This is an important summary of the debates over Taiwan’s national security strategy during the last few decades, and the role played by “asymmetric warfare.” On that term, or “porcupine strategy,” students of global affairs are wise to be cautious to separate the jargon-chasers/repeaters from the professionals with a realistic grasp of the trade-offs between different options. Dr. Lai’s essay is an additional important corrective – in a field dominated by American voices, where the civilian, non-China KMT party-state voices inside Taiwan are scarce, it is a good sign that Taiwan’s decades-long democracy is slowly penetrating the China KMT dictatorship-dominated national security arena. Dr. Lai’s paragraph on America’s strategic ambiguity and Taiwan’s inability to fully accept the American advice on asymmetric warfare is most important. To the extent that the US, Japan, and democratic allies can operationalize President Biden’s repeated expression of strategic clarity regarding Taiwan’s democratic sovereignty status quo, adopting a version of asymmetric warfare would become more likely in Taiwan.
Several important global and historical contexts usually missing in the general discourse on the Chinese communist problem. First, this “no position” position by the US, clearly stated, takes place a year after President Tsai’s significant democratic sovereignty Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC speech. The US, Japan, and EU did not respond to that speech – they neither endorsed, nor disavowed, President Tsai’s assertion that Taiwan has never been a part of communist China, that China and Taiwan exercise separate sovereignties, and that the future of Taiwan belongs exclusively to the twenty-three million citizens of Taiwan exercising their democratic sovereignty.
Since that speech, the emphasis of the US, Japan, and EU has been on the peaceful ‘status quo’ – meaning, as they see more and more menacing signs of Chinese communist plans for military options to annex Taiwan, the international line for acceptable behavior has been underlined and sharpened.
Finally, a more subtle but critical point. The US may have no “formal” position on Taiwanese sovereignty (and significantly, Price phrased this as sovereignty across the strait, meaning, Chinese communist sovereignty is also up for discussion ….) but the ‘body language’ of the US, Japan, and EU since the 2021 speech by President Tsai has been anything but position-less. The Taiwanese de facto embassy in Washington, DC, and Tokyo and major European capitals have been as active and public as they have been in decades. European and Asian diplomats visit the Taiwanese embassy in DC and Tokyo – Taiwanese diplomats meet regularly with their American, Japanese, and European counterparts across the globe. One may call all of this “unofficial” and “no position” and “no change in policy” all one wishes – what is one to make of all of this? A peaceful status quo marks the Chinese communist military option as a catastrophic international incident. No position on sovereignty saves a little bit of face for the Chinese communists – incidentally, President Tsai convincing her supporters to tolerate, for now, “RoC” does the same – while the US, Japan, and the EU in behavior push interactions with Taiwan up to the edge of all-but-formal-recognition.
The first photo is of the Taiwanese ambassador to the US opening the new building for the Taiwanese military mission to the United States. Second is the historic US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) logo from the US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty days. What do you see? MAAG represents decades of US military advisors and assistance in fixing a hapless China KMT military (along with Japanese military advisors ….). An era when the US interest in Taiwan not becoming a part of the PRC was official and required little doublespeak. It is impossible for the Taiwanese embassy or military attache to choose a logo without US feedback. If this is the case this would have been the most oddly inconsistent episode for a hypercautious President Tsai, and her even more hypercautious Ministry of National Defense.
So what does this mean? I don’t think it is a coincidence that the US, Japan, and even some in NATO have moved towards strategic clarity coupled with actual military muscles in and around Taiwan. I also think it is easy to see shadows – updated for a different reality in Taiwan and the US – of MAAG in the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022. The US-Taiwan-Japan strategic dilemma of 2022 is not hardware alone – Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, its generals and admirals and officer corps, and its national intelligence apparatus, require guidance and rapid reforms.
Much as my observation before that the salami slicing process the US and the PRC went through from 1949 to 1979, the US, Japan, and other global democracies are doing with democratic Taiwan now – with the reality that PRC is militarily more powerful than the Chiang dictatorship back during 1949-1979 – with the ultimate objective of pushing US-Japan-NATO relations with Taiwan Republic up to everything but formal diplomatic recognition, with an international consensus that a Chinese communist military invasion to annex Taiwan would not be tolerated. The process began with Taiwan’s first president Dr. Lee decades ago, the special state-to-state formula, now given substance by President Tsai, Prime Minister Abe’s free and open Indo-Pacific, and President Biden’s strategic clarity. 29.9.2022
If this report is accurate, that the US will sell more than four batteries of the NASAMS to Taiwan Republic for Taipei, Hualien, Taitung, and CCK Air bases, the system itself is fine. Two things to note. Taiwan’s domestic military production has a technological and a production bottleneck. I am worried about the Chinese communist’s ability to infiltrate critical information on Taiwan-developed weapons. What Taiwan’s domestic weapons development has lacked, and this is related to the unsteady and contradictory US policies, is the ability to focus on systems and platforms where Taiwan has the most technological advantage, and leave the other systems to imports. A cursory review of what Taiwan has tried to domestically develop over the last two decades shows a catalog of everything and anything – many items, advanced torpedoes, and next-generation jet fighters, probably do not make sense; while other items, drones, and unmanned vehicles, guided antitank missiles, long-range counterstrike missiles, could have used more focus and investments.
But then one could and should do the same thing with decades of contradictory American policy. Take a peek at the list of major weapons the US sold to Taiwan for the last few decades and it is difficult to create a coherent national security narrative out of them. The F-16A/B with Sparrow missiles instead of the F-16C/D because? Why the Kidd class destroyers and not AEGIS/VLS destroyers/frigates? Why did the US actively obstruct Taiwan’s attempts to acquire submarines for decades? The underlying mistaken premise – that Chinese communist military ambition can be managed by DC, that if the communists decide to invade and annex Taiwan it will be because Taipei and/or DC “provoked” such a decision, has infused America’s decisions on what weapon systems can be sold to Taiwan. This is where short-range systems like the NASAMS represent that continued mistaken notion from the US – “defensive,” “not provocative,” “short-range/point defense,” – while lacking a consistent strategic and tactical vision. Given limited defense resources in Taiwan, Japan, and the US, do the short-range NASAMS belong in the top ten missiles Taiwan Republic must purchase now? The answer to that depends on the level of strategic clarity and commitment the US provides to Taiwan and other democratic allies in this region. 28.9.2022
After an earlier post on Taiwanese and Japanese counterstrike capabilities, a student emailed with questions. Here are my explanations and clarifications. In this analysis let’s separate the strategic from the tactical. The strategic objective for any democracy – Taiwan Republic, Japan, Ukraine, Poland – is to avoid war without surrendering democratic sovereignty and independence. The strategic cost of a democracy not having counterstrike capacity is sadly being played out in Ukraine – where the invading belligerent can lob long-range missiles at any location inside Ukraine, yet residents of Moscow can go on their business as if they did not start a war of annexation. It has also forced the Ukrainians to tolerate the democratic West offering weapons with an eyedrop – in pace, in quantity, in quality since 2014. The democratic west is even able to impose the unreasonable and irrational rule that the Russians can hit Ukraine, but Ukraine may not strike targets inside Russia.
On the tactical. Japan’s current inability to strike at any targets in communist China means that when the Chinese communists hit at strategic Japanese installations, at best Japan could take defensive measures, but must rely on the US to prevent the sources of attack from perpetuating the violence. Meaning, that in any conflict where one side is artificially forced to not have counterstrike capabilities, the conflict always lasts longer – there is no incentive for the Russians to stop; there will not be an incentive for the Chinese communists to change course. Worse, it means convenient and comfortable Chinese military bases to strike Japan will all be available to Beijing – and Tokyo must rely on a US POTUS to not get weak at his knees and to act.
How many democratically elected leaders of any nation would voluntarily allow her nation’s national security to be contingent on the determination and courage of a foreign leader – even the President of the United States of America? This is also why the labels “hawks” and “doves” or even “peace” and “war” as used among western academia and officialdom and press are meaningless. Before February 24 not one soul in democratic Kyiv wanted war, hawkish or not. Ukraine did nothing to provoke, unless you, like some western enlightened believe, by merely breathing and existing Ukraine was provoking an attack. The unfortunate situation Ukraine found itself in was being forced by western powers to be under armed. Not coincidentally, the same western policymakers who ensured Ukraine was weak enough to look attractive to Moscow to attack are the same who have tried to sabotage Taiwan’s ability to counterstrike and be fully armed for decades. Japan is a great nation and a regional-multiregional power. It cannot and must not remain without the ability to strike at the sources of thousands of Chinese communist ballistic missiles aimed at Japan and its democratic allies. This is why I keep predicting, that not only will the Japanese double their military, we will see full-sized carriers, tactical and strategic nuclear-capable missiles, and Japanese officers returning to Taiwan Republic very soon. 5.8.2022