The threat to Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasing — sharply. Beijing is putting the nation under tremendous political pressure, but the military threat to Taiwan is especially alarming. China has spent the past 25 years working to undermine US and allied military advantages, above all with respect to Taiwan.
As US think tank RAND Corp and other sources have shown, helping Taiwan defend itself has gone from a relatively easy task in the 1990s for the US military to an exceptionally stressful one today. For Beijing, a military solution to the “Taiwan problem” is no longer fanciful — and China is not resting.
The situation is therefore urgent, but it is far from hopeless. Taiwan can be effectively defended. Addressing the growing threat from the People’s Republic will, however, require implementing a marked shift in Taiwan’s defense along the lines of the new Overall Defense Concept.
In brief, Taiwan must shift from a conventional defense approach to a much more lethal and resilient model. The purpose of Taiwan’s defense posture — including not only its military, but its civil defense efforts — should be to make it as difficult and costly as possible for the PRC to conquer or subordinate Taiwan.
The crucial purpose of this approach should be to make it as credible and feasible as possible for the US to come to Taiwan’s defense. This is increasingly vital because the costs and risks to Americans of helping Taiwan defend itself have risen dramatically in the past two decades, due to the growing might of the PRC.
The problem is that sticking with Taiwan’s old defense approach will increase the presumption on America’s resolve a great deal. Taiwan’s military cannot look like the military of a secure country, nor its civil defense preparations resemble those of contemporary western Europe’s. Taiwan cannot simply expect America to pull its chestnuts out of the fire if the worst happens and the PRC invades or imposes a blockade.
Such a course would not only be unfair, it would be exceedingly unwise. Experience and common sense indicate that Americans will most help those who help themselves. Americans are thus more likely to help a Taiwan that can materially blunt and degrade a Chinese assault, as well as ride out a long blockade. This is a Taiwan armed more with ship-killing cruise missiles and sea mines than the fanciest fighters or frigates, and a Taiwan with deep stockpiles of food, medicine and gas, not a fragile, just-in-time economy.
The point is not to pretend that Taiwan could defend itself alone from a determined attack by the mainland. The point, rather, is to reduce the demands on and catalyze the resolve of Americans in ways that make it more likely that they will answer Taiwan’s call for help if it is needed.
Helping Taiwan defend itself would be very hard for the US, but Taiwan can make doing so less painful and difficult in ways that can make a significant difference.
Taiwan can do this in a number of ways. Militarily, it is far easier for the US to aid a fighting defense than recapture a fortified conquest. It is considerably less demanding — even if still very challenging — for the US military to help defend a Taiwan that can hold out for a time than to recapture a Taiwan that has fallen quickly and that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army can heavily fortify. The less Taiwan’s defense demands of Americans, the more likely they are to go the distance.
Politically, a Taiwan that caves in quickly is much less likely to generate the sympathy needed for Americans to fight with and sacrifice for Taiwan than one that can doughtily survive and hold on.
Meanwhile, a China that can quickly and cleanly seize or suborn Taiwan is less likely to provoke Americans’ righteous anger than one that has to bombard cities and starve civilians to try to get its way.
Fortunately, Taiwan appears to be moving in the right direction with its Overall Defense Concept. This signals a growing recognition of where Taiwan needs to go. However, serious and sustained implementation is crucial. There is no time to waste or resources to spare. The situation is already serious and every time a Taiwanese official raises buying a fancy, but vulnerable new system rather than moving toward a more effective and resilient defense, it causes even sympathetic Americans to wonder.
This is a problem that Taiwan can solve, alongside the US. The US has already begun the difficult work of adapting to a world defined by great power competition — represented above all by the growing power of the PRC and its military. Taiwan must do the same.
Elbridge Colby is director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. He served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to last year.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
Let’s begin with the bottom line. The sad truth of the matter is that Beijing has trampled on its solemn pledge to grant Hong Kong a great deal of autonomy for at least fifty years. In so doing, the PRC ignored a promise Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) made to both Great Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the wider world back in the early 1980s. This was at a time when Beijing, under Deng and his successors, appeared to be seeking an equitable accommodation with the West. I remain puzzled by China’s recent policy shift. Was it because Hong Kong was perceived
The recent removal of items related to Japanese Shinto culture from the Taoyuan Martyrs’ Shrine and Cultural Park has caused an uproar. The complex was built as a Shinto shrine by the Japanese during the colonial period, but was transformed into a martyrs’ shrine commemorating veterans of the Chinese Civil War after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Figurines of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu Okami were allowed into the shrine for a cultural event last year, attracting throngs of visitors to see the Shinto decorations and practices. However, some people accused the Taoyuan City Government of
The “US skeptic” and “Lai skeptic” arguments are gaining traction in Taiwanese political discourse, and might become a major campaign issue in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. The former says that the US cannot be trusted to defend Taiwan should China launch an invasion, while the latter says that Washington does not have the faith in Vice President William Lai (賴清德) — a self-described “pragmatic independence worker” who is seeking the top job — that it has in President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). There is precedent for concern after the way US President Joe Biden handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and