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A nation must think before it acts.
American officials are increasingly concerned about China’s growing power and assertiveness. While spy balloons over the continental United States may be the current crisis, Washington should stay focused on the most likely flashpoint in the bilateral relationship: the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Taiwan Is a Critical Interest for Both Superpowers
China’s President Xi Jinping has made it clear that the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China is a top priority, ordering his military to be ready to successfully invade the island by 2027 (the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army). Even so, any such invasion will be far from easy. To conquer Taiwan, China must invade an island 100 miles distant across historically treacherous waters and land massive forces on a remarkably limited number of well-defended beaches—all while preventing or limiting interference from the US military. Recognizing these challenges, China’s armed forces have invested heavily in capabilities that would allow it to meet Xi’s mandate by building the world’s largest navy, an increasingly modern air force, and thousands of missiles, some of which are designed to attack American bases and aircraft carriers. These forces would come to bear particularly if Taiwan explicitly moved toward independence. In 2016, Xi said, “We have the determination, the ability and the preparedness to deal with Taiwanese independence, and if we do not deal with it, we will be overthrown.”
American leaders increasingly realize the critical role Taiwan plays for US global interests. Taiwan’s geographic situation in East Asia anchors the First Island Chain, the linchpin to America’s defense of Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Further, as Chris Miller explains, the pandemic showed the world the importance of Taiwan’s production of nearly all of the world’s advanced semiconductor chips. The island accounts for 37 percent of all the new computing power in the world—every year. These factors make it increasingly unrealistic that the United States can avoid coming to Taiwan’s defense even if it wanted to. If Washington hopes to avoid a conflict with Beijing over Taiwan, it must act now to increase its deterrent against China.
Worries Are Growing in Washington
Concern over a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan has dramatically escalated recently. In May 2022, the Center for a New American Security conducted a wargame of a 2027 Chinese invasion of Taiwan that included members of Congress among the participants. Three weeks into the conflict, the game concluded with a relative stalemate after devastating mutual losses.
In early 2023, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released the results of its own war game series of a 2026 Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Its intriguing approach ran a base scenario three times and a series of variations on the base for a total of twenty-four scenarios, showing that although the United States and Taiwan prevailed, it came at a tremendous cost, including the loss of two American aircraft carriers. The scenarios assumed some key requirements for a US victory, including that it must have full use of Japanese airbases, and have the appropriate long-range anti-ship missiles—and enough of them—to destroy China’s invasion fleet from outside the perimeter it established around Taiwan. Taiwan, for its part, also needed to vigorously fight back—and have what it needs before the invasion begins, since resupply wouldn’t be possible.
Taiwan Is Running Out of Time
The worries over China’s plans for Taiwan are urgent. In 2021, Taiwan’s former defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said China’s capabilities to mount a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan would be “mature” by 2025. Also in 2021, the then-commander of US Indo-Pacific Command said China could “try for Taiwan” in the next six years (by 2027), an assessment he confirmed a few weeks ago and that was supported, at least obliquely, by his successor Adm. John Aquilano, who testified that “this problem is closer than we think.” In September 2022, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen revealed that Xi ordered his military to develop the ability to capture Taiwan by 2027. Just a few weeks ago, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned that he believes China is “more likely” to pull the trigger on Taiwan. “To me, 2027 is a year to watch out,” suggesting that Xi might use a 2027 invasion as a political distraction at home and in an attempt to show “achievement” on the five-year anniversary of his recent re-confirmation as the Chinese Communist Party leader for another five years.
Even more recently, on January 27, 2023, four-star Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, told his officers in a memorandum to prepare for the United States to be at war with China in two years. Gen. Minihan suggested the distractions of presidential elections in both the United States and Taiwan may well provide China the opening it needs. He added, “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” While the Pentagon distanced itself from Gen. Minihan’s comments, it’s notable that so many different officials are making public statements warning of Chinese intentions toward Taiwan.
China Believes America Is in Decline—and Sees an Opportunity
Xi believes the United States is in terminal decline, potentially providing the opening to move on Taiwan. The 2008 global financial crisis had a dramatic impact on the Chinese Communist Party’s perception of the changing balance of power. Rush Doshi, currently a director for China at the National Security Council, wrote in his book The Long Game, that the 2008 crisis marked China’s departure from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategic doctrine, designed to grow China’s capabilities while avoiding provoking the American superpower. Xi, clearly, abandoned this approach. Doshi notes that “Chinese strategists would prefer that the United States graciously accept its decline” and that the United States was “spiritually exhausted, physically weak, and could no longer carry the world.” China’s perception of a weak America dramatically undermines deterrence in the Taiwan Strait.
Will America Defend Taiwan?
There are signs that America and its allies understand their interests and will act to defend them. President Joe Biden has said bluntly that America will defend Taiwan. Congress has also demonstrably supported Taiwan’s democracy, with a dramatic visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is scheduled to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen when she visits the United States in April, and may travel to Taiwan at some point. Polls show Americans increasingly support protecting Taiwan against China.
America’s allies in East Asia recognize the increased threat from Beijing, and appreciate that any Chinese invasion of Taiwan is likely to trigger a larger, regional conflict. As a result, the United States is strengthening its commitment to defend its other allies, confirming this week it “would invoke US mutual defense commitments” in response to Chinese aggression directed at the Philippines. Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton told The Australian in November 2022 it would be “inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US if the US chose to take action” with regard to Taiwan. Japanese leaders have indicated they know that they would be involved in any crisis in the Taiwan Strait. In 2021 Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former deputy defense minister, acknowledged that Japan can’t avoid involvement. “Sooner or later, a Taiwan emergency will turn into a Japan emergency.”
America’s strategic interests will compel it to defend Taiwan, and its allies appreciate their stakes in such a conflict is likely to draw them in. Understanding this, the United States should step up its efforts to avoid the fight by deterring China from pulling the trigger in the first place.
American Weapons Deliveries to Taiwan
What more can the United States do to deter China from attacking Taiwan? The Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended key steps as a result of its January 2023 wargame. These measures include large investments in long-range naval precision strike systems, increased contingency planning with American allies, and increasing investment in hardening aircraft shelters in the region against Chinese missile attack, especially on Guam.
The most important recommendation is that the United States should energetically support Taiwan’s “porcupine strategy,” introduced by Taiwan’s former Chief of the General Staff Lee His-Ming in 2017 as the Overall Defense Concept. This calls for Taiwan to make it impregnable to amphibious invasion by arming itself with thousands of mobile anti-ship and anti-air weapons, sea mines, drone strike systems, and other smaller, mobile systems. While Taipei has made some progress in pursuing this strategy, it still struggles with two challenges: a continued preference for big-ticket defense systems, and US delays in delivering weapons that the Taiwanese have already ordered.
Taiwan’s military’s preference for big-ticket defense systems like fighters, tanks, and large ships is understandable historically, but it is no longer strategically viable. Until the early years of this century, Taiwan leveraged a technological advantage developed through its arms purchases, but this advantage deteriorated quickly in the 2000s in the face of the Chinese military modernization.
Hal Brands and Michael Beckley note in Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China that Taiwan “keeps blowing more than a quarter of its annual defense budget on domestically made ships and submarines that will not be deployed for years, fighter aircraft that may not make it off the ground in a war, and tanks that cannot easily maneuver on beaches.” The wargame conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that nearly all of Taiwan’s fighter aircraft (and all of Taiwan’s ships) would be destroyed in China’s missile bombardment of Taiwan and regional airbases. As a result, American officials must prevail on Taiwan’s leadership to refocus on survivable defensive systems (e.g., anti-ship, anti-air, anti-armor drones, sea mines, and missile boats). As a case in point, in January 2022, Taiwan asked the United States to explore ways to speed delivery of their $8 billion order for sixty-six F-16V fighters to be supplied by 2026. To increase deterrence, Washington should encourage Taiwan to invest in large orders of “porcupine” systems instead.
There are some signs that Taiwan is moving in the right direction. Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative in Washington, said last month that it is trying to shift to distributed, lower-tech weapons “as soon as possible.” Even with the United States and other allies straining global arms stocks by pouring billions of dollars worth of such weapons into Ukraine for the active fight there, Hsiao noted that “we are assured by our friends in the United States that Taiwan is a very important priority.”
While some of this backlog is the big ticket items that are less applicable to the porcupine strategy, several of those items are also exactly the type of systems and platforms that Taiwan needs. For its part, the Biden administration has approved another $1 billion in sales, most notably for more Harpoons. Javelins, Stingers, ATACMS, SLAM-ERs, Harpoons, and other unmanned systems such as Switchblades are exactly the right kinds of systems for Taiwan to purchase, but only if the United States can overcome the backlog in orders and provide them in time.
There are conflicting calculations of the true size of the US arms backlog with Taiwan, but in every estimate it is large enough to pose a huge problem for deterring Chinese aggressive action. House Armed Services Committee Member Rep. Don Bacon has cited a nearly $19 billion arms sales backlog, declaring “the US is behind in what it needs to provide for Taiwan.” While some argue these deliveries are reportedly delayed due to diversions to Ukraine, others like Jennifer Kavanagh and Jordan Cohen make a strong case that this is more of an industrial base production issue. In any case, the US arms backlog to Taiwan predates the war in Ukraine and “delays of anywhere from two to five years between sale and delivery are the norm for transfers of US weapons systems.” The “norm” is fine in periods of non-urgency, but in strategically unstable circumstances regulations must be streamlined. The United States needs to do what it can to speed this process in light of the increased possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Straits.
US arms to Taiwan are delivered primarily after Taiwanese requests are reviewed by the Defense Department, State Department, and the US Congress. This cumbersome process is followed by negotiations for contract signing, which can take years. These delays threaten Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and undermine deterrence against China. It is very clear, then, that when Taiwan is seeking the types of weapons appropriate to execute a “porcupine” strategy, the United States should encourage this by diligently clearing the backlogs, production delays or exigent diversions of these systems, even at a premium to the usual costs for such systems. This is an issue that the Congress can assist with.
Thankfully, Congress is starting to focus on this issue. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, said the panel is “working on bills now to help expedite and to reduce red tape to get defense items that are needed out in a quicker fashion.” This includes shortening specific reviews in the process or even by designating Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally as provided for under the last Congress’ proposed Taiwan Policy Act, which passed the Senate in September 2022. Many of its provisions, including the major non-NATO ally designation for Taiwan, did not survive when elements of the Taiwan Policy Act were incorporated into the FY2023 Defense Authorization Bill as signed into law in December 2022. The bill as signed included other Taiwan Policy Act defense-specific provisions, such as requiring the Defense Department and Department of State to prioritize foreign military sales to Taiwan, for those departments to develop a list of “pre-cleared” systems for Taiwan through the Foreign Military Sales program, and prioritizing Taiwan to draw down US excess defense items, amongst other provisions. Also incorporated into the final FY23 NDAA was the Arms Exports Delivery Solutions Act, which would require “a joint Defense Department and State Department report on foreign military sales worth $25 million or more to Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, dating back to 2017.” The bill, introduced by Rep. Young Kim, requires the report to detail reasons for any delay in expected arms delivery dates to those countries while identifying interim capabilities to fill the gap caused by any backlog.
Much More to Do
The White House and the new Congress should double down on efforts to support Taiwan—including keeping the Senate bipartisan coalition that championed the Taiwan Policy Act together—and focus on what needs to be done in the time available in the new Congress. This coalition must collaborate with allies in the House of Representatives, including the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.
To deter China from aggression, American leaders should work together to implement the reforms necessary to speed up arms for Taiwan for its effective defense, and to preserve American strategic interests in the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Image: Defense Department