America’s Taiwan strategy badly needs rethinking, rebuilding
The time has come for the United States to rebuild and rethink its approach to Taiwan’s defense and security. China is becoming too provocative and aggressive, not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Taiwan straits, where it is starting to encroach on well-established red lines. It has also been carrying out military flights around the Taiwanese periphery, then heading as far as Japan, sending a message to both countries. It is not a message of peace and cooperation.
Over the years – and no matter under what administration – support for Taiwan in the United States has been, at best, mediocre. The supply of mostly obsolete defense hardware, the long delays in providing equipment, the stilted and mostly non-functional military-to-military relationship and America’s reluctance to respond to Chinese provocations: these factors have left Taiwan largely on its own.
I was in Taiwan during the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, when Chinese missiles and landing ships were conducting an exercise that directly threatened Taiwan. I remember just how long it took before Bill Clinton finally sent US aircraft carriers to the area, forcing China to stand down. It was frightening, and a very close call. Taiwan had very little chance without US support – even then, when its air force and navy were stronger than now. (I was part of a three-man unofficial delegation that included former CIA head James Woolsey and Admiral Bud Edney. Later I would serve for five years as a Commissioner on the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.)
But Washington hardly changed its ways toward Taiwan after 1996. Most of Washington’s inaction derives from the perceived “imperative” to have good relations with China. China was regarded as an emerging power and as a huge market for the United States, while Taiwan was seen as an unneeded irritant, impeding ties to China.
At least to a degree, the worm has turned, because China is no longer “emerging,” and it is no longer just the big country that, just a few years ago, the Pentagon regarded as 20 years behind the United States in military terms. Even back in 2011, when the Pentagon made that assessment, its conclusion was largely political and not at all the reality. It was a way to ignore reality and leave Taiwan and other allies, including Japan, in the lurch.
With power-politics changing in the region and China having emerged as an aggressive player with advanced military technology, the US has to significantly modify its behavior pattern toward Taiwan
But the appearance of China’s stealth aircraft, the Chengdu J-20, in the South China Sea, China’s aggressive takeover and militarization of islands it does not own, and increasing threats to American allies, especially Taiwan and Japan, has changed the game. And, while the China lobby in the State Department, with its long-held proclivity for appeasement, has kept the policy line without change, the truth is that the geopolitics have changed. In short, if the US wants to play a future role in the Pacific, it had better rethink its policy now.
What is Washington going to do with regard to Taiwan? Wait until disaster strikes? Behave as we are doing in Syria, as the Syrian and Russian air forces decimate the population of eastern Ghouta? Imagine the humanitarian disaster in Taiwan if China were to attack.
The US has to put in place a deterrence program that works for Taiwan and supports US interests. There are, at least, four important steps – three hardware-related and one policy step – that are urgently needed.
On the hardware front, the US has to give Taiwan a real capability to challenge both the J-20 and Su-35 jets that China is using provocatively. This means Taiwan needs aircraft that can match these challenges. Either that means providing the F-35 to Taiwan, or another stealth aircraft that can do the same job. Boeing has proposed the F-15SE, or Silent Eagle, which is intended as a stealthed-up version of the F-15 that could use many of the same electronic and countermeasure capabilities as the F-35.
Washington should facilitate providing one or the other to Taiwan and do so on an urgent basis. The existing F-16 upgrade program underway in Taiwan with US support is important but it falls way short of the mark as a deterrent to China. The game should not be left entirely in China’s hands, and China needs to understand that any air attack may fail and undermine China’s claims to area-wide superpower status.
Taiwan also needs modern submarines. It hardly suffices for Taiwan to be running two broken-down 1985-era Dutch submarines which are uncompetitive with China’s growing fleet of nuclear and conventionally powered submarines. And if it is true that Germany transferred U-214 submarine technology to China, then the picture is worse and far more dangerous.
Over the years, the United States has promised to help Taiwan acquire modern submarines, but such promises have turned out to be an unfortunate boondoggle, one that stirred controversy in Taiwan and never brought anything useful to fruition. What the administration should have done then, and can still do today, is to buy submarines from Europe, put US systems in them and either sell or lease them to Taiwan. The Germans, French, Italians and Swedes make first class diesel-electric submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP). These would make it hard for China’s submarines to choke off Taiwan.
I remember just how long it took before Bill Clinton finally sent US aircraft carriers to the area, forcing China to stand down. It was frightening
The idea that Taiwan will build its own modern submarine is a noble one, but there are many challenges and no assurance of success because Taiwan lacks the design teams, experience and technology developed over decades in Europe and the United States. Furthermore, the projected ten years it would take to even have a prototype of a local version is too long. Surely Washington can and must lend a hand.
Thirdly, Taiwan needs better and more numerous missile defenses. The PAC-3 system is simply inadequate against top-of-the-line Chinese ballistic missiles. THAAD or SM-3 are the kind of defenses Taiwan needs, and not only should the US offer them but it should fix them so they work right. What we have seen – forget the excuses – is that neither THAAD or SM-3 are up to snuff and need to be upgraded. Probably the kinetic hit to “kill” interceptor warhead needs a rethink. No one really is talking about this weakness in Washington, largely because not many people really believe in missile defense. But it is needed and the upgrade should be a top agenda item in Washington. (Basically, hit to kill is ineffective against MIRV’d missiles with decoys and an area kill warhead should replace it.)
Lastly, the US relationship to Taiwan, which has been improved a little around the edges, actually needs radical change. Today the US should be working out protocols to be able to use Taiwanese air bases in any crisis, or for that matter for any issue requiring US emergency basing in the region, whether China-related or otherwise. With the right protocols like in place, China’s civilian and military leaders will immediately understand that the US is for sure coming to Taiwan’s defense if China gets more aggressive. Having a physical presence is more valuable than a written mutual defense agreement, although a strong mutual defense treaty would also buttress the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which is Taiwan’s safeguard against China, remembering that it was really the Congressional answer to the Nixon-Kissinger deal abandoning Taiwan for a China relationship.
In the current circumstances, with power-politics changing in the region and China having emerged as an aggressive player with advanced military technology, the US has to significantly modify its behavior pattern toward Taiwan by rethinking how to defend it and by upgrading and helping to rebuild Taiwan’s defenses.
Any American administration can count on support from Congress for proposals like those outlined here. The real issue for Washington is moving the State Department away from a pro-China position (one that is also reflected in the Pentagon and National Security Council to a degree) to one that sees the military and strategic challenge ahead from China and responds to it correctly. President Trump needs to seize the initiative, because no one else will.