Trump Must Change US Defense Policy for Taiwan
United States defense policy toward Taiwan must change. Now there is a rare opportunity to make that happen with the election of Donald Trump. But everyone knows he lacks experience in foreign affairs, although he is a man with great instincts. If he can prevail over the established litany, there is a chance that Taiwan can stay independent. But if he follows the "party line" from the State Department and their supporting chorus in parts of the Pentagon, Taiwan is a goner. It is only a question of time.
Taiwan is an island that lives next to a behemoth in the form of China. It is a democracy and, with its new government with a very strong domestic mandate, intent on maintaining its independence and democratic system. For China, democracy is the enemy as they have just demonstrated again in Hong Kong where they blocked two elected officials from taking office. Democracy threatens the Communist party dictatorship, and China is yearning for it. That is what happened before at Tiananmen, where democratic dissent was ruthlessly suppressed. And across China that is happening every day, and China's government knows it. For them, the big thumb in their eye is Taiwan. They would take any opportunity to knock it off, and China has been building up forces to make it hard for the United States to come to Taiwan's defense. When China's forces reach a tipping point, and when they think America might back off, they will strike.
The question is not whether but when. America should be following a defense policy that pushes the "when" back to "whether" and puts a price on the "whether" decision that would make it hard for China's leaders to act, if they were unsure of the outcome.
Unfortunately, America's support of Taiwan has played directly into China's hands and put Taiwan at considerable risk.
Consider for example that Taiwan has been allowed to have only half an air force and half a navy.
What is meant by "half"?
A modern air force must be able to defeat an enemy air force before its planes and missiles bring death and destruction to its people. That means it must have strike capability.
Taiwan's air force does not have strike capability because Washington will not sell Taiwan strike aircraft such as the F-15 or advanced F-16s. Even the F-16s Taiwan was granted by George H. W. Bush are hobbled. The more modern multi-role models of the F-16 were not provided to Taiwan, and F-16 upgrades the Obama administration reluctantly approved for Taiwan do not include strike capability, meaning they are not multi-role and can't take the fight to China.
The result is that the Taiwan's air force (officially known as the Republic of China Air Force or ROCAF) lacks beyond visual range weapons and can only function as an interceptor against Chinese forces invading the island. The ROCAF F-16s have very limited value against a Chinese main force invasion of the island because their F-16s can't interdict their bases or zap them before they cross the Taiwan Strait.
There is also half a navy made up primarily of old rejected U.S. frigates. These Carter-administration FFG tubs are thin-skinned, slow and poor sea fighters. On the other hand, China has been rapidly expanding its blue water navy and its submarine force. Taiwan has two usable submarines and two post World War II Guppy boats that are museum pieces. Its usable submarines are badly in need of an upgrade and they are no match for China's nuclear and Kilo-class submarines that threaten the Island.
What all this means is that any fight that happens takes place in and over Taiwan, a great danger when one sees that most Taiwanese live near the coast and are exposed to attack. Taiwan has almost 24 million people but given that they are concentrated in narrow spaces and surrounded otherwise by mountains, any attack on Taiwan cities and towns will be highly destabilizing.
Which is why the right defense strategy for Taiwan is to give it the ability to take the fight to the enemy and not wait to get crushed at home. Could you imagine a U.S. Air Force that waited until Russian airplanes were over New York, Washington DC, or Chicago? It will never happen, because the U.S. Air Force is designed to strike at the enemy, liquidate his bases, and destroy his fighting capability. While Taiwan is a pinprick in size compared to China, an offensive capability is the only way to set back China's invasion plans.
The usual suspects in the State Department will say that China will object if the United States gave Taiwan a real defense capability. American companies and financial institutions will complain they will lose business if China gets mad at us. China may stop buying Treasury bonds. But we have ways to counteract China. Anyway, Mr. Trump is not so happy about American companies shifting their manufacturing and technology to China, so maybe this will be part of his planned wakeup call.
China's complaints can be managed because in the end China needs our market for China's regime to stay in power. No matter how excited they may get, that is the real bottom line.
Over the last twenty-five years America's support for Taiwan has been a lot of comforting words but also a dumping off place for a lot of military junk when the U.S. administration sells some hardware to keep Congress off its back. That policy has to be jettisoned because it is not in Taiwan's interest or in the interest of the United States.
Taiwan needs the other "half" of its air force, navy, and army in order to deter China. America needs Taiwan to stay safe and free or we lose all of our credibility in Asia.
It is one thing to blindly pursue a policy, but when the policy is ultimately self-defeating and ill suited, it needs to be changed. And soon.
It is inevitable that China will invade Taiwan because it is part of its strategic plan. But if China is forced to continually revise its schedule, then China will have to put its plan on hold or even give it up. That is exactly what America's strategic goal should be.
America needs a containment policy for China's rising power, and Taiwan is the right place to start implementing it.
President-elect Trump has a real opportunity to show China that America is not sleeping anymore.
Stephen Bryen served as a senior Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, He is the author of Technology and Security: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers, 2015)