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
My impression, anecdotally, is that ever since former Prime Minister Abe sounded the alarm re: the possibility of the Chinese communists launching an invasion to annex Taiwan Republic (An emergency for Taiwan is an emergency for Japan, hence an emergency for America.) – not a month passes without a major civilian or military leader in the US and Japan making unusual comments about Chinese communist military adventurism, and signs of concrete preparation on the US, Japan, and democratic allied side. President Biden’s repeated strategic clarity regarding a Chinese communist military invasion to annex Taiwan, seen in this broader context, suggest that – like the US and UK before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington and Tokyo are seeing troubling intelligence regarding Beijing’s intentions. In decades of following this, I have, for example, never heard a senior US military leader speak so concretely of what will occur during a China-Taiwan-Japan-US war. For all of the theorizing and arguments over abstractions like the One China Policy and Strategic Ambiguity – or even what that magical ‘cross-strait’ status quo means – the lesson of Ukraine is that democracies must act earlier and firmer to prevent an invasion from a dictatorship – and that dictators care primarily about the survival of their dictatorship, above anything else. How to communicate clearly to Beijing that the use of force will end the Chinese communist dictatorship, that’s the only policy-making issue that matters. 27.9.2022
The Lee-Abe-Tsai-Biden bottom lines are: The magical ‘cross-strait status quo’ is that Taiwan has (praise the Buddha) never been a part of the ‘People’s’ Republic of China. Taiwan Republic’s future is based on the democratic sovereignty of its twenty-three million Taiwanese citizens. (Not Taiwan’s business, but the world ought to ask, on what basis do the Chinese communists claim legitimacy to oppress its one billion subjects?)(Or is asking such a commonsensical question going to require smelling salt for American academia and think tanks? ….) And a Chinese communist war of annexation against Taiwan is an international violation that will be met with a devastating military-economic-diplomatic war of resistance from the Free World.
Global studies-world history pro-tip: power, broadly defined, determines everything in world affairs. Whether communist China will annex democratic Taiwan will ultimately be determined by how much total power the US, its democratic allies, and Taiwan Republic are willing to bring to bear. Still, if you follow this stuff as obsessively as I do, notice this. From the President of the United States of America on down to every cabinet member to generals and admirals to Japan and other democratic allies, for the last two years, the free world is demarcating a political-diplomatic “boundary” from which the China CCP and the China KMT may not define a communist Chinese invasion of Taiwan as an “internal affair.” I hate what’s happened to occupied Tibet, occupied East Turkestan, Tiananmen, Hong Kong — former two are Chinese imperialism foreign invasions but the world dropped the ball; the latter two are sadly domestic affairs. An additional historical context. For decades the first voice to denounce a Taiwanese ambassador in DC writing such an article in public would be the US State Department — in a bipartisan fashion by the way. So to see coordinated efforts, US, Japan, EU, and the Taiwanese ambassador adding to this effort with US assent/coordination — The Lee-Abe-Tsai Indo Pacific coming into reality, with the democratic west about two decades late to the party — but, better late than never. All remarkable. Let’s hope all of this is in time to deter-prevent a foolish Chinese communist war of annexation. 26.9.2022
But seriously: how many times does the President of the United States of America have to say, in plain words, again and again that the Chinese communists are not allowed to militarily annex Taiwan before these words are not branded as “gaffes”?
American academia, think tanks, press, and officialdom and their incessant fuss-potting and The Twitters meltdowns notwithstanding, they were never “gaffes” — The President of the United States of America and leader of the greatest global naval empire in world history has spoken. AEGIS destroyer with Canadian frigate – accompanied by Taiwanese navy and coast guard? – as exclamation marks. Let’s hope the Japanese Navy will appear soon. My heartfelt congratulations to divisive and controversial ultranationalist dictator Xi Jinping for getting even the most dovish Canadians to sail their warships through the Taiwan Strait. Xi’s parents must be so proud, even Chairman Mao didn’t manage to unite the global democracies thusly. 23.9.2022
How Taiwan Republic’s national defense became so precarious is a historical, multifaceted phenomenon designed for anyone with an ax to grind to select just one piece to focus on, and ignore all the others. As a historian-scholar, I am trained to discuss and debate forever – but Taiwan and its democratic allies do not have the luxury of doing this because I suspect dictator Xi Jinping is suffering from the same imperialist malady that infected dictator Putin. So whether you are attached to these think tank jargon – porcupine and Javelins – or not, the reality remains – Taiwan and its democratic allies need to bring as many missiles into the theater, as rapidly and affordably as possible. Sending to Taiwan recently retired US Ticonderoga cruisers makes sense.
For decades the game between the US and Taiwan – this is what “strategic ambiguity” really means – is that Taiwan obsessively focuses on one or two major weapon systems partly in a hope that this one system will “solve” its defense like a talisman, but also tea leaf reading for signs that America has finally decided to treat Taiwan as it treats Japan, Korea, Israel – as a democratic ally. So whether it was the F-16 in the 1980s, or Arleigh Burkes in the 1990s, or submarines in like forever, decade after decade, the two sides dance this dance of eternal disappointment.
Debating about porcupine/asymmetrical warfare makes zero sense without this historical-political-diplomatic context. I am not a military expert and will defer to the expertise of military leaders in Taiwan, Japan, and America – but their military analysis is not actionable without taking into account America’s history of ambivalence towards Taiwan. Which makes President Biden’s relative strategic clarity remarkable. Thousands of Javelins and Stingers work very differently with an actively militarily engaged US and Japan – and would be disastrous if Taiwan’s democratic allies fail to show up.
Which gets us to this report on Taiwan requesting the US Navy decommissioned Ticonderoga cruisers. One thing I have noticed about certain policy debating circles is that at some moment of a debate keywords turn into jargon, jargon turn into mantras, and mantras turn into angels on the head of a pin style debates – realists and unrealistic, porcupine or not – detached from the purpose of the debate. Whether Ticonderogas or not, the only thing that matters is that Taiwan Republic, the US, Japan, and democratic allies coordinate a strategic and tactical plan to deter and defeat a Chinese communist invasion to annex Taiwan. Stingers and Javelins and a territorial defense force may play a role. Ticonderogas may, too. The main imperative is to bring as many missiles into the theater for Taiwan and its allies as quickly and cheaply as possible. And perhaps the elderly Ticonderogas are no longer able to serve America’s global maritime empire but with affordable fixes can serve as an instant upgrade to Taiwan’s missile-air defense – basically AEGIS missile barges. It would help Taiwan break the AEGIS/VLS barriers cheaply and quickly. And if strategic clarity is the direction we are headed in, this would be a good opportunity for the Taiwanese, Japanese, and American navies to link their platforms-operations. All of this requires some creativity on the part of Taiwanese and US national security leaders not known for such flexibilities. 22.9.2022
////// “An emergency for Taiwan is an emergency for Japan, which is also an emergency for America” – The Lee-Abe-Tsai Indo-Pacific.
Geostrategery and World History classrooms
Five Chinese communist ballistic missiles meant to terrorize democratic citizens of Taiwan Republic landed in the Japanese EEZ, prompting protest and alarm from Japan. These Chinese communist missiles are evidence of Shinzo Abe’s foresight. Former Prime Minister Abe crystallized important ideas ahead of others when months ago he asserted, “An emergency for Taiwan is an emergency for Japan, which is also an emergency for America.”
We should sincerely thank the Chinese communists for doing everything they can to inadverdently 1. Encourage the Japanese to finally write their own constitution, normalize their nation as a regional power, and double the size of their military. 2. Give much military intelligence and data to the US-Taiwan-Japan military alliance. And 3. To ensure that Japanese and American military officers and military assets return to Taiwan Republic sooner than I had guessed. Don’t be surprised if Australian, Canadian, and British military presence, for the first time after the Pacific War, also appears in Taiwan Republic. I expect more high-level visits to Taiwan from global democracies. And the Quad+AUKUS+Japan+NATO will adjust the One China myth sooner rather than later. Just as dictator Putin has singlehanded done more for Ukrainian nationalism than many others, ultranationalist and controversial-divisive dictator Xi wins the Taiwan Independence-Formosan Nationalism Lifetime Achievement Award. 4.8.2022
If this report is accurate, that the US (CIA) invited Taiwanese Military Intelligence to collaborate directly with the CIA, then this is good news. The Taiwan Ministry of National Defense is the least democratized and most requiring of revolutionary changes in Taiwan’s national government, and the intelligence agencies are even more so. Anything that key democratic allies of Taiwan can do to help Taiwan’s national security apparatus democratize and modernize will do as much to deter a Chinese communist invasion as weapons and increased defense spending. This is also where strategic clarity on the part of the US will help greatly. 21.9.2022
How many times does the President of the United States of America have to say the same thing before the DC press corps, American academia, think tankers, and officialdom stop branding it as a “gaffe”?
Washington DC chattering class and their parlor games notwithstanding, I assume this simple statement of fact surprises zero leaders in Beijing and Taipei. The flashy headlines are about committing American fighting women and men in defense of Taiwan – the strategic clarity of American policy has always been that the United States of America and its allies will not tolerate the changing of the “status quo” between communist China and democratic Taiwan by force. Nor will the US accept unilateral changes to the status quo by any party.
The worrisome aspect is not that President Biden has now stated this simple fact four times, or that the DC foreign policy luminaries do the hysteria meltdowns they always do on the Twitters. It is signs from Japan, the US, and other democratic allies that a Chinese communist invasion to annex Taiwan is no longer theoretical. Strategic ambiguity is being erased not because America is choosing it, but because Chinese communist clarity is forcing the issue. This is why President Tsai needed to demarcate the international borders between the PRC and ‘RoC’Taiwan and its democratic sovereignty on October 10, 2021. This is why former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needed to declare that a crisis for Taiwan is a crisis for Japan, and hence a crisis for the United States. And this is why President Biden has had to declare America’s military defense of Taiwan four times.
As someone with many relatives in Taiwan, I’d say for most democratic citizens of Taiwan, though they may be grateful for any foreign assistance, the point is not for American soldiers to fight for Taiwan, but to have a comprehensive, global democratic effort to deter and prevent Beijing from starting a war – without Taiwan giving up its democratic sovereignty. Strategic ambiguity may have made sense – sort of – four decades ago – but ultranationalist and controversial dictator Xi Jinping has removed its utility. What comes next – in the interest of democracy and peace in the Indo-Pacific, the vast majority of the US media, academia, and think tank hot takes on Twitters are beside the point. Do we have good enough intelligence on Beijing’s plans and intentions? Are US, Japan, Taiwan, and other democratic allies properly supplied, trained, and coordinated to respond to a Chinese invasion? Are the US, Japan, and EU properly communicating to the Chinese communists the price for an unwise war of choice? If the brave citizens of democratic Ukraine have taught us nothing else, it is that letting a barbarous dictatorship initiate an invasion is a failure for all democracies. 20.9.2022