Will the US come to the defense of Taiwan if and when China makes its move? Like most friends of Taiwan, I’ve been saying “yes” for a couple decades. But the truth is that none of us, in or out of government, really know. This is precisely why we all need to show humility in our advice on how Taiwan should prepare itself for such an eventuality.
After all, it’s their country, and they have no choice but to live with the consequences.
A couple weeks ago the New York Times published an article that put this reality in stark relief. As detailed there, the Biden administration is seriously committed to constraining the choices Taiwan can make in its choice of weapons purchases. This is not completely new. The US and Taiwan have consulted on Taiwan’s capabilities for decades. It does not always get what it wants.
The focus on “asymmetric capabilities” is also nothing new. Taiwan has not been in position to go toe-to-toe with China for a long time. No one denies this, in Taiwan or in the US.
There are, however, two additional questions.
The first revolves around whether China is capable of traversing the 100 miles of water that separates it from Taiwan in order to pull off an invasion. To listen to US officials, from INDOPACOM Commanders to the Director of National Intelligence, it soon may be. This realization is sinking in among Washington’s political class, and combined with the war in Ukraine, giving the issue much greater urgency.
It is not just the Biden administration zeroing in on it. Capitol Hill is, too. And both, increasingly, think they know what’s best for Taiwan’s ability to deal with it.
This raises the other question. What exactly constitutes an “asymmetric” weapon? The administration has a list. Leaders on the Hill have theirs. For the most recent arrivals to the issue, it’s easy: “Look at Ukraine. Get the Taiwanese as many Stingers and Javelins, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles as possible.”
Only from the comfort of the US could this look like an attractive option. Sure, the Russians expected by now to have installed a puppet government in Kiev. Thanks to the bravery of the Ukrainian people, they have failed. Makes for epic history. But on a human scale, it has been a nightmare.
Now, to be fair, the advocates of this strict interpretation of “asymmetric” do not want Taiwan to go through what Ukraine is. They see it as “deterrence by punishment.” In other words, the Chinese will see how much the war in Ukraine is costing Putin’s regime, see that we are equipping Taiwan similarly, and decide they don’t want to repeat the Russian experience.
Beijing is certainly studying what’s going on in Eastern Europe, but likely more for tactical clues than strategic ones, for tips on how to better fight than whether to fight. This is because strategically, Beijing’s mind has been made up for 70 years: It wants Taiwan as part of China, in a concrete sense. And it will go to war if necessary to get there.
In that it prioritizes hardening the Taiwan target over America’s own readiness for war, “deterrence by punishment” is also politically convenient. By contrast, “a strategy of denial,” that is, putting the US military in a position to deny China its goal of taking Taiwan, is expensive. It is also risky, not least due to degrading American military capabilities, administration budget cuts and continuing Congressional budget disfunction.
The only way the Biden administration’s strict approach to asymmetry works is if it is accompanied by a security guarantee. Here the message to Taiwan would be, “We just need you to hang in there until we can join you in force.” Any sacrifice Taiwan makes in the meantime would not be made in vain.
The problem is a guarantee isn’t going to be forthcoming. And for many reasons, including the above question about whether the US military is up to the task of defending Taiwan at acceptable risk, it shouldn’t be. If Washington ever gets to a point where it needs to be clearer about what it’s prepared to do in defense of Taiwan, it better be able to first demonstrate the capability to do it.
Short of an explicit security commitment, Washington must compromise with Taiwan on what it needs to wage an “asymmetric” war. Remember the pleas to get F-16s to Ukraine. Well, Taiwan thinks they can be useful in turning back aggressors, too. That’s why the Trump administration sold them more. Taiwan has also expressed interest in anti-submarine helicopters and airborne early-warning aircraft — the asymmetric value of which seems indisputable. These systems, however, do not meet the Biden administration definition of the term, and so Taiwan is being denied them.
Finally, another wrinkle in this equation. The threat to Taiwan is not only from all-out invasion. It needs to be in position to respond to a range of contingencies that, even on America’s most confident day, may not rise to a level that brings it into a war with China. Blockades, incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ that slide into its airspace, humanitarian efforts turned hostile, and seizure of off-shore islands are just a handful of alternative scenarios short of doomsday that Taiwan needs to be prepared for.
I like to say I am certain that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in case of a conflict. But I also know that if I were Taiwanese, I wouldn’t bet my country on such assertions. So give the Taiwanese some respect. Debate purchases with them, but don’t hold them hostage to the latest trends in American politics and strategic thinking. Give the Taiwanese what they think they need to defend themselves if the US doesn’t show up. Just in case.
Walter Lohman is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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