Getting Serious About Taiwan


May 23, 2024

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te visits a military camp in Taoyuan, Taiwan, May 23, 2024, photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te visits a military camp in Taoyuan, Taiwan, May 23, 2024

Photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

By Raymond Kuo, Michael Hunzeker, Mark A. Christopher

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on May 20, 2024.

In the run-up to President Lai Ching-te's inauguration, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment busied itself debating whether and how the Lai administration might diverge from his predecessor's finely calibrated cross-strait policies. Their fear is that Lai—who once advocated for Taiwanese independence—might rock the boat, provoking Beijing's ire and thereby dragging Washington into another crisis, or worse.

Such worries were perhaps understandable back when Taiwan was ruled by an erratic dictator who really did want to entrap the United States. But times have changed. Taiwan is now a mature democracy. Its leaders represent millions of voters who understand the stakes and have no interest in triggering a war that destroys everything they know.

Democracy has transformed Taiwan. Unfortunately, the way Washington treats Taipei has not kept pace. To be sure, all great powers have a bad habit of condescending to allies and partners. Yet even by this low bar, Washington's treatment of Taipei borders on the pathological. From referring to the Taiwanese people as “the Taiwans” to enforcing ever-changing and Byzantine protocols about official interactions with Taiwanese counterparts, Washington consistently gives the impression that Taiwan is last among equals.

It's time for Washington to treat Taiwan like a serious partner rather than engaging in symbolic gestures that do nothing for its defense, like sending high-profile congressional delegations, debating Taiwanese military uniforms, and rendering the Indo-Pacific as an afterthought (PDF) in supplemental spending bills. Such measures consume government bandwidth and public attention without meaningfully improving the cross-strait military balance. Worse yet, they give the appearance of doing something, without taking actual meaningful action.

It's time for Washington to treat Taiwan like a serious partner rather than engaging in symbolic gestures that do nothing for its defense.

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Treating Taiwan like a serious partner means delivering the U.S.-built weapons that Taiwan has already paid for. It means applying real pressure on Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) to embrace an asymmetric defense posture. And it means increasing the capability of Taiwanese forces, as well as leveraging the strength of other friends and allies.

Washington's long-standing attitude toward Taiwan is based upon a set of military and political foundations that no longer exist. The old approach worked for decades because the U.S. military was unambiguously capable of defeating a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Indeed, U.S. predominance was such that Washington really did have a reason to worry about entrapment. After all, if the U.S. military could easily defeat China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), then why shouldn't Taiwan consider declaring independence to force the United States into a war it would almost certainly win? Meanwhile, American military dominance also afforded Taipei, Washington, and Beijing the luxury of focusing on rhetorical and political symbolism to advance their positions.

But the military balance has changed dramatically. China now spends nearly as much (PDF) on its military as the United States does. The PLA has grown massively in size and capability. The PLA Navy is now the largest in the world, and over the next five years it will grow by nearly 20 percent while the number of U.S. combat ships is set to decrease.

It is now Chinese military power, not U.S. admonition, that deters Taiwanese adventurism. Washington has been slow to grasp this new reality.

First and foremost, the United States must make clear that Taipei needs to play a meaningful role in its own defense. The United States must stop applauding perfunctory attempts at increasing Taiwan's defense spending and implementing defense reform. These halfhearted atta-boys tell the Taiwanese people that they are helpless bystanders who must depend on the United States, while also incentivizing Taiwanese politicians to act helpless while slow-rolling politically and financially costly changes.

Instead, the bar should be set as high as it would be with any respected partner. U.S. officials should make clear that they expect Taiwan's military to adopt a genuinely asymmetric defense posture, revitalize training for ground and reserve units, and radically upgrade its civil defense preparations. While Taipei has recently raised its defense budget, those increases do not make up for years of underinvestment in security, nor do they keep pace with China's growing and modernizing capabilities. Accomplishing these goals quickly will require Taiwan to spend far more on defense than the 2.6 percent of GDP it plans for 2024. But serious challenges require accepting painful trade-offs. Washington should be willing to hold Taipei to account by making future foreign military financing and sales deals conditional on verified progress toward these goals.

The United States could also get American defense firms to prioritize their contracts with Taiwan over other foreign sales in order to clear the $19 billion arms backlog that Taipei already paid for.

Washington could also support Taiwan's own defense industry (in areas where it makes strategic sense to do so) with coproduction and technology transfers. That would help Taiwan rapidly acquire the things it really needs to counter a Chinese invasion: parts; munitions; anti-air, anti-armor, and anti-ship missiles; and drones.

Washington should also make clear that it will not support Taiwan's continued pursuit of capabilities that are ill suited for defending against a full-scale attack. For all the high-profile coverage of Taiwan's asymmetric initiatives, the fact is that Taiwan's MND still spends far too much money on main battle tanks, frigates, amphibious assault ships, and indigenous diesel submarines. Taiwan simply cannot afford to waste its limited defense budget on small numbers of expensive platforms—most of which are vulnerable to being destroyed by a qualitatively and quantitatively superior PLA in the earliest stages of a war.

The Pentagon should be empowered to radically increase the size and scope of its training efforts with Taiwan's military. A hundred or so American trainers there and a handful of Taiwanese battalions in Hawaii is a good start. But given how much the United States struggled to train Iraqi and Afghan military units despite thousands of trainers on the ground, the Pentagon's existing efforts with Taiwan are probably orders of magnitude too small.

Finally, Washington should do more to leverage its most important asymmetric advantage: the powerful network of allies and partners that share its concerns about China. In response to Beijing's increasingly aggressive economic and military actions, Japan, Lithuania, the Philippines, India, and Australia have responded with increased interest in supporting Taiwan. The United States should take advantage of these tailwinds to facilitate more robust combined military planning among regional allies and partners for Taiwan contingencies, to include maintaining command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, providing material support in contested air and sea domains, and possibly even combat roles.

Critics will argue that these steps are more likely to provoke an attack than to deter one. Indeed, some U.S. experts have called to do more to assure Beijing. They argue it is rational for China to seek security, and Washington must convince Chinese leaders that a peaceful path to their preferred outcome still exists. This assurance-focused formulation is appealing because it puts Washington in the driver's seat: If the United States dials down its aggressive actions and doesn't offend Chinese sensibilities, Beijing will respond in kind.

Unfortunately, the facts suggest otherwise. Chinese President Xi Jinping's intentions are clear from his speeches and statements. He wants to control Taiwan, he is willing to use force, and he does not intend to pass this problem to a successor.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's intentions are clear from his speeches and statements. He wants to control Taiwan, he is willing to use force, and he does not intend to pass this problem to a successor.

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And Xi backs his words with deeds. He has modernized China's military, particularly the PLA's long-range strike and power projection capabilities. He routinely authorizes incendiary military exercises as a disproportionate response to American or Taiwanese “provocations,” enabling Chinese units to rehearse invasion operations. He has normalized military intrusions into Taiwanese air, naval, and cyberspace, such that the world no longer bats an eye when Chinese forces undertake maneuvers that would have made the front page just a few years ago. And his crackdown on Hong Kong, ongoing genocidal agenda in Xinjiang, and iron-fisted response to COVID-19 make clear that violence is always an option, and that his commitments and assurances are barely worth the paper on which they are written.

Contrary to what too many students take away from an International Relations 101 class, not every escalatory spiral stems from a security dilemma between defensively minded states. Under the “deterrence model,” the only rational response is to do everything possible to increase the credibility of one's threats. Assurances only embolden a revisionist aggressor. Sometimes a country wants to conquer its neighbor. Just ask Ukraine.

Lai's inauguration offers a logical turning point in the United States–Taiwan relationship. Washington should use this moment to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose that has thus far been lacking. Cheap talk must give way to real actions. Because if Taiwan is meant to be a partner worth fighting for, then it is certainly a partner worth taking—and treating—seriously.

Raymond Kuo is director of the Taiwan Policy Initiative at RAND. Michael Hunzeker is an associate professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also the associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006. Mark Christopher is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council Global China Hub.

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