On August 24, 2020, the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, made an important statement: “The Pentagon is Prepared for China.”
Going forward, how might the Department of Defense team up with Taiwan to make itself even more prepared? No American wants to deter the next war by a paper-thin margin, and no one appreciates the value of strategic overmatch more than the war planners at the Pentagon. When the stakes are this high, you can bet they want to be super ready.
In recent months, we have witnessed a veritable flood of high-level statements from US government leaders on the threat posed to the free world by Communist China. The caliber of these speeches and writings — and the coordinated manner in which they were delivered — demonstrates that an extraordinary clarity of thought is at work in Washington’s halls of power.
The United States has not been this strategic in its approach to great power competition since the 1980s, the height of the First Cold War. Secretary Esper and his colleagues deserve credit for recognizing the challenge China’s tyrannical regime presents and articulating a solid case for competition.
Unfortunately, it is unclear whether strategic competition will survive the November elections.
Influential voices now call for cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on environmental protection and global health. Doing so would be dangerous at a time when Beijing is denying its complicity in the COVID-19 pandemic, exporting unsafe medical supplies, and devastating the environment. Far better would be to cooperate with like-minded allies against CCP actions harming global health and accelerating global warming.
Notwithstanding concerns to the contrary, let’s assume strategic competition with China stays the course. In 2021, will Defense Department leaders continue to make hard policy decisions? Or will they settle for having named Voldemort? It is one thing to sound the alarm about the existence of a ticking time bomb so everyone knows it exists, quite another to reach your hands into the wires and do some bladework.
Here is where Secretary Esper leaves us in suspense. He writes: “The US and our allies are ready to defend every front.” But he does not divulge the names of any of those fronts, and did not refer to Taiwan.
The Taiwan Relations Act and President Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan strongly suggest the US is never going to tolerate an armed invasion of Taiwan. Losing Taiwan to the CCP would be a once-in-a-century strategic disaster. That is why, by law, the Pentagon must maintain a credible ability to defend this distant island nation.
Time could be running out. This year the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has carried out a series of provocative wargames and missile tests aimed at Taiwan. Beijing is openly getting ready for a future invasion.
Given the importance of Taiwan and the fact that it increasingly looks like an unstable flashpoint, it is curious to note that Taiwan wasn’t mentioned in Secretary Esper’s article. There was much he could have reported to the American people.
The Pentagon has taken some significant steps to enhance its engagement with Taiwan. For example, it has begun sending flag officers (generals and admirals) on visits to Taiwan, and has been unabashedly conducting naval and air patrols through the Taiwan Strait. It even sent a deputy assistant secretary of defense to Taiwan on a published visit. Yet, in spite of this progress, a second Trump term or a first Biden term could do far more.
Given the grave threat, they could direct the US Navy to conduct both naval exercises and ship visits with Taiwan. They could also authorize the Pentagon to send units to Taiwan for long-term liaison, training, and advisory missions. The US Army has Special Forces personnel qualified in an impressive array of regional languages and cultures. Today these elite warriors probably know more about Cameroon, Honduras, and Estonia than Taiwan (unless, of course, there’s a group of undercover Green Berets camped out in Longtan and I haven’t heard about it. Here’s hoping!).
With political top-cover, the Defense Department could begin to ensure the American fighting man and woman is ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Taiwanese allies when the shooting starts. Consider the following possibilities.
Secretary Esper and the Pentagon’s top uniformed warfighters could begin visiting Taiwan to meet their counterparts and study at the battlefield. They could invite Taiwan’s Minister of Defense to visit them at the Pentagon. They could begin sending their brightest officers to get degrees at Taiwan’s National Defense University in Taoyuan. They could even station a thousand Marines on Taiwan to serve as a strategic trip-line.
Until recently, the Pentagon has dedicated most of its available bandwidth to servicing arms sales. Those are obviously important; but they aren’t nearly as important as all the political hand-wringing and media drama would suggest. It’s going to take a lot more to keep Taiwan free.
A groundbreaking new study, Preparing for the Nightmare: Readiness and Ad hoc Coalition Operations in the Taiwan Strait, carefully examines the problem and offers pragmatic solutions. The authors (my esteemed colleagues Mark Stokes, Yang Kuang-shun, and Eric Lee), conclude that the US and ROC governments urgently need to improve their unity of effort, interoperability, and combined logistics.
They write: “Readiness begins with a basic question: Ready for what? For the United States and Taiwan, readiness is the ability to respond effectively to CCP use of force and other forms of coercion to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
So, is the Pentagon prepared for CCP use of force? Absolutely. But the Pentagon is not nearly as prepared as it could be and should be for the scenario that matters most: a PLA invasion of Taiwan.
Many current policies are outdated, limiting America’s ability to achieve real overmatch against China. Big changes are needed — and fast. By working more closely with Taiwan, the Pentagon can super-charge its readiness.
Ian Easton is Senior Director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat.
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