The Biden administration will immediately face serious foreign policy challenges, especially in the western Pacific where China’s provocations have accelerated since the coronavirus spread around the world. China’s attacks on Vietnamese fishing boats, elimination of freedoms promised to Hong Kong, threats to boycott Australian agricultural products, September clashes with Indian troops and accelerated probing of Taiwanese air and sea space — all demonstrate Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s increasing aggression.
The bullseye of these provocations is Taiwan, whose democracy contradicts mainland China’s insistence on tyranny as the only appropriate form of governance and threatens its imperial ambitions. What’s more, Taiwan’s geographic position blocks the Chinese navy’s unobstructed access to the central Pacific.
Ending Taiwan’s self-government is a fundamental Chinese objective. But preserving the U.S. position as the dominant, benevolent Pacific power is as critical to America’s economic future as it is to U.S. global security. A U.S. failure to honor the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), to assist Taiwan if it were to be attacked, would undermine every U.S. security alliance. No American president can ignore this.
Prior to the U.S. presidential election — and in light of China’s expanding regional provocations — the U.S. foreign policy community began to examine how to improve Washington’s ability to deter China from using force against Taiwan. From this emerged the question of “strategic ambiguity,” under which a state deliberately refuses to articulate its response to certain actions.
This policy has distinct benefits in certain circumstances. It gives the ambiguous state significant flexibility, while strengthening deterrence by playing off an adversary’s anxieties. America has pursued this policy apropos Taiwan since it recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979. The TRA labels any pressure or attack on Taiwan as “of grave concern” and guarantees the U.S. will supply Taiwan with military technology and services — but it does not commit the U.S. to Taiwan’s defense.
The question today is whether this lack of formal commitment to defend Taiwan serves any useful end.
October marked the high point of Chinese violations of Taiwanese airspace. China’s aircraft violated Taiwan’s airspace 25 days out of 31, forcing the Taiwanese air force to scramble interceptors in response. These violations occurred after a summer of increased tensions, during which China violated Taiwanese airspace during annual military exercises and a September missile test. China also staged amphibious assault exercises in May, August and October, tacitly simulating an attack on Taiwan.
These actions should not be mistaken as mere sabre-rattling. China’s actions demonstrate its military power but also are intended to impress upon the Taiwanese that they retain their freedoms only through China’s restraint. Taiwan has not been intimidated.
Under the pro-independence Pan-Green Coalition, Taiwan has doubled-down. It has expanded its military capabilities, received multibillion-dollar arms transfers from the U.S., and weathered the COVID-19 crisis despite being barred from the World Health Organization.
Nevertheless, the China is not simply displaying its military capabilities to bully Taiwan into submission. It is testing Taiwanese responses to major military incursions by simulating possible wartime measures. China’s transit of a carrier strike group through the Miyako Strait in April gauged Taiwanese willingness to defend the island’s best link to Japan, and U.S. regional defenses more broadly; mixing strike packages in the spring and summer probed Taiwan’s reactions to Chinese attacks from different directions.
Taiwan has a well-trained military, particularly in the air, but it operates older aircraft like the F-5 Tiger along with more modern F-16 Fighting Falcons. Its F-5s and Indigenous Defense Fighters provide needed numbers in a confrontation — and in air combat between evenly matched adversaries, concentration is decisive — but China’s more modern airframes threaten all Taiwanese combat aircraft apart from the F-16s. Moreover, China’s air-superiority fighters are supported by long-range Chinese bombers and purpose-built strike aircraft, naval aviation, and ship- or shore-launched missiles. By contrast, Taiwanese reserves are fixed; its ground and naval forces would be hard pressed to make up for aerial inferiority.
But conquering and occupying Taiwan will not be easy. Despite the aerial advantages, destroying Taiwan’s air force would require significant resources; Taiwan’s anti-air and anti-ship missiles still pose a threat to Chinese forces, notwithstanding a possible Chinese victory in the air. Taiwan-based missiles can target a range of major Chinese ports; cargo shipping bound for Eastern China is also vulnerable to attack. One of China’s primary aerial transport arteries runs along the Taiwan Strait — and a surviving Taiwan obstructs China from transferring forces by sea between the Northeast and Southwest, hampering China’s ability to respond to multiple regional contingencies.
All this points toward two conclusions. First, China may be able to gain air supremacy if Taiwan is not supported in a conflict, but this will not eliminate the strategic threat Taiwan poses. Second, neutralizing Taiwan will require an amphibious assault, a large-scale ground campaign, and subsequent occupation.
Time is essential in a conflict. The longer it drags on — the longer Taiwan can resist — the higher the likelihood that another regional actor will interpret a local Chinese action as a prelude to another first-strike. More important, every additional hour that Taiwan resists increases the likelihood of an American-coordinated intervention.
American intervention is China’s greatest fear. China requires access to overseas markets and resources to survive and is dependent upon the South and East China Seas’ maritime routes. America’s global position allows it to disrupt any maritime transport to and from mainland China by controlling critical chokepoints — the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb in the Arabian Sea, the Straits of Malacca and Lombok in the Indian Ocean.
True, American capabilities are distributed around the world, allowing China to gain a marginal temporal advantage by striking first. But over time, American superiority would be brought to bear, as would allied capabilities. Indeed, considering China’s duplicity over the past ten months, some European powers may support a U.S.-led coalition. India also poses a threat to Chinese interests; this summer’s border clashes — the deadliest in a half-century — likely tempted India to pursue more aggressive strategies if other contingencies distract China. A botched first strike against Taiwan that does not neutralize the island in a matter of hours or days therefore invites China’s worst-case possibility: a general war against an American-led coalition of Indo-Pacific and European states.
The transition of power to President-elect Biden may not be smooth, and COVID-19 has demanded an overwhelming proportion of U.S. strategic bandwidth, the capacity of a National Command Authority and military to interpret information and respond to contingencies.
China’s ruling Communist Party is an inherently cautious organization. It fears overstepping what today’s geopolitical balance will allow, lest it prompt the encircling coalition it so deeply fears. But its actions during COVID-19 may indicate this caution has eroded and China’s leadership no longer fears a coordinated response. Furthermore, China may never have an equivalent strategic opportunity again. As Sun Tzu wrote, “When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.”
Thus, the United States should end its policy of strategic ambiguity.
The Trump administration has improved Taiwan’s defenses and pursued the most clear-eyed China policy of any administration since the early 1970s. But a formal diplomatic signal that the U.S. will not tolerate aggression against Taiwan is critical to ensure that China does not capitalize upon American strategic paralysis. President Trump has the power to send this signal today. President Biden, once inaugurated, will face the same strategic reality and will have the same power to improve deterrence against any Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Biden’s expansion of the U.S. partnership with Taiwan will calm regional fears and demonstrate his administration’s interest in working with other regional allies such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines and South Korea. Regular arms sales should continue, with a specific focus on short- and long-range mobile missiles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and subsurface technology. But this alone is not enough. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command can strengthen deterrence by integrating Taiwan into its war planning, conducting senior-level staff visits, engaging in port visits, holding exercises with American, Taiwanese and other allied naval forces, and coordinating increased force deployments with Japan.
To the extent that U.S. policy remains ambiguous, China’s threats will continue to grow and threaten Taiwan’s flourishing democracy — the greatest impediment to China’s military emergence into the Indo-Pacific.
Read in The Hill