Defending Taiwan Foreword by Kori Schake
This book grew out of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Foreign and Defense Policy team’s weekly conversations on issues of the day. In the fall of 2021, those conversations centered on comments by President Joe Biden that seemed to recast the American policy of ambiguity about Taiwanese independence and, further, state that the US was committed to the defense of Taiwan.1
As a community of scholars devoted to the principles of defending human dignity, expanding economic opportunity, and making the world a freer and safer place, we at AEI believe US policy rightly belongs on the side of people seeking freedom. We were concerned, however, that the president appeared not to know the fundamentals of his own administration’s policy, nor did he seem cognizant of his statements’ potential to unsettle the issue in ways that might endanger Taiwan. Moreover, in the aftermath of President Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan, we worried he was provoking China without being genuinely committed to protecting Taiwan
The White House quickly released a statement to walk back the president’s comment: “The president was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy”; this statement was reaffirmed by the secretary of defense and the State Department.2 We regret that no one in the administration took the opportunity to build public understanding on the issue of China’s threats to Taiwan and why Taiwan deserves America’s support and protection. That context will be essential for ensuring America has the diplomatic, economic, and military capability for preventing China from attacking Taiwan; rallying international support; and defending Taiwan should deterrence fail.
The vocation and great fun of think tank work is providing explanations and policy recommendations that shape public attitudes and administration policies. The chapters in this book have been written to do what the president has not: explain to Americans why the US should care about Taiwan’s sovereignty, what it means for the international order that has made us safe and prosperous if we do not defend the principles on which that order relies, and what it would take to successfully protect Taiwan from Chinese predation—either outright attack or subversions that might collapse its ability to defend itself.
The scholars of AEI’s Foreign and Defense Policy team disagree on some important issues regarding Taiwan, such as whether the threat of Chinese invasion is more acute in the near term or the Chinese Communist Party’s reticence to attempt and fail at taking control over Taiwan makes the threat longer term. Nevertheless, the chapters all reflect a commitment to our values of defending human dignity and building a freer and safer world—in this instance, as it relates to Taiwan.
The short chapters in this book are designed to identify major questions about Taiwan’s security and provide trenchant analysis and data to inform American and allied national security policies. We intend for these chapters to inform policy development and deliberation—to help policymakers determine how to hedge against the uncertainty of China’s intentions and timetable; build the military capabilities necessary to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan; and develop the alliance relationships that facilitate peace and stability in Asia.
In the first chapter, Michael Rubin explores the history of China’s claim to control over Taiwan, concluding that “the historical reality is that the ‘One China’ concept is a lie.” He traces the linguistic roots of Taiwan (or “Formosa,” as it was known), the ethnic identity of Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants, and the political mythmaking of a constructed Sino-centric history that excludes Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese involvement. He also deconstructs the legal case for Chinese control of Taiwan, concluding,
Beijing may dispute Taiwan’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of its government, but two facts remain: First, periods in which governance in Taiwan is distinct from the mainland are greater than the time the two have had united authority. And second, the People’s Republic has never had sovereignty in Taiwan.
Giselle Donnelly tracks changing American evaluations of China since 2000 in the history of the Pentagon’s China military report. She laments that “the larger intent—to frame America’s defense investments—has not been realized” and concludes that the Pentagon report has been a trailing indicator of Chinese capabilities, slow to acknowledge the nature of Chinese strategy and its force structure advances: “The China report has produced a conventional-wisdom consensus about the dark side of China’s rise, but that has yet to translate into appreciable action.”
Elisabeth Braw evaluates the prospects for China winning over Taiwan without fighting, by effectively using gray-zone warfare. She catalogs Chinese politically motivated restrictions of market access to numerous countries and points out Taiwan’s particular vulnerability, given the proportion of exports it sends to China and the openness of Taiwanese society. She concludes that
aggression in the gray zone would be far more attractive to China than a military assault, primarily because China would incur minimal loss of blood or treasure. It would also be attractive because the Taiwanese government and public would struggle to determine whether a concerted gray-zone campaign against their country was taking place.
Michael Beckley, Zack Cooper, and Allison Schwartz explore how to deter China from attacking Taiwan. They identify trends making conflict more or less likely—with political dynamics and military imbalances making it more likely, while Taiwan’s geography and technological innovation reduce the likelihood—and ask, “Can the United States use geographic and technological asymmetries to offset the Taiwan Strait’s worsening political and military situations?” They posit and evaluate four different Chinese attacks, concluding, “Chinese leaders can only control Taiwan through an inherently risky full-scale invasion.” They recommend, “The United States should shift to a denial strategy to prevent China from controlling waters and airspace along and within the first island chain,” and they identify defense choices in readiness, modernization, force structure, and force posture needed to better deter China from attacking Taiwan.
Hal Brands and Beckley are concerned that the US is anticipating a short, sharp, geographically localized war over Taiwan—but is preparing for the wrong kind of war:
[The war] would expand and escalate as both countries look for paths to victory in a conflict they feel they cannot afford to lose. It would present severe war-termination dilemmas and involve far higher risks of going nuclear than many Americans realize. If Washington doesn’t start preparing to wage, and then end, a protracted conflict now, it could face catastrophe once the shooting starts.
They assess how the Pentagon’s planning should revolve around a conflict of extended duration, especially since “in hegemonic wars—clashes for dominance between the world’s strongest states—the stakes are high because the future of the international system is at issue, and the price of defeat may seem prohibitive.” They describe the dangerous dynamics of great-power wars historically, the added complexity of great-power war in the nuclear age, and the difficulty of war termination. Brands and Beckley recommend amassing key weapons stockpiles to “win the race to reload,” demonstrating through preparations the grit to endure losses, threatening retaliation, containing escalation, and being prepared for “defining victory down” to the status quo ante.
Donnelly’s second chapter recommends widening the aperture of Taiwan’s defense to introduce asymmetries beneficial to defending Taiwan. She reviews the literature about strategy, concluding that “the horizontal spaces—the boundaries of conflict, locations of targets and bases, elimination of sanctuaries, and even violations of neutrality—deserve more attention in the geostrategic competition with Beijing.” This horizontal escalation would prevent China’s proximate advantages from being determinative by expanding the geographic scope of any potential conflict. Donnelly reviews prospects for greater involvement by India, Japan, and South Korea in “uncertainty-creating and cost-imposing gambits,” and she evaluates Beijing’s attempts to sustain its strategic focus. She concludes that
if Taiwan is to survive a savage opening salvo, it will be up to the United States to intervene rapidly, effectively, and directly. Yet were such a scenario to play out, it must be clear that these are the first shots in a long conflict and only part of an enduring great-power competition that will take decades to play out.
Olivia Garard mines her deep expertise on Carl von Clausewitz for her chapter on the inherently superior strength of defensive alliances. Clausewitz considered defensive allies “essentially interested in maintaining the integrity of the country”; Garard’s insight is that “these allies are not accidental to the circumstances; these allies arise from the nature of the defensive form of war.” Their preference is for the status quo. She connects this with Aristotle’s typology of friendships, Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper’s writing on the importance of shared values in US alliances, Alexander Nehmas’s work on the temporal element (that is, permanency) of friendship, and Jesse Glenn Gray’s work on the necessity of military comradery, culminating with Clausewitz’s observation that “people who complain about the ineffectiveness of coalitions do not know what they want; what better way is there to resist a stronger power?” And that, Garard concludes, makes Taiwan merit America’s defending—and makes the shared values of the West the strongest basis for Taiwan’s defense.
Zack Cooper and Sheena Chestnut Greitens are skeptical the US could substantially increase allied and partner participation, worrying that “divergent expectations about potential allied involvement could not only threaten Washington’s relationships with key allies but also undermine America’s ability to deter a contingency with China in the first place.” They explore four discrete scenarios, concluding that in contingencies involving a direct invasion, even the countries most likely to commit forces (Japan and Australia) would likely prefer defensive roles—to be shields rather than spears. Even allowing basing access for US forces is likely to be politically difficult, especially for the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. The US should not expect force contributions beyond those partners, even from countries concerned about China, especially if the conflict proves protracted. Their policy recommendations include avoiding disputes over basing, seeking clarity with allies about nuclear posture, developing capabilities to survive a protracted blockade, and procuring smaller and more-survivable conventional systems.
Elaine McCusker and Emily Coletta review the readiness of the US military to defend Taiwan, identifying in detail four main barriers to success:
1. Defense is not a priority for the current administration, as demonstrated by the fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget request and further emphasized with an FY23 budget proposal for defense that does not keep pace with rising inflation.
2. Delays in annual appropriations and authorizations reduce buying power, hinder readiness, and delay the pursuit of a competitive advantage.
3. The definition of “defense” has been expanded to allow for diversion of defense resources and diffusion of attention to nondefense priorities.
4. Institutional and statutory rules and processes do not promote speed and agility in testing, procuring, and integrating modern capabilities.
They recommend an evolutionary approach to modernization to begin breaking down these barriers and for the US to position itself to be capable of defending Taiwan.
Mackenzie Eaglen and John G. Ferrari also observe with concern the narrowing of American military advantages and recommend specific programmatic investments in conventional capabilities that would provide an edge in a range of Taiwan deterrence and conflict scenarios. Recommendations include:
· Securing US Air Force air superiority across legacy and modernized systems, such as hypersonic missiles;
· Increasing Army troop and funding levels, protecting both from budget sacrifices for the other services;
· Expanding the US naval fleet and domestic production capacity; and
· Ensuring Joint Force and hybrid investments in regional posturing, air and missile defense, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are bolstered across services
They also criticize the Biden administration’s FY23 defense budget request for largely ignoring the modernization needs relevant for near-term Taiwan contingencies.
Klon Kitchen’s chapter addresses the role cyber operations could play in a Chinese attack on Taiwan. He assesses them as central to Chinese doctrine, “both ‘a domain in which war occurs’ and ‘the central means to wage military conflict.’” He describes China’s Strategic Support Force and its operational concepts as “a collection of ceaseless activities only varying in intensity based on political requirements.” Taiwan should expect offensive cyberattacks in peacetime to “manipulate, disrupt, or destroy networks, infrastructure, and daily life” and in wartime to prevent communications networks and government services from functioning. The US should anticipate cyberattacks meant to impede US military responses. He concludes, “Taiwan is catastrophically vulnerable to Chinese cyber aggression,” and he recommends engaging in more intensive joint cyberwar exercises, allowing US access to Taiwanese systems, and removing American companies’ artificial intelligence research from China.
Paul Wolfowitz draws on the history of the Korean War for lessons on deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan. In particular, he emphasizes how the unexpected consequences of that war strengthened the West: creation of NATO’s integrated military command, increased US defense spending from $133 billion to $402 billion in four years, adoption of the more militarized containment recommended by NSC-68, and creation of the US-Taiwan mutual defense treaty of 1954. He concludes, “In the case of a [People’s Republic of China] attack on Taiwan, one obvious concern would be that Japan or even South Korea might reconsider its nuclear nonproliferation commitments and reliance on the US to provide nuclear deterrence.” For the US, the lesson should be that “the Korean War was preventable, if only the US had made clear beforehand that it would forcefully oppose North Korean aggression.” He also draws on work by AEI’s Dan Blumenthal that recommends a strategic framework for US-Taiwanese relations.
We at AEI hope you find this book useful as you think your way through the demanding problems of defending Taiwan—and the consequences for American security if we should fail to do so.