January 2016 – Taiwan’s presidential elections, which are just days away, could thrust the long-dormant question of Taiwan’s independence back to the very top of Washington’s growing stack of national-security worries. At issue is whether the candidate representing the independence-minded Democratic People’s Party (DPP) would, if elected, continue the so-called “one China policy”—an understanding hammered out between the Mainland and Taiwan in 1992 that, as the Washington Post explains, “allows both sides to claim to be rightful rulers of the Chinese nation, but explicitly closes the door to the idea that Taiwan could one day become an independent nation.” DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to win, has called the 1992 understanding “one option but…not the only option.”
Washington’s goal should be to preserve Taiwan’s security, to prevent Taiwan from turning its de facto independence into de jure independence, and to persuade Beijing that pursuing any alternative to the status quo would be viewed as a threat to U.S. interests.
Beijing’s words and deeds are the crux of the problem here. Take, for example, China’s recently-released military strategy, which vows to “safeguard the unification of the motherland.” This follows the ominous declaration by Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission, that “China has yet to realize complete unification.”
These are worrisome words. First, the Taiwanese people have no desire for unification with the Mainland (64 percent are opposed and only 19.5 percent are in favor). Second, Beijing is underlining its words with brazenly provocative actions.
In June 2015, Beijing practiced amphibious operations aimed at Taiwan. Satellite images from late 2014 and early 2015 show Chinese mock-ups of key parts of Taipei—an entire “fake city grid,” as The Diplomat magazine reports—indicating highly developed plans for a cross-straits assault. As The Diplomat adds, the military mock-ups of government facilities in Taipei “suggest a new level of aggressiveness regarding Taiwan.” The Pentagon’s 2015 report on China concludes that “potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait remains the focus and primary driver of China’s military investment…The PLA has developed and deployed military capabilities to coerce Taiwan or to attempt an invasion, if necessary. These improvements pose major challenges to Taiwan’s security.” The Pentagon notes that Beijing has deployed at least 1,200 short-range missiles opposite Taiwan and has stationed hundreds of advanced aircraft within unrefueled range of Taiwan, providing Beijing with “a significant capability to conduct air superiority and ground attack operations against Taiwan.”
Indeed, the PRC-Taiwan order of battle suggests there wouldn’t be much of a battle between the two Chinas: The PRC has 400,000 troops in the Taiwan Straits region alone. Taiwan deploys 130,000 troops total. The PRC has 6,947 tanks. Taiwan has 1,100. The PRC has 57 amphibious landing/transport ships, 58 submarines, 21 destroyers and an aircraft carrier. Half of Taiwan’s 90-ship navy is comprised of coastal-patrol vessels. The PRC has 330 modern fighters and bombers within range of Taiwan—and thousands more in reserve. Taiwan has about 440 aging military aircraft total. The PRC’s official military budget is $136.3 billion, though its military-related spending is far larger. Taiwan’s defense budget is barely $10 billion.
Mustering the best defense they can in light of their untenable geopolitical situation, the Taiwanese are deploying indigenous anti-sub and anti-ship missiles, as well as precision land-attack missiles. Taipei wants to purchase modern F-35s and updated F-16s, but those hopes have been dashed by Washington’s tilt toward Beijing. It’s sad that Egypt’s autocrats get new F-16s, and the not-so-friendly government of Turkey gets high-tech F-35s, but Taiwan’s pro-U.S. democracy gets a cold shoulder.
Yes, the Obama administration authorized in December a $1.83-billion arms package that sends two frigates, anti-aircraft weaponry, anti-tank missiles and anti-ship systems to Taiwan, but the military assistance leaves much to be desired. One defense analyst dismissed the package as “1970s technology.” More troubling is the fact that before last month’s arms package, four years had elapsed since the administration had authorized an arms delivery to Taiwan. As Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. John McCain noted, that marked “the longest period since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979” without such a delivery.
One of the main problems posed by Taiwan is that Beijing, Taipei and Washington see it in different ways.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a rebel province that will one day—one way or another—be reabsorbed by the Mainland. Moreover, as Robert Kagan notes, Beijing increasingly sees Taiwan as a challenge to its authority. “Taiwan’s refusal to join the Mainland and its persistent efforts to obtain greater international recognition and perhaps even independence is a problem not only because it stands in the way of unification,” Kagan concludes. “It is also a rebuke, a humiliating rejection of Beijing’s Asian centrality by an undeniably Chinese people. If Taiwan will not accept China’s leadership in East Asia, who else can be expected to?”
For the United States, Taiwan’s position has crumbled from being an ally—“an unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as MacArthur once called it—to an irritant. Thus, instead of an open commitment of protection, which such stalwart allies as Kuwait and Albania now enjoy, Taiwan is left clinging to words written not to reassure, but to obfuscate. As a result, neither side of the Taiwan Straits knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of a cross-straits war. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
Taiwan increasingly sees itself as separate and distinct from the Mainland (see the poll numbers above). No matter the history, no matter Beijing’s hopes for tomorrow, the reality is that Taiwan is a representative democracy today. To allow it to be absorbed by force or incorporated by coercive policies would be a stain as ugly as Munich. That’s what makes Beijing’s buildup so worrisome. If Washington remains ambiguous about Taiwan, what’s to stop Beijing from one day simply giving Taipei—and Washington—an ultimatum? And what’s to stop Taipei from declaring independence—and thus forcing a test of wills with the Mainland?
In short, the time for “strategic ambiguity” has past. Washington should enunciate a clear, unequivocal commitment to maintaining the security of Taiwan and preserving the status quo of the region. Put another way, the only unification the United States should ever support is one initiated by Taiwan—and reflecting the will of the people of Taiwan.
As former Senator Richard Lugar, one of the most respected statesmen of his generation, has argued, “It is imperative that we make credible our commitment to assist Taiwan if China uses force to unify the island to the Mainland. The credibility of our commitment will determine the validity of our deterrence.”
This could go a long way toward deterring Beijing from reincorporating Taiwan by force—whether incrementally (à la Beijing’s takeover of HongKong), overtly (à la Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) or stealthily (à la Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea).
Related, as long as Taiwan remains committed to a peaceful status quo with the Mainland, the island democracy deserves the defensive weapons systems it has been promised. These weapons should be delivered on a routine, predictable and transparent basis.
However, firm words and consistent arms deliveries are not enough to deter Beijing, preserve the status quo and prevent misunderstandings that could lead to a war no one wants depends. America’s military deterrent must be rebuilt and revived.
The bipartisan gamble known as sequestration has chopped away at America’s deterrent capabilities. Defense has ebbed to 3.1 percent of GDP—headed for just 2.3 percent of GDP by 2022-23. As China builds up and builds out, this is the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When Washington dispatched two carrier battle groups to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96, the fleet totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 285 ships. These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
That gap has real-world implications: The Asia-Pacific region was left unprotected by a U.S. aircraft carrier for four months in 2015. Citing “sequestration’s impact,” Navy Commander William Marks concedes, “The Navy is not scheduled to provide a continuous carrier presence in some operating regions in fiscal year 2016.”
It gets worse: The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five years to seven and had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is completed. The attack-sub fleet will shrink from 55 to 42 by 2029.
China isn’t cutting anything from its military. In 2015, Beijing increased military spending by 10 percent. This follows increases of 12.2 percent in 2014, 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.6 percent in 2012 and 11.2 percent in 2011.
China now deploys 79 principal surface combatants and 50-plus submarines. China is primed to deploy as many as 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service. A Pentagon report on China’s military power concludes that Beijing is pouring increasing sums into bombers, submarines and long-range sea-skimming missiles—assets focused on countering American sea power.
Two days after the PRC flew bomber aircraft into airspace near Taiwan, a pair of U.S. Marine Corps F-18s based in Japan landed in Taiwan—the first such landing in 30 years. The American military claimed the unexpected visit was due to “a mechanical issue.” Then, after Beijing lodged a protest, a U.S. C-130 transport plane landed in Taiwan and unloaded a crew of Marines to repair the F-18.
Given the timing, and given that the warplanes could have landed at any number of bases on Japanese islands, Beijing knows the Pentagon was sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.
These are the kinds of signals—with enough window dressing to allow China to save face and enough substance to underscore America’s ability to project power anywhere in the region—Beijing understands. China’s rulers have no doubts that America possesses such power. What they are testing—in Taiwan, the South China Sea, cyberspace and beyond—is whether America has the will to ensure the peaceful status quo in the Pacific, to remain the preeminent power in the region and to guarantee Taiwan’s security.