Biden Administration Unveils New Security Assistance Policy towards Taiwan

Biden Administration Unveils New Security Assistance Policy towards Taiwan

Biden Administration Unveils New Security Assistance Policy towards Taiwan

The Biden Administration has revealed its security assistance policy for a new era of great power competition. As military tensions continue to mount in the Taiwan Strait, the announcement of a new approach towards security assistance comes at a critical juncture and has obvious implications for Taiwan—a significant beneficiary of US security assistance, particularly in the form of arms sales. During the unveiling of the new policy at a Senate hearing on March 10 entitled “Examining US Security Cooperation and Assistance,” Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Jessica Lewis underscored how the United States was “working hand-in-glove with Taiwan to strengthen that brave island’s defense and deterrence–and this Administration intends to deepen and expand that cooperation in the months and years ahead.” Three elements appear to be at the forefront of the Biden Administration’s approach: an emphasis on speed of arms deliveries, asymmetric capabilities, and a whole-of-society strategy. 

Although commonly associated with arms sales, security assistance does not only involve the sale of military arms. In fact, security assistance includes all arms, equipment, supplies, training, and support. With the shift from the global war on terror to great power competition, there has been an understandable push to recalibrate the role of security assistance in overall US foreign policy goals, with some even calling for a major overhaul. Security assistance practices and policy should be routinely reviewed to ensure that they are fit for purpose, and a major feature of the Trump Administration’s important mark on security assistance to Taiwan was its decision to do away with the controversial practice of “packaging” arms sales that had become common under prior administrations. Since 2017, the United States has provided USD $18 billion in security assistance to Taiwan, and USD $2.3 billion in direct commercial sales. Still, traditional arm sales have tended to be the primary focus. 

Taiwan as the “Pacing Scenario” and the Focus on Asymmetric Capabilities  

At a recent Congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner noted that China is the “pacing challenge” for the Department of Defense and that Taiwan is the “pacing scenario.” As the Pentagon’s top Asia official stated

Consistent with our commitment to our “One-China Policy,” Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, we are focused on maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. With the PRC as the pacing challenge, Taiwan is the pacing scenario. We aim to deter and deny PRC aggression, through a combination of Taiwan’s own defenses, its partnership with the United States, and growing support from like-minded democracies.

Undergirding Ratner’s comment is the Biden Administration’s emphasis on “integrated deterrence” as its overarching approach to defense. The Administration is increasingly applying this principle to Taiwan, with an emphasis on the three elements of strengthening Taiwan’s own defense capabilities, deepening bilateral cooperation with the United States, and encouraging more support from third parties. 

The first element involves a longstanding debate about the proper focus of Taiwan’s defense acquisitions, which centers on what the island needs to most effectively defend itself. Traditionally, this discourse has been divided between those emphasizing the need for Taiwan to acquire conventional platforms, and those placing an absolute emphasis on asymmetric capabilities. However, the trend in this debate has shifted considerably in recent years as concerns over the imminence of China’s invasion threat have moved to the center stage. As a result, a consensus has coalesced around the urgency for Taiwan to develop asymmetric capabilities to enable it to forestall a Chinese invasion long enough for external actors—namely the United States—to intervene. According to one Taiwanese defense expert, among the 18 US arms sales that have been approved since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected president in 2016, 16 contributed to Taiwan’s asymmetric warfare capabilities.

Indeed, there appears to be continuity between successive US administrations in their emphasis on the need for Taiwan to focus on developing asymmetric defense capabilities. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security advisor under the Trump Administration, observed that President Tsai “has made significant progress in really taking charge of the military services that she commands and getting them to focus on truly asymmetric capabilities, by which I mean ones that are not only quite lethal to China, but also quite affordable for Taiwan.” Building on this, he argued that the Taiwanese “need to show China that the war doesn’t end at the beaches. It will continue in the ports, in the cities, in the countryside and in the mountains.” According to Lewis, there are five elements for what “asymmetric” means: systems that are cost-effective, mobile, resilient, decentralized, and defensive in nature. Lewis went further and explained that the following capabilities were, in the Administration’s view, asymmetric: intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), short range air defense, coastal defense cruise missile (CDCM), and naval sea mines. Interestingly, the assistant secretary also included reserve reforms and underscored how the US National Guard is now working with Taiwan. [1] 

The Need for Speed 

The Biden Administration’s roll-out of its security assistance policy has been accompanied by outreach to the US defense industry to outline its defense trade priorities for Taiwan. The administration has provided guidance to the industry as to what it would likely approve and deny in order to support its overall approach to Taiwan, and included a request to help expedite arms sale deliveries to Taiwan. Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), has warned that “China has the capability to invade Taiwan now,” and will be capable of mounting a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025. However, most recently signed contracts are marked for delivery in the latter half of this decade. 

Foreign Military Financing and Security Assistance

The mention of cooperation between the US National Guard and Taiwan in Lewis’ discussion of overall security assistance to the island is telling in regards to how the current US government may be considering security assistance to Taiwan in a more holistic manner, rather than limiting it to arms sales. 

Both the Department of Defense and the Department of State have independent authorities to provide security assistance. While the Defense Department’s account makes up the bulk of security assistance programs, the State Department contributes to long-term capacity building through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), for which approximately USD $6 billion is appropriated annually. Currently, around 80 percent of this funding goes to just three countries: Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Around 93 percent of the remaining USD $1 billion of FMF is heavily earmarked, which limits the State Department’s flexibility and discretion. The State Department receives around USD $3 billion annually for other security assistance programs, such as professional military education, peacekeeping, and counter-narcotics operations. 

In a two-pronged effort to provide Taiwan with more security assistance while encouraging it to rapidly adopt more asymmetric capabilities, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would include Taiwan in the State Department’s FMF programs, all of which would require that the funds be spent on acquiring asymmetric capabilities. One such bill is the Taiwan Deterrence Act introduced by Senator James Risch (R-ID). Specifically, Section 202 of the bill would appropriate USD $2 billion to State for each of the fiscal years between 2023 and 2032. This funding would go towards FMF grant assistance programs for Taiwan—with conditions such as Taipei committing to match spending—as well as formal agreements between the United States and Taiwan to conduct joint long-range planning for capability development and the expenditure of such amounts.

Grumblings in the Defense Community

While sharpening the focus on Taiwan’s development of asymmetric capabilities has broad bipartisan support, not everyone in the defense policy community seems satisfied with the current approach. There are grumblings among some defense experts and former defense officials that the definition of asymmetry set by the Biden Administration is too restrictive, and could severely limit a broad range of capabilities that Taiwan’s defense establishment wants and arguably needs. Perhaps even more importantly, it is not clear whether the United States and Taiwan share a definition of asymmetry. Some critics argue that the Biden Administration is putting the cart before the horse. As Daniel Blumenthal, a senior fellow and director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted in a critique of the current discourse on Taiwan’s defense:

DC devolved into operational military ideas about what allies ‘should do’ to help Taiwan.  None have political/diplomatic basis to do anything. PRC using all tools to persuade others to stay out of fight against ‘separatists.’ We have not answered.

Worse yet DC coalescing on the term ‘asymmetric’ for Taiwan. Which is purely academic and lazy thinking. Taiwan/US need a coalition force structure that can undermine coercion, sink navy, destroy invasion force etc. Need to be specific about roles and missions.

As noted in a 2021 study by the Center for American Progress, “countries that receive US military systems are not just buying equipment off the shelf; they are entering into a longer-term relationship with that country for training, maintenance, and sustainment.” So the bigger-ticket conventional platforms, which critics often point to as a sign of Taiwan’s lack of seriousness in its defense due to their perceived low survivability in the event of a military conflict, would arguably require more training, maintenance, and sustainment. In turn, this could help to build deeper connective tissues between the two military establishments at a time when such connections are limited and curtailed by restrictions. 


At the Senate hearing, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked a pointed question to the Biden Administration officials: “Does the US and Taiwan have a shared understanding [and] operational definition for ‘asymmetric’?” Lewis’ response was telling. Acknowledging the aspirational quality of ongoing discussions, she stated: “We are working on that with them today […] We have a much deeper understanding of that right now.” 

While it is unrelated to whether the United States would militarily intervene in Taiwan’s defense in the event of a military conflict, the Biden Administration’s new security assistance policy has clearly placed Ukraine as a central reference point in terms of security assistance for Taiwan, with the added emphasis on the need to cultivate a population that is ready to fight. Therefore, assisting Taiwan in the development of its reserve force could be an important feature in the overall whole-of-society approach of security assistance to the island. Prospective foreign military financing for Taiwan, if passed and properly funded by Congress, could be appropriately tailored to support the rapid development of asymmetric capabilities—such as the reserve force and an additional territorial defense force, as recently proposed by Adm. (ret.) Lee Hsi-Ming (李喜明) and Michael Hunzeker. 

The new security assistance policy also highlights the essential factor of speed. At the closing statement of the hearing, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) made the following comment on Taiwan’s asymmetrical capabilities, again with reference to Ukraine: “…we’re seeing from Ukraine the need and the desire to have our friends and allies equipped sooner than later. As we see the threat continue to mount from China […] we need to move quickly and not be looking at this in hindsight but to be prepared […] [in] how we would incorporate that, particularly with a focus on Taiwan.”

Even as the emphasis of the Biden Administration’s new security assistance policy for Taiwan is focused on speed, asymmetric capabilities, and a whole-of-society strategy, it is absolutely essential that the United States and Taiwan arrive at a shared operational definition of what “asymmetric” means. Despite regular consultations, there is an interrelated political element to the security relationship that must be simultaneously addressed. As the Biden Administration moves forward in its holistic approach to security assistance towards Taiwan, it is critical that it carefully considers the political-military elements in the implementation of its policy. 

The main point: The Biden Administration has unveiled a new security assistance policy for Taiwan with the emphasis on speed of arms delivery, asymmetric capabilities, and whole-of-society approach.

[1] The overwhelming emphasis on asymmetric capabilities is reflected in the fact that the United States has denied two potential arm sales worth over $3 billion because the US did not consider them asymmetric. For instance, Taiwan’s request to purchase MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters was denied because the Biden administration deemed that the rotorcraft did not contribute to Taiwan’s asymmetric combat capability.