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.
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