By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
February 2019—Declaring that his country is “growing strong,” China’s Xi Jinping recently proposed (or perhaps more accurately, demanded) that Taiwan and the Mainland unify under a “one country, two systems” approach. Xi envisions something similar to Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong. “The private property, religious beliefs, and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured,” he promises. Washington and Taipei should not be fooled; this is no compromise. Xi has made it clear that, one way or another, Taiwan’s island democracy “must and will be” absorbed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In response, Washington must make it clear to Beijing—by word and deed—that China will not be permitted to reincorporate Taiwan without the consent of Taiwan’s people.
Xi seems intent on resolving what the Mainland calls “the Taiwan question” sooner rather than later. Specifically, he blustered in January that “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” including in response to “intervention by external forces.”
“Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems,’” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen shot back, adding that her government is committed to “our self-rule” and “our autonomy.” She called on Xi and his regime to “face squarely the reality of the existence of the Republic of China on Taiwan” and “respect the insistence of 23 million people on freedom and democracy.” According to Tsai, “What’s really needed between the two sides is a practical understanding of the differences between values, beliefs and lifestyles.”
Tsai is raising important points that reflect major differences between Taiwan and the PRC—differences Beijing simply refuses to see.
For instance, more than three generations have been born and raised in a Taiwan that’s never been part of the Mainland. In a very real sense, a Taiwanese nation—separate and distinct culturally, politically and economically—has been built in the 70 years since the PRC was created. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of the people of Taiwan identify as Taiwanese—not Chinese.
Yet the PRC, oblivious to these realities, describes “the Taiwan issue” as key to “China’s reunification and long-term development” and declares “reunification…an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation.”
It pays to recall that Taiwan has never been ruled by the PRC, so the term “reunification” is wholly inappropriate and inaccurate. This reality explains why 64 percent of Taiwanese oppose unification with the communist Mainland.
Beijing is underlining its words with provocative actions. Soon after his election, President Donald Trump agreed to take a phone call from Tsai. In response, the PRC dispatched its only aircraft carrier on a menacing circuit around Taiwan. Beijing also sent H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighter escorts and spy planes into the skies around Taiwan.
To defend or rationalize Beijing’s military response to the Trump-Tsai call as legitimate is to fail to discern the difference between a telephone and 15,000 tons of maritime military power (along with a package of nuclear-capable bombers). Moreover, China’s apologists forget that in June 2015, long before Trump and Tsai were elected, Beijing practiced amphibious operations aimed at Taiwan. As The Diplomat magazine reports, satellite images from 2015 reveal PRC training grounds featuring mockups of key infrastructure in Taiwan—the presidential complex, Taichung International Airport, the foreign ministry—suggesting “a new level of aggressiveness regarding Taiwan.”
Washington seems awake to the danger posed by a reckless and impatient Beijing.
In December, Trump signed legislation recommitting America to Taiwan’s autonomy and self-defense. Among other things, the new law pledges U.S. “support” for the “close economic, political and security relationship between Taiwan and the United States,” opposition to “efforts to change the status quo,” commitment to a “peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait,” visits of “high-level United States officials to Taiwan,” and “regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China.”
In January, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan delivered a blunt message to senior Pentagon officials: “Remember China, China, China.” Plus, the U.S. sent naval vessels to the region three times in 2018, and two U.S. warships transited the Taiwan Strait in January.
This sort of gunboat diplomacy is nothing new for the U.S. vis-à-vis China and Taiwan.
In 1950, President Harry Truman dispatched the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. Likewise, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered warships to the waters around Taiwan to protect Taiwan from Mainland forces.
To show its displeasure with Taiwan’s first direct democratic presidential elections, China launched a spasm of missile drills in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96. In response, President Bill Clinton sent the carriers Independence and Nimitz to the region. The Nimitz even transited the Taiwan Strait—the first time an American aircraft carrier had done so since 1979.
In 2015, two days after Beijing flew bomber aircraft near Taiwan’s airspace, U.S. F-18s landed in Taiwan—the first such landing in 30 years. In 2018, after PRC warships conducted drills near Taiwan, a U.S. Navy vessel made an eyebrow-raising stop to refuel in Taiwan.
The Pentagon said the unexpected visit by the F-18s was due to “a mechanical issue.” Taiwan’s military insisted the U.S. Navy drop-in was “unrelated to military activity.” But given the timing, it seems Washington was sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.
To keep the peace, Washington will need to increase such shows of force in the years ahead. That presents a problem, given that today’s Navy is simply too small to do everything it is being asked to do. At the height of President Ronald Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When Clinton dispatched carriers to the Taiwan Strait to smother Beijing’s temper tantrums, the fleet totaled 375 ships. But today’s fleet numbers just 277 active deployable ships.
These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” A government-funded study concludes that the United States needs 14 aircraft carriers (the Navy has 11), 160 cruisers and destroyers (the Navy has 84), and 72 attack submarines (the Navy has 52).
America’s self-inflicted limitations are not limited to the Navy. Thanks in large part to sequestration, the Air Force is “the smallest and oldest it has ever been,” according to an Air Force report. Before sequestration, the Marine Corps fielded 202,100 active-duty personnel; after sequestration, there were only 184,000 Marines on active duty. The Army’s active-duty force was 480,000 before 9/11; after sequestration, it was just 476,000. In other words, sequestration left America with a smaller Army in a time of war than it fielded in a time of peace.
Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. However, a couple budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis noted. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”
As America guillotined its military, China’s military spending has mushroomed (up 150.9 percent since 2008). China will deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020. The Pentagon reports China deploys more than 2,800 warplanes and has a bristling missile arsenal.
The Pentagon concludes that Beijing is focused on “preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.” If such a conflict comes, it won’t be a fair fight:
- The PRC has 360,000 troops and 2,800 tanks in the Taiwan Strait region. Taiwan has 140,000 troops and 1,100 tanks total.
- The PRC has 233 warships (including 30 amphibious transports) in the Taiwan Strait region. Taiwan has 108 warships total.
- The PRC has 590 fighter aircraft and bombers within range of Taiwan. Taiwan has a total of 420 fighter aircraft and no bombers.
- The PRC has some 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan, up from 200 in 2000.
Taiwan is increasing military spending by 6 percent this year. Mustering the best defense it can in light of its geopolitical situation, Taiwan is deploying indigenous anti-submarine and anti-ship missiles.
The U.S. should help Taiwan help itself by selling Taipei more tools tailored to defend the island and deter the Mainland—high-end anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and anti-missile systems to deter an invasion, non-digital communications systems in case of a PRC cyber-siege, VSTOL aircraft in case of PRC attacks on airfields and airports. The vertical-takeoff F-35B would be ideal for Taiwan, which deserves the new warplane more than Turkey’s unfriendly regime.
In addition to more tailored military assistance for Taiwan and more deterrence tools for the U.S. military, Washington should explore updating the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
The TRA declares that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be a “grave concern to the United States” and pledges that America will maintain “the capacity…to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
There’s nothing in these lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security or obliges the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense—nothing like the North Atlantic Treaty, which declares “an armed attack against one or more…shall be considered an attack against them all”; or the U.S.-Philippines treaty, which obliges each party to “act to meet the common dangers” in the event of an armed attack; or the U.S.-Japan treaty, which declares “an armed attack against either party” as “dangerous to its own peace and safety” and obliges both parties to “act to meet the common danger”; or the U.S.-ROK treaty, which obliges each party to “act to meet the common danger.”
As a result, neither side of the Taiwan Strait knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of war. This policy of “strategic ambiguity” may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a recipe for disaster today.
Beijing considers Taiwan the PRC’s 34th province, which will inevitably be absorbed by the Mainland. Taiwan sees itself as separate and distinct from the PRC. Tsai, whose party has advocated independence, calls Taiwan “a sovereign independent country.”
Tsai’s words remind us that, no matter the history and no matter Beijing’s plans, the reality is that today’s Taiwan is a self-governing democracy. It will not negotiate away its de facto independence, and it will not allow itself to be absorbed by force or incorporated by coercive policies.
If Washington remains ambiguous about Taiwan, what’s to stop Beijing from giving Taipei an
ultimatum? And what’s to stop Taipei from declaring independence?
In short, the time for “strategic ambiguity” has given way to a time for clarity. Washington’s goal should be to preserve Taiwan’s security, to prevent Taiwan from turning its de facto independence into de jure independence, to persuade Beijing that pursuing any alternative to the status quo would threaten U.S. interests, and to make clear that the only unification the United States would countenance is one initiated by Taiwan—and reflecting the will of its people.
Photo: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to the supporters at the celebration of the 14th presidential inauguration on May 20, in Taipei, Taiwan. Photographer: Ashley Pon/Getty Images