When Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping (習近平) wakes up one morning and decides that his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can win a war to conquer Taiwan, that is when his war will begin. To ensure that Xi never gains that confidence it is now necessary for the United States to shed any notions of “forbearance” in arms sales to Taiwan.
Largely because they could guarantee military superiority on the Taiwan Strait, US administrations from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama practiced “forbearance” — pre-emptive limitation of arms sales to Taiwan — in hopes of gaining diplomatic leverage with Beijing.
President Ronald Reagan was convinced not to sell Taiwan an advanced 4th-generation fighter like the F-16 but instead sold Taiwan the components to make its less capable and logistically awkward Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF). George Bush and Barack Obama refused to sell Taiwan new F-16s as the PLA developed the J-10, J-11, J-15 and J-16 4th-gen fighters and the J-20 5th-generation fighter.
No administration from Bill Clinton to Obama would even consider selling short-range ballistic missiles to Taiwan as that might be “provocative,” as the CCP/PLA proceeded to build up to over 2,000 theater range ballistic missiles now targeting Taiwan and US forces in Japan and Guam.
When US analysts supporting current President Joe Biden heaped criticism on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s January 10 decision to end the State Department “Contact Guidelines” that have demeaned democratic Taiwan officials for 40 years, there was some fear that “forbearance” would return with the Biden Administration that began on January 20, 2021.
But it took only three days for the CCP/PLA to shatter any hope by the new administration that forbearance regarding Taiwan could avert the CCP’s murderous intentions. On January 23 the PLA sent eight H-6K bombers to simulate the launching of up to 48 supersonic YJ-12 anti-ship missiles against the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt that had just entered a region of the South China Sea near the southwest corner of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the location of nearly daily PLA aerial intimidation exercises.
While the F/A-18E/F fighters on the Roosevelt may have succeeded in shooting down the H-6K bombers and the YJ-12 missiles, they could not overcome the more realistic coordinated assault that would have included three types of hypersonic-speed PLA anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), land-based YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, plus ship-launched and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. Until new US theater ballistic missiles initiated by former President Donald Trump begin deployment in 2023 and beyond, the US will have to fight its way through massive PLA missile barrages and over 1,000 4th-generation combat aircraft to defeat a PLA attempt to invade or blockade Taiwan.
Under the Trump Administration there was also recognition that due to the PLA’s mounting regional all-around military threat it no longer made sense to limit US sales to Taiwan as had previous administrations. They took the hard decisions to sell 66 new F-16s to Taiwan and in late 2020 to sell nearly 600 missiles to Taiwan, including for the first time 64 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) 300km range short-range ballistic missiles.
But this should be viewed as a beginning, not as a new benchmark that must wait 4-8 years for reevaluation by a successor administration. Six hundred missiles, most subsonic speed anti-ship cruise missiles, will help deter a PLA invasion attempt. But they will not decisively defeat one. The US must exceed the sales record of the Trump Administration if it is to decisively deter Xi Jinping. Here are some options to consider:
First, the US and Taiwan should cooperate in building up a stockpile of US build weapons that will better help Taiwan to defeat an initial invasion or blockade attempt. As PLA joint-force air and naval exercises around Taiwan will grow in size so that the PLA could very quickly transition to combat operations against Taiwan, the size of Taiwan’s arms stocks will become an increasingly vital element in deterring CCP attack.
This means the US should sell Taiwan a much larger number of AIM-120 self-guided air-to-air missiles (AAM), more ATACMS ballistic missiles, PATRIOT missile-defense missiles, and soldier-launched JAVELIN anti-armor missiles. The US should also sell more critical spare parts to ensure the operation of US-built F-16 combat fighters, combat ships, and Army tanks. There should also be consideration for easing the financial burden on Taiwan for building this stockpile by considering new “Lend-Lease” deferred payment arrangements.
Second, instead of waiting years for US companies to build missiles and spare parts, the urgency of the PLA threat to Taiwan justifies consideration of going to US munitions stocks to accelerate Taiwan’s assembling of a larger weapons stockpile. A couple of hundred AIM-120s or even ATACMS will not diminish US capabilities, while Taiwan payments could be used to replenish those US stockpiles.
Third, it is time to revive the practice of providing Taiwan with the most modern US weapons. In 1958 the US supplied Taiwan with the world’s first modern infrared guided short-range AAM, the AIM-9 Sidewinder. In combat resulting from the Taiwan Crisis of that year, the AIM-9 made slightly inferior Taiwan Air Force F-86 Sabre fighters instantly superior to PLA Air Force J-5/MiG-17 fighters.
Not only should the US consider early sale of its long-range AIM-260 AAM now under development, but the US should sell Taiwan the 500km range Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) and new high-power laser defense weapons. The long-range AIM-260 will push H-6K bombers to launch their cruise missiles from longer ranges, and the PrSM will have an anti-ship seeker, allowing attacks against masses of PLA invasion ships almost as far north as Shanghai. High-power lasers will enable Taiwan to defeat new PLA unmanned “swarm” weapons and eventually, shoot down PLA missiles at exponentially less cost than missile interceptors.
One price of losing Taiwan to the CCP/PLA would be its turning Taiwan into a massive base for projecting maritime and missile forces around the world. This then would condemn future US generations to multiple wars with China to preserve US economic access and political freedom. A far better option is to ensure Taiwan remains free. That now requires arms sales policies unrestricted by the “forbearance” of previous decades.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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