For 70 years, “restraint,” in varying forms and degrees, has characterized America’s debate about its relationship with Taiwan. This remains the case today, despite the growing strategic challenge from China regionally, and now globally.
In his March 9, 2021 testimony before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip S. Davidson offered a stark assessment of the Chinese threat:
“I worry that they’re accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer ... Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
This was the first time a senior American military leader, the one most responsible for deterring a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attack on Taiwan, offered a possible timetable for a PLA attack against the island democracy.
However, the debate about restraint continues. In an April 8 article for the US National Public Radio website, veteran US analysts of the US-Taiwan-China triangle and longstanding supporters of the American interest in a free Taiwan, Richard C. Bush, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Ryan Hass, wrote that Admiral Davidson’s assessment amounted to “hype,” deserving “interrogation.”
While acknowledging Chinese threat trendlines are “troubling,” they hold that “China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.” In their view, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping (習近平) has “resisted” pressure to compel unification by force and prefers coercion to force unification. Threats are “military and psychological” but, “Hyping the threat that China poses to Taiwan does Beijing’s work for it.”
Their practical policy implication is that US policymakers “will need to go beyond focusing on the military threat” to also focus on Taiwan’s economic and political-diplomatic strength to resist China.
They reflect a line of analysis sometimes heard in Washington that “China has a political strategy for Taiwan with a military component; not a military strategy with a political component.”
Such status quo assessments of China’s capabilities and intentions informed decades of US policies that failed to dissuade and deter; they are even less likely to address the resulting threat.
Until revealed by the US government, the public does not have access to the deep intelligence and analysis that produced Admiral Davidson’s conclusion that China could be ready to attack Taiwan by 2026 to 2027. For that matter, the world does not have access to intelligence that may give Xi Jinping the assurance to initiate an attack on Taiwan.
But there is no reason to doubt that Admiral Davidson is confident in his assessment that Xi Jinping could be confident enough to attack Taiwan in six years time. While it is possible to argue this threat is “hyped,” there is also mounting public evidence that China poses an undeniable existential threat to a free Taiwan. It is also reasonable to estimate an attack could materialize in the Admiral’s timeframe, assuming that China is ready to accept high casualties.
Increasing stocks of PLA ballistic and cruise missiles that would perforate Taiwan’s information and military infrastructure are now joined by a civil-military force of thousands of civilian ship and aircraft transport platforms, to make credible an actual invasion of Taiwan for the first time since the late 1950s.
As such, whether it happens in six or sixteen years, deterring and defeating this threat should without question be the main US priority. This means that Washington’s practice of “restraint” in its military relations with Taiwan should have been updated long ago.
Reports indicate that in early May, Washington for the first time permitted Taiwan to exercise with AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles in Taiwan airspace, some 20 years after agreeing to sell these missiles. The decades of delay, so as not to “provoke” China, recall previous examples of self-defeating US “restraint.”
These include: arguing with Taiwan to restrict its development of long-range land attack missiles; refusing to become fully involved in Taiwan’s submarine program; and imposing on Taiwan the unique Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) in order to limit the capability of its air force to only defensive missions.
There should be a far greater priority in Washington to develop and produce the thousands of new theater ballistic and cruise missiles the US requires to deter China, and to sell appropriate long-range missiles to Taiwan and other US allies. Washington should allow Taiwan to exercise with all US-made missiles. Washington should also insist that its allies contribute to real mobilization, homeland defense, and operational contingency planning both to better deter and prepare to respond to a Chinese attack against Taiwan.
Political and economic support for Taiwan indeed is necessary and should also be used to enhance deterrence of China. Why do US allies have to visit the White House in order to be convinced to issue mild statements of support for Taiwan?
Washington should be publicly insisting that all civilized nations publicly condemn China’s military threats against Taiwan, and make this a common theme in their diplomacy, including at the United Nations.
Furthermore, why must Taiwan make annual pleas to join the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), which conspired with China to hide the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus, effectively delaying appropriate global response? After China’s Coronavirus has killed 3.54 million worldwide, while China refuses any legitimate investigations into its origin and refuses to accept any responsibility, why isn’t the US leading a campaign to expel China from the UN?
In short, Admiral Davidson has not “hyped” the Chinese threat to Taiwan. It has been gathering with deadly seriousness for over 20 years, and now deserves a response as urgent and as serious as a six-year timeline would suggest.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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