There was indeed an element of surprise in Scott Bates’ op-ed “A new plan to take Asia by surprise” (Nov. 22, page 8), especially among those who have studied the politics of the Taiwan Strait over the years.
Given Taiwan’s predicament, innovative ways of thinking about how it can secure its democratic future are always welcome. However, Bates’ “Taiwan 21” proposal (the 21 either stands for 21st century or Taiwan’s total population minus 2 million, we don’t know), while ostensibly striving for such a lofty goal, comes well short of providing viable alternatives for Taiwan. The weaknesses of his argument are manifold; let’s walk through them one by one.
First, Bates recommends that Taiwan “make a solemn pledge that in the event of hostilities, [it] will never conduct any military action on the shores of China. Even if attacked by the Chinese, Taiwan would only defend itself.” To this end, he contends that Taiwan should eliminate all the surface-to-surface missiles in its arsenal.
From this, we can understand that Taiwan should forsake all means to ensure that the aggressor, China, cannot fire more ballistic and cruise missiles at the island.
The main reason why Taiwan has been developing surface-to-surface cruise missiles — mainly the Hsiung Feng family — is for them to be used as a counterforce. In other words, Taiwan’s cruise missiles would serve to strike back at missile bases, radar sites and the command-and-control nodes of China’s Second Artillery Corps to paralyze its warfighting capabilities.
It has already been made very clear that Taiwan will never initiate hostilities or attack non-military targets in China (those who argued otherwise were discredited long ago). Taiwan’s best deterrent option is not to turn the other cheek when attacked; it is to promise enough pain to make the Chinese leadership think twice before deciding to use force against a non-belligerent.
The author’s second recommendation is for the Taiwanese army to be cut in half, reducing its numbers from 130,000 to 65,000, and for it to be recast as a “self-defense force.” The mission of this force would “shift from trying to resist a land invasion to providing rescue, reconstruction and stabilization assistance in disaster situations,” Bates writes. This “repurposed force” could become Asia’s “premier disaster response team, replacing its tanks with airlift capability and logistical support able to move people and supplies to save lives,” he adds.
As a country with a long history of natural catastrophes — from massive earthquakes to powerful typhoons — Taiwan has ample experience dealing with humanitarian emergencies, which gives it the ability to develop first-rate search-and-rescue capabilities. Reconfiguring warfighting capabilities so they can meet humanitarian contingencies and committing to serve as a major player in the region are laudable goals, but there’s a problem, and it is one that anyone who has followed developments in the Taiwan Strait should be aware of: Beijing will not allow it.
Unless Bates’ “Taiwan 21” makes the Chinese leadership magically change its stance on Taiwan, Beijing will continue to prevent Taiwan from being a regional actor or joining multilateral organizations, especially when doing so would emphasize its independence and sovereignty — Bates’ purported ultimate goals.