At the Cato Institute, Eric Gomez explains why adopting an asymmetric defense strategy is Taiwan’s best hope against invasion by China. He writes:
Amid deteriorating US‐China relations, senior US officials have begun suggesting that a Chinese attack against Taiwan could happen soon. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that this urgent threat requires an urgent response, but too much attention has focused on the US‐China military balance and too little on Taiwan’s military efforts.
Taiwan’s future would likely be determined in the opening days, if not hours, of a conflict. Taiwan must prevail in two critical military operations: surviving China’s conventional bombardment and preventing the first wave of amphibious ground forces from establishing a beachhead. Taiwan would be fighting these two operations alone, but Taiwan’s military does not have the right mix of equipment, manpower, and strategy to mount an effective defense, despite the fact that the results of these operations could prove decisive for the rest of the conflict.
US policymakers must press Taipei to focus on improving Taiwan’s ability to execute this narrow set of military missions and to reorient its overall strategy to one of asymmetric defense to counter Chinese advantages. If Taiwan does not or cannot do so, it is unlikely that any amount of potential US assistance or intervention could salvage the island’s position in the event of a conflict.
Because these shortfalls are so important, Washington should create a sense of urgency in Taipei through security assistance measures such as conditional arms sales and limited joint training. The United States should also take care not to back Beijing into a corner where it concludes that using force is its only viable option to achieve unification with Taiwan. American assurances to China are a tough sell given Washington’s bipartisan hawkishness on China, but keeping time on Taiwan’s side is essential for the success of Taipei’s self‐defense transformation.
What are the most pressing priorities for improving Taiwan’s self‐defense, and how can the United States help Taiwan put itself in the best position to deter an invasion by China? Although Taiwan has long been a potential source of US‐China conflict, recent developments have made the issue more salient, and there is a palpable sense of urgency in Washington to shore up Taiwan’s defenses. Taiwan faces a serious threat to its survival and needs to use its time and resources wisely, and the United States has an interest in improving Taiwan’s self‐defense capabilities. At the same time, Washington should eschew calls to depart from its long‐standing policy of strategic ambiguity. Such a policy shift would do more to increase the risk of conflict instead of improving deterrence.
Growing fears of an imminent Chinese attack on Taiwan are the result of three developments. First, China’s military power has grown considerably in a relatively short period. While China is still behind the United States in terms of overall defense spending and global reach, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presents a potent challenge to US military dominance in East Asia.1 Attacking Taiwan would be a very costly proposition for China, but it is becoming an increasingly painful prospect for the United States to come to Taiwan’s rescue.2 The United States no longer enjoys a clearly favorable balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.
Second, a steadily accelerating downturn in US‐China relations over the past decade has both increased the frequency of policy disagreements and made it harder to de‐escalate growing tensions. The post–Cold War US policy of incentivizing China’s liberalization through economic and diplomatic engagement is now history.3 Increasing repression at home and assertiveness abroad have been the hallmarks of Beijing’s policies since Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 (and president of China in 2013). On the US side, the Trump administration started a trade war with China and blamed Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic.4 The Biden administration has also leaned heavily into strategic competition with China, labeling it the “pacing challenge” for the US military, implementing export controls to restrict Beijing’s access to cutting‐edge technology, and deepening America’s role as security guarantor in East Asia.5
Third, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 prompted comparisons to Taiwan and created renewed urgency for Taipei to improve its self‐defense posture. Both Taiwan and Ukraine have good relations with the United States without a formal treaty commitment and face threats to their survival from powerful neighbors. The war in Ukraine has helped shock Taiwan out of complacency on self‐defense. Ukraine has also effectively implemented aspects of an asymmetric defense strategy. For example, Kyiv’s mobile, ground‐based air defense systems have prevented Russia from achieving air superiority, while ground‐based anti‐ship missiles and uncrewed boats have harried Russian warships in the Black Sea.6 In a report summarizing an unofficial dialogue between US and Taiwanese military analysts, Ralph Cossa of Pacific Forum wrote, “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a sobering wake up call for Taiwan.… As a result, Taiwan is placing increased emphasis on asymmetrical warfare and the development of homeland and territorial defense capabilities.”7
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