As China seeks to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region at the US’ expense, the US seeks to solidify its position in the region by ramping up its Indo-Pacific strategy. As such, Taiwan’s geostrategic position takes on new importance. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) controlling Taiwan would offer China enhanced influence in the first island chain, a seaway to the second island chain and ultimately a gateway to the Western Pacific.
It has been clear since the time that US Admiral Timothy Keating served as the Pacific Commander from 2007 to 2009 that China wishes to extend PLAN influence up to just short of Hawaii.
To stem such possibilities, US President Donald Trump’s administration authored the National Security Strategy of 2017 pointing out the importance of Taiwan to the US.
The US Congress passed and the US president signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows higher-level officials and military officers from both the US and Taiwan to travel to each country to meet, and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which promotes US diplomatic, security and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Read twice and referred to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2018, which seeks authorization of punitive measures to be taken against countries that break diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The act will need to be reintroduced in the current US Congress, as it could not be passed before the end of the 115th Congress.
In addition, the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 passed the US House of Representatives and was sent to the US Senate, where it was read twice and referred to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The act directs the US Department of State to review the guidance governing US-Taiwan relations and to direct corrective action.
It further states that Taiwan is an important part of the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and directs the US to transfer more defense articles to Taiwan to help build its self-defense.
Because of increased Chinese bullying, Taiwan wishes to play a greater strategic role in the Indo-Pacific by having a closer relationship with the US. Taiwan sees these as greater insurance against a Chinese invasion and more assurance that the US will act in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.
The US expects Taiwan to maintain a non-nuclear armed defense force with combat-ready army, naval, air and marine forces that can smoothly carry out joint operations.
The US is deeply concerned that Taiwan maintain sufficient personnel levels and work out the problems in its difficult transition to an all-volunteer force. The US also sees a need for increased Taiwan non-commissioned officer professionalism.
US and Taiwan military officers alike admit that the Taiwanese reserve force of 2.8 million is insufficiently equipped and armed.
In a recent speech at the Global Taiwan Institute, American Institute in Taiwan Chairperson James Moriarty emphasized Taiwan’s need for greater reserve readiness. Training of all but a few reserve units is inadequate.
A well-prepared reserve force could be a decisive factor in holding off Chinese advances until US forces arrive, making it easier for both Taiwan and the US to defend the nation.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has vowed to meet a long-time US expectation by increasing the defense budget to 3 percent of GDP.
However, even with a larger defense budget, financial constraints are likely to persist. As Taiwan continues the transition to an all-volunteer military force, more and more financial resources would be earmarked to bolster salaries to increase enlistment and retention levels.
In addition, Taiwan is investing more in developing indigenous weapons systems to include a submarine, more potent missiles with longer range, flight training aircraft, etc. The US should sell more technology to Taiwan to help it upgrade its indigenous defense industry.
The US expects Taiwan to further professionalize its counterintelligence operations in view of the number of Taiwan admirals, generals and colonels who have been recruited by Beijing intelligence agencies to provide war plans, weapons information, etc.
There were 33 espionage cases from 2011 to 2016 alone. The most serious case centered on General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲), who was arrested in 2011 for selling information to China about the Po Sheng highly secret communication system that would be used by the US and Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
In such a scenario, Lo’s treason would have put both Taiwan and US service personnel in jeopardy given that it is likely the US would help defend Taiwan.
Former vice minister of national defense Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) believes that the goal of enhanced Chinese intelligence operations targeting the nation is to render the Taiwanese military as an unreliable US security partner.
To counter such efforts, Taiwan needs to establish a system of personnel security investigations, utilize polygraph examinations, increase jail sentences for those found guilty and deny payment of pensions.
Unfortunately, espionage is not considered a serious offense by some politicians, despite pleas by the US government to bring Chinese espionage directed at Taiwan under control.
Some politicians feel that maintaining a good relationship with China is of paramount importance, no matter what. Others feel that longer prison sentences conjure up memories of the White Terror era and the excesses of the period of martial law.
Taiwan wants a defense relationship with the US that is a military one, not a political one. If not a new Mutual Defense Treaty, Taiwan wants assurance that the US will help train Taiwanese forces to resist China. Diplomatically, Taiwan wants the US to use its influence to shape an international and security environment in which China would not attack Taiwan.
From both a military and diplomatic perspective, Taiwan is uncomfortable with the notion of “strategic ambiguity,” because it creates uncertainty about whether Taiwan can really count on the US to come to its assistance.
Sold at a reasonable price, Taiwan wants a steady, secure, regular supply of modern weapons and munitions that it cannot manufacture. At the time of writing, all signs point to the sale of 66 F-16V warplanes. To bring about the sale has taken years of repeated Taiwanese requests to Washington for combat aircraft.
Taiwan wants more of an equitable buyer-seller relationship, not just one dominated by the US, who determines which weapons Taiwan needs and which it would sell.
While Taiwan would like to buy the most modern weapons, for example, F-35Bs and Aegis-class destroyers, the US is always concerned about the impact of weapons sales to Taiwan on US-China relations and whether the weapons would be used in an offensive or defensive manner.
Taiwan wants joint training exercises visible to the world. Such training would elicit greater coordination of security strategy and tactics, and help ensure that doctrine is contemporary. Interoperability of equipment and weapons would also benefit.
In addition, Taiwan seeks greater technical assistance to enhance defense industries, especially the building of an indigenous submarine. Taiwan sees a submarine force as crucial to its defense and as a matter of naval and national pride.
The US and Taiwan are both challenged by China. By addressing the expectations of both, a synergistic relationship can be built that would help solidify the US position in the Indo-Pacific, and help the US and Taiwan better defend against China.
Bill Sharp is the president of Sharp Research and Translation. He taught East Asian politics at Hawaii Pacific University, Chaminade University, Honolulu, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He was a guest lecturer at the Republic of China National Defense University and the Republic of China Military Academy.
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