On November 22, Taiwan’s United Daily News broke the news that Heino Klinck, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, had visited Taiwan during the week of November 18. The Taipei Times described it as the senior-most visit to Taiwan by a Department of Defense official in over a decade, pointing to a stunning level of American neglect over that period of time. Although the Pentagon and Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) regularly engage at lower levels via a variety of dialogue structures, DASD Klinck and his counterparts surely had much to discuss. American and Taiwan priorities for these discussions may have included some or all of the following.
Righting a Wrong
Although much American attention has been focused on Chinese actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea in recent years (and for good reason), the Taiwan Strait may remain the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia. It is in the Taiwan Strait where what we might call the “core values” of both China and the United States come into direct conflict. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may see its very survival at stake; at stake for the United States are national security interests that Washington has sought to defend since at least World War II. In the event of a crisis, China likely has far less flexibility to alter its position in the Taiwan Strait than it would in the East or South China seas. Meanwhile, an American president might find that, even in the absence of a formal defense treaty with Taipei (as with Tokyo and others), he or she would be hard pressed to sit out a conflict over Taiwan’s fate.
There are, then, good reasons for American and Taiwan officials to engage at the very highest levels. Taiwan, after all, is a country that the United States might one day go to war to defend. As I have argued in these pages previously, the American president owes it to the American people, not to mention the men and women in uniform under his command, to speak with his or her counterpart in Taipei—for in wartime, it is perhaps no less important to understand one’s allies than to understand one’s enemies.
Of course, American presidents do not engage directly with their Taiwanese counterparts. And for the past decade, neither have deputy assistant defense secretaries responsible for the region, at least not in Taipei. There is only one possible reason more senior leaders have not permitted this—to avoid upsetting China. Given the stakes, such neglect would be difficult to justify even if it had convinced Beijing to modify its behavior. Over the past 10 years, of course, China has conducted an island-building campaign in the South China Sea, challenged Japanese control over islands and resources in the East China Sea, dangerously harassed US military forces in Asia, and carried out an unyielding pressure campaign against Taiwan.
A DASD visit to Taiwan corrects what has been a decade-long mistake and is likely to do so without markedly inflaming tensions with the People’s Republic.
Checking Up on the ODC
Retired Admiral Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明, b. 1955), Taiwan’s former chief of general staff, led the development of the Overall Defense Concept (ODC), which former US Defense Department official Drew Thompson describes as “a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense.” Public details of the ODC are scant, but it represents an answer to China’s growing military threat and to Washington’s years-long efforts to encourage Taiwan to adopt asymmetric and innovative approaches to tackling that threat. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s recently published annual report describes Taiwan’s progress in implementing the ODC:
To further implement Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept, which was unveiled in 2017, Taiwan allocated funding for 60 small fast-attack missile craft, expedited production of new missile defense systems and mobile land-based antiship missile platforms, and began construction of four rapid mine-laying ships. The Overall Defense Concept emphasizes the development of asymmetric capabilities and tactics to capitalize on Taiwan’s defensive advantages, enhance resilience, and exploit the PLA’s weaknesses.
This is all good news. The mastermind behind the ODC, however, has retired and, for now, is out of the government. While the ODC remains the policy, the Department of Defense may have concerns about its longevity. Does the ODC have sufficient institutional buy-in to outlast changes in military leadership? Has bureaucratic resistance (and there must be some) to what amounts to a significant change in military strategy asserted itself in the wake of ADM Lee’s retirement?
Notably, President Tsai Ing-wen has spoken favorably about the ODC. In a speech delivered via video link to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tsai avowed that the ODC “has my support 100 percent.” She brought it up again, unprompted, during the event’s question and answer session, noting that her government would “focus on funding the capabilities we need under the overall defense concept,” and claiming, again, “I am committed to ODC, which will make our armed forces smarter, more nimble, and survivable.” This level of public presidential support certainly suggests the ODC is here to stay (barring a change in government come next year). DASD Klinck may have been seeking confirmation that this is, indeed, the case.
DASD Klinck and his counterparts in Taiwan may have also discussed priorities for the defense relationship going forward. There have been a series of notable arms sales approvals over the last year, including for new F-16V fighter aircraft and M1A2T Abrams tanks. With those significant accomplishments in the rearview mirror, however, it is important to keep up the positive momentum and determine next steps.
A key priority for MND is assistance on developing its indigenous defense submarine (IDS). In the spring of 2018, media reporting indicated that the Trump administration had approved the license needed for American defense firms to sell relevant technology to Taiwan. It is unclear if US participation in the IDS program has been forthcoming, but defense and foreign ministry officials continue to describe such assistance as a top request. Taiwan broke ground on a submarine shipyard earlier this year and plans to put to sea its first self-build submarine in 2024. Relatively speaking, given the magnitude of Taiwan’s challenge in designing and building its own submarine, 2024 is right around the corner. With MND looking to graduate from the program’s design phase, it would be surprising if this was not on the agenda during Klinck’s visit.
Beyond submarines, Taiwan’s priorities for foreign military acquisitions are somewhat unclear, at least in the public domain. The United States has yet to approve pending requests for TOW anti-armor and Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Taipei presumably still desires. A September report indicated that Taiwan is looking to purchase M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and possibly M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), an issue I wrote about in a previous issue of the Global Taiwan Brief. Whether new letters of request for these or other American systems are in the works is unclear.
Recent defense talks may have, in part, focused on ensuring both MND and DOD are on the same page regarding the necessity and feasibility of potential future purchases. In particular, meetings may have included discussions of the sale of sea mines, anti-ship munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles, electronic warfare assets, and maritime domain awareness capabilities.
Bilateral Military Exercises
It may be the case that Taiwan’s priorities for the defense relationship do not, at the moment, fall under the arms sales category. Although the relationship involves far more than the provision of “defense articles,” as the Taiwan Relations Act puts it, there are areas where ties could be further enhanced. In particular, bilateral military training can be and should be expanded significantly.
The United States military is arguably the world’s most experienced and best trained. Exercising alongside US forces, Taiwan’s own forces will both come to better understand their own weaknesses and more effectively address them. Bilateral training should occur across all the services.
Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit in this regard would be Taiwan’s participation in the Red Flag. The US Air Force describes Red Flag as the service’s “premier air-to-air combat training exercise.” It often includes international partners and “provides aircrews the experience of multiple, intensive air combat sorties in the safety of a training environment.” Taiwan’s F-16 pilots already conduct training in the United States at Luke Air Force Base and will move in the coming years to Tucson International Airport—both locations are just a short flight away from Nellis Air Force Base, the home of Red Flag. Taiwan’s defense officials have long put participation at the top of their wish list and it would be surprising if they did not raise it with DASD Klinck during his recent visit. If the United States is willing to sell Taiwan advanced fighter aircraft, it should want Taiwan to operate them at the highest level.
Taiwan has also long asked to participate in RIMPAC, major multilateral naval exercises held in waters off Hawaii every other year. Although Taiwan should not abandon this quest, it might consider prioritizing bilateral naval exercises instead. In a bilateral setting, both countries can work more specifically on their ability to communicate smoothly and interoperate, and can work to enhance the warfighting proficiency of all ships involved (which is not the case in a multilateral setting like RIMPAC). Because such exercises can occur on the high seas, they might be seen as less potentially provocative to China than exercises on American or Taiwanese soil.
Finally, given the US government’s insistence that Taiwan first and foremost focus on defending against invasion, DOD should be prepared to assist Taiwan in training its forces to fight on the beaches. For Taiwan, there would be no better opposing force with which to train than the United States Marine Corps. Such training would, by necessity, involve large numbers of Taiwan ground forces on US soil or American forces in Taiwan. Neither Taipei nor Washington appears ready to take that step, but DASD Klinck’s visit to the island would have been a good time to start having the discussion.
The main point: The first visit by a US deputy assistant secretary of defense to Taiwan in over a decade provided an opportunity for bilateral discussions on priority areas including the overall defense concept, arms sales, and opportunities for bilateral training.