Sixth-century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Sun Tzu, skeptical about prolonged warfare, favored swift, decisive action; he preferred deception and psychological warfare to subduing an enemy by force.
Contemporary Chinese rulers sometimes breathe the same strategic air as their distinguished forebear. The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has dispatched warships into the Taiwan Strait and conducted live-fire drills. On more than one occasion, its Xian H-6 bombers have circumnavigated Taiwan; in early summer, a Chinese destroyer and frigate repeated that circumnavigation by sea. And Beijing has not renounced the use of force to seize Taiwan.
A Chinese military analyst and TV personality told one of Beijing’s state-run media outlets that it is “legitimate” for China “to send strong signals like this,” and that it must be able to deal not only with Taiwan’s military but potential U.S. and Japanese intervention.
This is foolish talk. Taiwan possesses 1.6 percent of the mainland’s population; by the most generous estimate, Taiwan’s defense budget is one-twentieth of China’s; the U.S. and Japan would use force against China only if Beijing initiated hostilities. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, who knew NATO would not invade the former Soviet Union, Xi Jinping understands that neither Taiwan, nor the U.S. and Japan, nor any combination of these represents a military threat to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
China’s increasing military exercises are intended to convince the Taiwanese that resisting is useless. Sun Tzu would approve: China seeks to achieve its objective — the absorption of democratic Taiwan into authoritarian China — by frightening and bullying.
Yet, China also is increasing the amphibious forces needed to put ground troops ashore. Since 2007 it has constructed five amphibious ships similar in size and capability to the U.S. Navy’s 25,000-ton USS San Antonio-class LPD (landing platform dock); the Chinese vessels carry up to 800 troops each, along with landing craft and armored vehicles. It is building several larger amphibious ships (40,000 tons), the first of which is to launch in 2020.
China is going about intimidating Taiwan purposefully. The list of provocative behavior is long: a build-up of armaments that can be used specifically to attack Taiwan; sea and air exercises targeted at Taiwan; unilaterally expanding its air-defense zone; sustained efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically; Xi Jinping’s 2017 statement to China’s 19th Party Congress that the “Taiwan problem” is part of his plan for “national rejuvenation.” All point to increasing pressure on Taiwan’s democratic institutions and sovereignty.
The United States has a large interest in helping Taiwan remain sovereign — not only because of its democratic institutions or its strategic place in the island chain bracketing China’s east coast. We are committed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide equipment and services Taiwan needs to defend itself.
Deterring China is the best means to lower tensions and reduce the possibility that Beijing might decide to use force — but U.S. policy in recent years has alternated between good and dubious. An example of the former is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 30 speech restating U.S. commitment to protect sovereignty in the region “from coercion by other countries,” backed by a pledge of $300 million for Indo-Pacific security. Also on the positive side was last month’s transit of the Taiwan Strait by guided missile destroyers USS Mustin and USS Benfold, reminding China that the U.S. remains committed to regional stability and Taiwan’s safety.
More such transits are needed — as is overall administration policy as tough-minded about defense as it is about trade. China is not likely to regard the dispatch of an occasional naval vessel as serious American support for Taiwan and the region.
An American aircraft carrier has not transited the Taiwan Strait since the USS Kitty Hawk, 11 years ago. China would react with predictable sound and fury if the Trump administration sailed a carrier through the strait. But the broad midsection of the 110-mile-wide strait is international waters, and U.S. policy has long insisted on a legal right to sail unrestricted on the high seas.
Another action to underline American support for Taiwan is noted in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA); it specifically expresses Congress’s sense that the administration should order Navy ships to call in Taiwanese ports. Congress understands the geographic centrality of Taiwan in the First Island Chain, along with the large strategic value of a free Taiwan in preserving America’s position as a great power in the West Pacific.
The 2018 NDAA also supports bilateral exercises with Taiwan’s navy and exchanges of senior military officers; this strengthens the ties between Washington and Taipei that improve the interoperability of their military forces. If the Trump administration listens, Congress’s expressed interest and such other measures as regular arms sales to Taiwan — including substantial assistance to help Taiwan build its own submarines and other equipment needed to defend against China’s growing arsenal — will help deter the PRC from precipitous action as well as intimidation.
As demonstrated by the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration regards China as a “strategic competitor.” While the result of tariffs on Chinese goods remains unknown, economic competition between the U.S. and China is central to their broader contest. And China is challenging the U.S.’s technological edge; for example, its $10 billion investment in a quantum computing research facility in Hefei dwarfs the approximately $250 million of annual U.S. federal spending on the same technology, which has extraordinary potential for the security and economy of whichever country holds the whip hand.
In this competitive relationship, Taiwan’s security remains a large portion of America’s interest in future stability in the West Pacific. The U.S. will benefit itself and its regional friends by increasing its tangible commitment to Taiwan and the region, in concert with the Trump administration’s correct understanding that China is a threat to American and allied interests.
Alongside his advice on using means other than force to achieve a political objective, Sun Tzu noted that “the opportunity of defeating an enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” China’s willingness to use force demonstrates the enmity it holds for Taiwan. By increasing the deterrent value of Taiwan’s defenses and those of our other allies in the region, the U.S. and Taiwan help deny the PRC the opportunity to accomplish its goal by threat or by force.