“Will the United States defend Taiwan?” is a favorite question posed by inquiring reporters and commentators. It is a very good way to force government officials to answer a complex question with a one-line answer. It goes to one of our vulnerabilities: there is no easy or quick answer that will satisfy our own people and our allies. President Biden confronted this question last October, and answered—correctly in my view—that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense if it was invaded by China.
Immediately following the President’s answer, we endured the time-honored and demeaning bureaucratic spectacle of staff hastening to explain “what the President meant to say.” The “Policy Blob” (in Ben Rhodes’ term) busied itself with discussions of strategic ambiguity, “One-China Policy,” and other related terms—no doubt to the delight of the Chinese Communist Party, and the discomfort of those looking for US leadership. It’s said that a gaffe is a political leader speaking the truth. So it was here.
It is past time to redefine our policy. In a superb Bulwark article, Ambassador and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric S. Edelman and former Special Assistant to the President Franklin C. Miller present a powerful argument that our policy of “strategic ambiguity” is “played out.” Indeed it is, and likely has been for some time.
Our allies recognize that our current policy has had its day. Taiwan, a thriving, raucous democracy, poses no military or economic threat to China. It has never been part of the PRC, but the PRC does pose a mortal threat to Taiwan and boasts about it. Former Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo recently called for the United States to end our policy of ambiguity. He made clear that we must not allow the status quo to be changed by coercion or force.
Change may already be happening. A May 10 Reuters story (“China Rebukes U.S. for Changing Taiwan Wording on State Department Website”) noted that the “State Department’s website’s section on relations with Taiwan has removed wording both on not supporting Taiwan independence and on acknowledging Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.” This got China’s attention, with Beijing condemning the “political manipulation” of the United States.
The second challenge—how we would help defend Taiwan in extremis—must be worked out if we are to deter further use of coercion and force. In the not-so-distant past, our unchallenged sea and air control allowed us to demonstrate our support with naval and air forces quickly deployed as needed to areas near Taiwan. Responding was a conceptually simple matter: we had the ability to linger offshore and project power when and where we wished. Today, China’s ongoing and massive military expansion—as well as modern technology’s gifts of comprehensive surveillance, and guided weapons accuracy at distance—profoundly challenge our control of sea and air.
About ten years ago, China declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, and mounted a massive dredging operation (at considerable risk to that sea’s ecosystem) to build deep water ports and runways on seven features in the Spratly Islands. These examples of military infrastructure—despite China’s pledge not to militarize the region—are not minor features or insignificant garrisons on small patches of territory. One is bigger than the area inside the Washington Beltway, another larger than Pearl Harbor. Many observers hold the view that China has gained de facto control over the South China Sea.
This dredging and construction of over 3,200 acres was challenged by The Philippines in a case brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The Philippines stood alone, save for support from Vietnam. The world’s major powers, including the United States, remained silent. The court’s decision supported the challenge, but China ignored it. Now thoroughly militarized, these features can support and sustain operations of the PLA Navy and Air Force, air defense forces, their maritime militia, and armed fishermen. Other claimants to areas of the South China Sea are effectively excluded, through coercion, from exercising legitimate maritime activities.
With our sea and air control thus challenged, we can no longer rely on merely deploying forces into and near Taiwan without interference at the onset of crisis. We must restore deterrence under these new conditions, as often recommended by US INDOPACOM commanders past and present. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, enhancing Taiwan’s defense.
Many recommendations have been made about what defense goods Taiwan needs. Taiwan has its own views. Differences among the various recommendations invariably reflect differing perspectives on threats, from political warfare through gray zone coercion to the highest extremes of conflict. Largely absent are discussions of just how the United States, and perhaps Japan, can coordinate, or even integrate, combat operations with Taiwan.
What is obvious, and without objection, is that Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine to end Ukraine’s sovereignty and absorb it into greater Russia—and China’s refusal to condemn this interference in another nation’s affairs—serves notice to Taiwan that they may be next. We cannot continue to just take note of this problem. As stated in the Bulwark article: “the United States should begin immediately to send advanced anti-air, anti-missile, anti-armor, and anti-ship equipment to Taiwan, accompanied by American trainers and advisers” (emphasis in the original).
The last elements mentioned, American trainers and advisors, may be the most important. Taiwan’s armed forces have been isolated from those of other nations since 1979. Ending this isolation, and enhancing Taiwan’s awareness of military and naval operational concepts development over the last four decades, is essential to enabling the innovative and effective use of various weapons. In addition, these trainers and advisors must be able to create a capability to integrate Taiwan’s maneuver and fires with that of US (and perhaps Japanese and Australian) forces. This would help prevent “friendly fire” incidents and add to the effectiveness of foreign forces coming to the aid of Taiwan. Trainers and advisors cannot create an elegant, sophisticated system quickly, but they can put together a serviceable system that, with much operator involvement, can ensure effective coordination and integration across national lines.
This is a two-part challenge: the first is a policy determination, and we must get the policy right so we can get the defense right. We’re on the clock.
The main point: In the face of a growing threat from China, the United States and its Pacific allies must not only take immediate further steps to ensure the delivery of advanced weapons systems to Taiwan, but even more importantly must strengthen coordination mechanisms for integrating military operations.