This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first presidential election in Taiwan in which power first switched hands to the opposition party. At the time, modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was underway and China’s threat to Taiwan, while not new, was growing more serious. That threat, however, was not nearly as potent as it is today. Writing on the feasibility of a Chinese effort to conquer Taiwan that year, Michael O’Hanlon argued that prospects of success were poor:
…China could not take Taiwan, even if US combat forces did not intervene. Nor will China be able to invade Taiwan for at least a decade, if not much longer…China should be deterred from attempting an invasion by the military impracticalities of the scenario, regardless of US policy.
O’Hanlon likewise argued that “coercive uses of force,” like blockades and missile bombardments, were manageable, as “the United States would have time to make any necessary military response” and “Taiwan’s very survival would not be at immediate risk.”
How times have changed. Assessments of China’s military threat to Taiwan today are far direr. In its 2013 National Defense Report, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense argued that China “plans to build comprehensive capabilities for using military force against Taiwan by 2020.” Four years later, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, MND reported, “the PLA now possesses the capability to impose a blockade on Taiwan and conduct multi-dimensional operations to seize our offshore islands.” The 2019 National Defense Report notes the PLA can carry out a successful air blockade as well and assess that the PLA is “capable of initiating joint blockades and joint firepower strikes against Taiwan.” A successful amphibious invasion of Taiwan is not yet within reach, but the PLA is making progress.
As Taiwan heads into 2020, Beijing’s threat to Taiwan’s freedom may be more pressing than it has been in decades. China’s evolving military capabilities have created an imbalance in military power across the Taiwan Strait. When considered in light of the emergence of a leader in the People’s Republic who has shown little flexibility in his approach to Taiwan, who has adopted annexation of the island as a key political goal, and who faces numerous internal challenges, a Chinese resort to force is neither far-fetched nor a long-term concern.
It is, at this point, impossible to confidently predict the outcome of the US presidential elections in 2020, but Taiwan’s leaders should not assume a Trump reelection or that, if the president is reelected, his Asia team will remain largely unchanged in the second term. Given the uncertainties presented by 2021, given that the current administration is well disposed towards Taiwan, and given the nature of Xi Jinping’s China, 2020 may be a critical year for deepening US-Taiwan relations and enhancing Taiwan’s security for the coming decade.
Trade: The Low-Hanging Fruit that Isn’t
Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce Taipei last November, President Tsai Ing-wen called for the United States and Taiwan to conclude a bilateral trade agreement (BTA) as soon as possible, arguing that “a high-quality BTA between our countries would not only help strengthen our engagement, it would also set a strong precedent for a rules-based trade order in the Indo-Pacific region.”
There is significant support on Capitol Hill for such an agreement. The Senate version of the Taiwan Assurance Act, introduced by Tom Cotton and co-sponsored by Menendez, Rubio, Cruz, Cortez Masto, and Coons, calls on the US Trade Representative (USTR) to “resume meetings under the United States and Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement [TIFA] with the goal of reaching a bilateral free trade agreement.” In December, the Congressional Taiwan Caucus co-chairs led a bipartisan letter, signed by a total of 161 lawmakers, to the US Trade Representative calling on him to “work toward trade agreement negotiations” with Taiwan. A BTA with Taiwan, they argue, “would expand markets for American goods,” “serve as a high bar for future agreements with other governments in the region,” “encourage more investment in American industries,” “establish comprehensive and high-standard rules for digital trade,” and “enhance our shared goal of enhancing the global competitiveness of US industries while spurring American job creation.”
USTR, unfortunately, is understaffed and seemingly uninterested in pursuing deepening trade ties with Taiwan. That TIFA talks have not been held since 2016 is telling. Even so, there may be an opportunity for progress. To take advantage of that opportunity, Taiwan will have to take bold action. Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told me Taiwan should opt for a non-traditional approach to concluding an agreement:
Forget negotiations. The Taiwanese should start with USMCA [the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement], explicitly improve the deal for the US by getting rid of multiple Mexican and Canadian demands they don’t care about, and say their goal is a vote in fall 2020. Communicated privately with USTR in January and go public in February.
Put another way, Taiwan should make an offer that USTR would find difficult to refuse. There is an opportunity for the United States and Taiwan to conclude a mutually beneficial trade deal within the year. That opportunity will not last.
Between June of 2017 and August of 2019, the Trump administration issued notifications to Congress of potential arms sales to Taiwan on five separate occasions. Those sales ran the gamut from spare parts to munitions and from pilot training to new tanks and fighter jets. The administration has moved away from the past practice of infrequent, “bundled” arms sales, with sales becoming more frequent. The first sale was announced prior to the onset of US-China trade hostilities, and negotiations to end those hostilities did not lead the Trump administration to avoid arms sales in successive years. At this point, there is not much to suggest that the president will depart from his approach to Taiwan arms sales thus far.
What sales, if any, will be notified to Congress in 2020? There is an outstanding request for 1,240 TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wireless-guided) missiles, and anti-armor munitions crucial for rebuffing amphibious assault and defending routes inland should enemy forces establish a beachhead. Unless Taiwan has de-prioritized their acquisition since making the request last year, this should be a relatively easy transfer on which to agree.
In September 2019, Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa confirmed to the Legislative Yuan that the defense ministry had requested to purchase M109A6 Paladin howitzers from the United States. Taiwan is also believed to have an interest in acquiring the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Either or both systems would accord well with Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept. As a bonus, a year after gaining approval for the purchase of new tanks and F-16s, the sale of mobile artillery systems would help to counteract the (arguably false) narrative that MND eschews the effective and affordable for the shiny and expensive. An agreement to sell Taiwan one or more major new defense systems in 2020 is not assured, but would not be that surprising.
A Major Shift?
In his 2000 International Security article, Michael O’Hanlon argued that since China could not, at the time, successfully invade Taiwan, “Washington need not abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity.” He went on to posit, “Given the dangers of a policy of strategic clarity, which could embolden Taipei to move toward independence and produce a major crisis, strategic ambiguity still makes sense.” This argument may have been reasonable at that time, especially given the election of Chen Shui-bian and uncertainty regarding the future direction of Taiwan’s first Democratic Progressive Party-led government.
Today, however, a reassessment is necessary. It is not at all clear, for example, that the major “danger” of strategic clarity that O’Hanlon highlighted—that it would make a formal Taiwan declaration of independence more likely—remains a serious concern. Even if that assessment holds true, the risk of a move towards formal independence may be less likely than the risk of Chinese use of force without a change in US approach.
With the persistent military, diplomatic, and economic pressure the People’s Republic has applied to Taiwan in recent years, Beijing has proven itself hostile to the supposed cross-Strait status quo. Indeed, it appears bent on both destabilizing cross-Strait ties and destabilizing Taiwan’s internal politics. It may now be time for the United States to draw a clearer line in the sand—to more staunchly commit itself to Taiwan’s defense and to the preservation of its democratic institutions and way of life. Such a clear commitment is important if the United States and Taiwan are to dissuade China from the perilous course upon which it seems to have set itself.
Can Washington convey such clarity while maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity? Perhaps, but there is an inherent contradiction in such an approach. The Trump administration is unlikely to jettison strategic ambiguity in 2020, but the president and his advisors have shown that they do not feel beholden to preserving the “sacred cows” of US foreign policy. This year, Washington should, in close consultation with Taipei, conduct an assessment of its Taiwan policy and ask some big questions in the process. Does strategic ambiguity allow for the effective deterrence of the PRC? Does the “One-China” policy continue to serve US interests? Should we establish a military-to-military relationship with Taiwan more akin to those we have with close allies like Japan and NATO members?
President Trump and his advisers may not be in office long enough to fundamentally shift the American approach to Taiwan and to cross-Strait relations. They can, however, do the hard work of conducting thorough risk assessments and developing options for their potential successors.
The Chinese threat to Taiwan grows ever greater. In 2020, the United States and Taiwan should strive to begin turning the tide in their favor.
The main point: In 2020, there are opportunities for the United States and Taiwan to deepen trade relations, pursue new and important arms sales, and update their relationship for the Xi Jinping era.