implemented? How soon? How can it be reconciled with traditional concepts of warfare, such as acquiring advanced tanks, submarines, and fighters for the services? In short, how can Taiwan’s military survive?
Some Taiwanese officials raise the issue of not only how can Taiwan’s military survive, but how can Taiwan itself survive as a prosperous and democratic country free from the PRC’s coercion and aggression? Certain officials recognize the PRC’s urgent existential threat to Taiwan. Ultimately, some in Taiwan have a broader view to stress strategic sustainment of all elements of national power: what might be called DIME (diplomacy, information, military, and economy). They also emphasize the political implications of Taiwan’s defense policy.
Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy
In the United States and some allies, there is now recognition with a great sense of urgency and realism about the strategic competition with China to deal with its challenges. Gone is the old “business as usual,” whether to deal with threats from the regimes of China or North Korea.
Again, the stars are aligned: both the US and Taiwan are more realistic about China’s challenges.
Looking to the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)’s enactment next April, it is time for much more than just planning events to mark the milestone. Action is required precisely because the stakes are so high. If honestly facing this situation, there would no longer be avoidance on decisions, or just “kicking the can down the road.”
Moreover, in the new sense of principled realism as articulated by the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, US policymakers might recognize that this unique bilateral relationship with restrictions in contacts with Taiwan’s officials is presenting more problems now than solutions in carrying out policy for almost 40 years under the TRA. Over the decades, the practice of implementing policy has imposed self-restrictions, not the policy itself. Contrary to the PRC’s or State Department’s objections to changing so-called “unofficial” contacts with Taiwan, the TRA does not specify the bilateral relationship as official or unofficial and does not discuss the “one-China” concept as part of policy on Taiwan.
If Washington stresses to Taipei the urgency of deterring the PLA’s threats now, then Washington also needs to engage with a new sense of urgency and actions. If the days of “business as usual” are gone, then what changes are needed now to help strengthen Taiwan’s defense? Fundamentally, the unavoidable issue asks: what is the strategic objective for Taiwan, if US policy is more about process than any resolution? Can Taiwan survive after a few years?
Options to Strengthen Practical Cooperation
While it has been beneficial that Taiwan’s military officers attend US military educational institutions and write academic papers, some other options might be emphasized to strengthen pragmatically Taiwan’s deterrence and reconcile differences in communication about US-Taiwan cooperation. Moreover, despite the overall declining trend in US arms sales to Taiwan, there is no longer a problem of repairing the process whereby notifications to Congress of arms sales were delayed in so-called “packages” or Taiwan’s Letters of Request were not accepted even for consideration. So, what are some other options to strengthen US-Taiwan security cooperation?
Option 1. While existing military-to-military (mil-to-mil) exchanges are robust, both sides could expand combined training and integrate them in a joint manner. Thus, mil-to-mil training would build upon service-to-service engagements.
Option 2. While thousands of US subject matter experts (SMEs) contribute to security assistance for Taiwan each year, Taipei could work with Washington on more defense SMEs going to Taiwan, particularly for practical training of its military officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) at various levels from bottom to top in areas such as these:
-Taiwan’s leadership decision-making
-Taiwan’s joint operational plans
-Taiwan’s joint doctrine
-Taiwan’s joint training
-Taiwan’s defense contracts, arms acquisitions, and industrial cooperation
-Taiwan’s security clearances and technology controls
-Taiwan’s critical infrastructure protection and cyber security
-Taiwan’s reserve force (stressed in the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act)
-Taiwan’s political warfare and public affairs officers (media outreach)
-Taiwan’s continuity of government and leadership succession
-Taiwan’s limits in recruiting and retaining a volunteer force
Option 3. While both sides engage in senior-level official talks on defense and security, Washington could send more retired and active-duty flag officers or general officers to engage in direct talks with Taiwan’s civilian and military leadership, particularly the president. Also, while senior official meetings are not unprecedented, Washington could send an Assistant Secretary of Defense and other senior Defense Department or National Security Council officials to Taipei. Such face-to-face talks are needed to dispel misperceptions and to clarify approaches. Taipei could ensure such meetings are substantive and reach results. Both sides could further reconcile different outlooks, for example, Washington looking more to the long-term while stressing the short-term and Taipei focusing more on the urgent current threat while looking to the future.
Option 4. Moreover, US policy in general (perhaps, with legislation) could authorize the Defense Department to decide (without the State Department’s required, written approval) whether to allow visits to Taiwan by flag or general officers (military personnel above the rank of O-6) and Assistant Secretaries of Defense or other senior officials (above the level of office director). The Defense Department could make its own decisions, regardless of the State Department’s Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan or other restrictions on contacts with Taiwan’s officials.
Option 5. The United States could welcome Taiwan’s minister of defense to visit in October, while attending the annual US-Taiwan defense industry conference to which he is invited. While US policy generally has allowed Taiwan’s defense minister to visit, the issue shifted largely to whether Taipei has been willing to send such an official to engage in direct talks in the United States. US policy also could change to remove the distinction of allowing Taiwan’s defense minister to visit the United States but not in the small area of the District of Columbia.
Option 6. After a four-year gap so far, Washington could send a Cabinet-rank official to Taiwan. Consideration might focus on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Option 7. The Defense Department might upgrade one or both of the senior military representatives assigned in Taipei at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) from the rank of colonel to rank of brigadier general.
The main point: President Tsai’s decisive leadership is needed to resolve Taiwan’s debate on the ODC, particularly given the Trump Administration’s support for the ODC and stronger US support for Taiwan’s defense. The prospects for security cooperation are promising, but the risks are great if Taiwan will fail to reach results and waste this opportunity to strengthen defense.
(This article is based on remarks at GTI’s 2018 Annual Symposium on September 12, 2018.)