Taiwan faces an increasingly urgent threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will soon be capable of launching an invasion of Taiwan, and political conditions in Beijing may be increasingly conducive to Xi Jinping (習近平) making that call. Commendably, members of Congress are taking the threat seriously and proposing legislation designed to speed new equipment Taiwan’s way—and to enhance Taiwan’s ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat PRC aggression. Two recent pieces of legislation in particular—the Arm Taiwan Act of 2021 and the Taiwan Deterrence Act—include provisions that could be effective in helping Taiwan to defend itself. As currently structured, however, these bills could be counterproductive if they were ever to become law.
A New Approach
A key insight inherent in both bills is that the current American approach to assisting Taiwan in defending itself has proven insufficient. Arms sales remain a crucial and necessary component, but they have failed to provide Taiwan with the full spectrum of needed capabilities at a suitably rapid pace. In September 2020, the American Enterprise Institute’s Gary Schmitt and I argued that the United States should consider security assistance for Taipei. At present, and to its credit, Taiwan purchases all of the defense equipment and services that the United States transfers to it. This is not the case for numerous other partners and allies, however, including other relatively wealthy countries like Israel. If Taiwan’s continuing de facto independence is an important American national security interest, the United States should be more creative in utilizing a variety of tools to achieve that end.
Schmitt and I suggested using security assistance in a potentially novel way: “military aid as a means to encourage Taiwan to invest more in its own defense.” In particular, we suggest that military assistance could be used to encourage specific kinds of investments in Taiwan above and beyond current levels of defense spending. The Arm Taiwan Act of 2021 and Taiwan Deterrence Act both include language to enact such a program.
The Arm Taiwan Act of 2021, introduced by Senator Josh Hawley, would direct the secretary of defense to establish a “Taiwan Security Assistance Initiative” in order to “accelerate Taiwan’s deployment of asymmetric defense capabilities required to deter or, if necessary, defeat an invasion by the People’s Republic of China.” The bill would commit significant resources to the initiative, authorizing USD $3 billion to be appropriated each year from 2023 to 2027, for a total of USD $15 billion over five years. That is not chump change. The legislation makes that assistance conditional on several factors: Taiwan spending an equal amount on asymmetric defense capabilities; on spending at least three percent of its gross domestic product on defense; on buying asymmetric capabilities from foreign suppliers, if those suppliers can more quickly deliver capabilities than Taiwan’s own manufacturers; and on “undertaking the defense reforms required to maximize the effectiveness of an asymmetric defense against an invasion.”
The Taiwan Deterrence Act, introduced by Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch, similarly embraces security assistance for Taiwan. Unlike the Hawley bill, the Risch legislation would provide foreign military financing (FMF) through the Department of State—in particular, $20 billion over 10 years. Conditions on that assistance are less stringent and would require more collaboration than in the Arm Taiwan Act of 2021. In order to receive FMF, Taiwan would have to match proposed spending, but the act envisions that Washington and Taipei would work together to agree on expenditures, and would require that they “conduct joint long-range planning for capability development.”
Although the intent of the Hawley bill is admirable, an FMF initiative like that outlined in the Taiwan Deterrence Act provides a better starting point for any such program. Its inclusiveness—in particular, its focus on “joint long-range planning”—would ensure that Taiwan remained deeply involved in decisions about its own defense.
The Arm Taiwan Act of 2021, by comparison, could be seen as more heavy-handed—and in important ways, less conducive to Taiwan’s own interests. Consider, for example, its insistence that Taiwan source asymmetric abilities abroad if foreign suppliers can provide delivery more quickly than domestic firms. This provision, while well-meaning, ignores domestic political and strategic realities in Taiwan. Like all countries, Taiwan sees a need to ensure the viability of its domestic defense industry, both because of the economic benefits and because it provides insurance against being cut off from the US defense sector in the future. This is a wise precaution given Taiwan’s experience of international isolation in recent decades, as well as the fact that the United States has not always been a reliable supplier.
But more concerning is section 4 of the Arm Taiwan Act, titled “Limitation on Conventional Arms Sales.” Language from this section would describe “the sense of Congress” that Taiwan’s prioritization of the acquisition of conventional weapons has been “misguided,” and that the “future […] provision of conventional weaponry […] should be conditioned on meaningful progress by the Government of Taiwan on the acquisition of appropriate asymmetric defense capabilities.” In a statement of policy, the bill indicates that for each year during a five-year period, the United States shall make no conventional arms transfers unless the secretary of defense certifies that Taiwan has already spent sufficient funds on asymmetric capabilities; or else that the conventional capability in question “is necessary to enhance the ability of Taiwan to deter or, if necessary, defeat an invasion” or “will not slow, delay, limit, or otherwise detract from or undermine the ability of Taiwan to deploy such asymmetric defense capabilities.”
The problems here are twofold. First, the Arm Taiwan Act of 2021—and, to a lesser extent, the Taiwan Deterrence Act—assumes that invasion is the only threat for which Taiwan should be preparing. But the PLA has undertaken a decades-long modernization effort that now allows it to pose a multifaceted threat. Chinese leaders might opt, for example, to blockade Taiwan, carry out limited missile strikes aimed at decapitating Taiwan’s leadership or destroying critical infrastructure, or seize an offshore island. The invasion threat is undeniably the most existential for Taiwan’s defenders, but Taiwan’s leaders may not assess it to be the most likely. Even if it is, Taiwan needs to be able to respond to a variety of contingencies, and do so on its own. The United States and Taiwan should be exchanging views at the highest levels of political and military leadership before Washington can presume to tell Taipei what it should and should not invest in. Such exchanges have not happened since the severing of diplomatic relations in 1979.
Second, and related, inherent in both pieces of legislation is a confidence that America knows best when it comes to understanding the PRC threat and how best to counter it. To be sure, the Department of Defense and the world’s most powerful military are increasingly focused on the Indo-Pacific region and are bringing significant resources, expertise, and experience to bear in studying and addressing the challenge. But a dose of humility is in order, too. Taiwan, after all, has been focused almost exclusively on the PRC threat for more than 70 years. It has a better understanding of the Chinese Communist Party, the PRC government, and how both operate. It may well be far more effective at collecting human intelligence in China. That does not mean that Taiwan is always right or always makes the best decisions about how to defend itself; but it does mean that there are good reasons to respect Taiwan’s own assessments and decisions, and to respectfully discuss differences.
Fundamentally, even as both bills seek to enhance Taiwan’s self-defense capability, they are, in important ways, disrespectful of Taiwan’s self-rule. Consider, for example, the first of two reporting requirements in the Taiwan Deterrence Act. It directs the secretary of defense to provide a report that “describes United States priorities for building more capable Taiwan security forces and organizations,” and includes “a priority list of defense and military capabilities that Taiwan must possess for the United States to be able to achieve its military objectives in the Indo-Pacific region.” The proposed legislation understandably and rightly puts American interests first; but Taipei is, of course, first and foremost concerned with fielding capabilities that allow Taiwan to achieve its own objectives. The language is unlikely to be reassuring in Taipei and, counterproductively, could even make the “joint long-range planning for capability development”—which the Taiwan Deterrence Act calls for and is undoubtedly necessary—more difficult. Opposition politicians in Taiwan have already raised concerns the bill will impinge on its sovereignty. Because both bills so openly treat Taiwan as a junior partner, they threaten to undercut the diplomacy that is desperately needed to ensure an effective combined defense.
To be sure, the United States has often used a heavy hand in alliance management. But it bears reminding that Taiwan is not a treaty ally. In a nutshell, the American message to Taiwan lately has been as follows: “Focus on the asymmetric fight and let us handle the rest—but, no, we cannot assure you that we actually will handle the rest.” If that is a division of labor that makes sense, then it first requires an unambiguous commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense not only in the event of an invasion, but in response to a wide range of potential crises. FMF or other forms of security assistance for Taiwan should be driven by a more-or-less shared strategy for ensuring that country’s continued de facto independence. There is no such strategy at present—and unfortunately, Congress cannot legislate a solution to that problem.
The main point: Two recent pieces of legislation in particular—the Arm Taiwan Act of 2021 and the Taiwan Deterrence Act—include provisions that could be effective in helping Taiwan to defend itself. As currently structured, however, these bills could be counterproductive if they were ever to become law.