Since 1979, the Republic of China (ROC) has been in a perilous strategic position. With each passing year the rise of Beijing’s economic and military power erodes Taipei’s ability to resist pressure from China. If Taiwanese are to be able to determine their own destiny, then they must take a bold strategic initiative that will ensure the security and stability of Taiwan as well as the region.
My proposal is called “Taiwan 21,” because all the actions required to increase security and stability for the nation as well as the region are in the hands of Taiwanese. For the first time in decades the strategic initiative in the region belongs to Taipei.
This proposal has a number of elements:
First, the government should make a solemn pledge that in the event of hostilities, the ROC will never conduct any military action on the shores of China. Even if attacked by the Chinese, Taiwan would only defend itself. A practical manifestation of this pledge would be the elimination of all surface-to-surface missiles held by the ROC.
Second, the Taiwanese army should be cut in half, reducing its numbers from 130,000 to 65,000 and 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.
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.
Third, the main mission of Taiwan’s diplomats should shift from seeking diplomatic acknowledgment and recognition to developing solutions to the sovereignty questions in the South China Sea. Sponsoring unofficial “track-two” initiatives and conferences should take on a new urgency, with significant resources and staff dedicated to these efforts and creating models for resolving sovereignty issues and sharing resources in the disputed areas.
Fourth, Taipei should launch a “democracy offensive” aimed at nations in Asia where governments systematically deny their citizens fundamental human rights. A pledge of US$1 billion over 10 years could use social media and community organizations to engage people and build civil societies across Asia.
Fifth, Taipei should adopt a “hornet’s nest” strategy by dramatically upgrading its air defenses and modernizing its navy for the purposes of denying any regional power the ability to gain air or naval superiority over Taiwan without suffering huge losses.
To make this strategy a reality, Taiwan would build or acquire the latest land-based air and missile defense systems, signals intelligence, aircraft, attack and minesweeper helicopters, upgraded Lafayette-class frigates, F-16s and Sea Dragon submarines. Taipei would also upgrade its F-16s while deploying a force of hundreds of armed drone aircraft.
What would be the effect of such bold moves?
In terms of security, Taiwan’s pledge to never attack China in any instance would give Taipei the moral high ground in any confrontation and have the immediate effect of exposing the current military buildup across the Taiwan Strait as an aggressive act.
Redefining its army would free scarce financial resources for Taiwan’s air and sea defenses. Adopting the hornet’s nest strategy would need to be supported by enough resources and enhanced capabilities to make planners in Beijing know that an assault on Taiwan would impose catastrophic costs and risk a humiliating loss of face.
On the diplomatic front, turning the army into a rapid response force capable of being the first on the scene at any disaster in Asia is a capability that would be accepted by those in need, especially in Southeast Asia and South-Pacific nations.
A large and sustained effort to support those fighting for human rights and building civil society from Yangon to Guangdong to Pyongyang would send a clear message reminding the international community that Taiwan is a strong and vibrant democracy.
These actions would do more for the image of Taiwan as a peaceful and progressive partner than any amount of continued frustrated efforts for formal diplomatic recognition. The juxtaposition with more insular and self-interested forces in Beijing would be powerful.
There are inherent risks in such a strategy, but the risks are greater for Taiwan if it simply reacts to troubling trends and decreases its ability to control its destiny by employing the same security and diplomatic approaches year after year.
For the sake of self-determination and regional security, it is time for Taiwan to make bold moves.
Scott Bates is the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington.