Mon, Sep 10, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Ian Easton On Taiwan: The great defense debate

The United States and the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) have yet to resolve fundamental differences of opinion when it comes to defense strategy. To be sure, the two sides have always had somewhat opposing views. That is only natural. Taiwan is a middleweight regional power, located at the doorstep of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China). America is a massive global superpower, located outside the immediate potential warzone.

Neither side understands the other as well as you might expect from countries with close ties and decades of defense and security cooperation. Many observers hoped that the election of President Donald Trump would help close the gap, especially after his December 2016 phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). It now appears that the Trump administration could be too distracted to make game-changing moves.

A few modest exceptions aside, Washington’s main talking points on Taiwan defense issues are the same as those heard during the Obama years. US government officials continue to call on the Taiwanese to spend more on defense. They tell Taipei to focus on rapidly building up “asymmetric and innovative” (read: affordable and inoffensive) capabilities that could, in theory, make it an unappealing target of invasion. This has real merit. But some official views are heavily influenced by something referred to as the “porcupine strategy,” an odd concept that appeared in the latter half of the George W. Bush administration and grew in influence during the Obama years. It rests upon the assumption that a passive Taiwanese defense posture would be advantageous.

The argument goes something like this: Taiwan should forgo all investments into major military combatants like submarines, fighter jets, tanks, ballistic missile defenses, and cruise missiles. Instead, Taiwanese generals should focus on defending their territory with small, mobile, short-range weapons that could be deployed at low cost and in great numbers. Taiwan does not have time on its side. China could invade soon, and so the island should forget about ever plugging into a broader US regional defense network with compatible operating systems. That would be expensive and could take a long time to come online.

Porcupine fans seem to assume that, for Taiwan, the main effort should be preparing to fight on the beaches and across the densely populated home island, not along the PRC coast, on Taiwan’s outer islands, or in the air and on the sea. Taiwan’s ability to expand the battle space and conduct counterstrikes on targets deep in China would violate delicate US State Department sensibilities. With varying degrees of intensity, Washington has long opposed Taiwan’s development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and armed drones.

A few American officials still continue to argue that it would be better if Taiwanese defense authorities did little other than hone the ability to hold out when attacked. In their view, “offensive” operations should be left to US forces that may (or may not) be ordered to rescue the island from an overwhelming Chinese assault. They argue that Taiwan should assume it will lose an effective air force and navy in the first days of war, and possibly even within hours of the onset of enemy attack. It is unknowable in peacetime whether such dire estimates would prove correct. They certainly might. But they also might not.

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