Taiwan’s Defence Quandary – American Ally or Protectorate?

Written by Corey Lee Bell.

Image credit: DSC_6408 by Buddy8D/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Overall Defence Concept (OCD), which was first outlined in 2017 by Taiwan’s revered former Chief of General Staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, represented a paradigmatic shift in Taiwan’s approach to its defence. Many foreign analysts felt it marked a watershed moment in which the island’s leaders had finally cast aside national pride, and embraced an approach to Taiwan’s defence that belatedly acknowledged what they had been saying for years – that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait had well and truly shifted in China’s favour.

The ODC adapted to this new reality by proposing an asymmetric strategy. It was assumed that this would replace the agenda of bolstering conventional capacities – the latter of which was based on the ostensibly false premise that Taiwan’s defence forces could still hope to match it with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ship to ship or jet to jet. It was expected, as such, that its announcement would be followed by a wholesale change in Taiwan’s weapons acquisitions programmes – programmes which had hitherto largely favoured strengthening symmetric capacities and conventional platforms such as ships, fighter jets and heavy tanks.  

Yet fast forward to 2020, and hope has again given way to cynicism. After an election in which defence and national sovereignty were major talking points, the administration of the recently re-elected President Tsai Ing-Wen – the very same administration that had touted the OCD – deepened its commitment to one of the most ambitious and expensive conventional weapons procurement programmes in decades. More than NT$410 billion (approx. US $13.1 billion) is slated to be spent on defence in 2020, representing a 5.2% increase on the 2019 figure, with high cost items in the pipeline including 108 M1A2 Abrams Tanks, 66 latest model F16’s (which are alone predicted to cost the equivalent of 70% of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget), as well as upgrades to Taiwan’s 141 other units to bring them up to Viper standard (i.e., that of the latest U.S. F16 variant). In terms of symmetric naval capabilities, the agenda is arguably more ambitious: in the medium term, Taiwan is set to acquire 15 frigates, 4 destroyers, a 16,000 tonne LPD (amphibious Landing Platform Dock) and a 22,000 tonne LHD (amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock), and will embark on an ambitious indigenous diesel submarine program which is expected to cost 10% of Taiwan’s defence budget for many years running. In sum, while the capabilities and platforms preferred under the OCD were not being ignored, the procurement package retained a preference for conventional capabilities that seems to be fundamentally misaligned with the OCD’s guiding tenets.

To say this procurement agenda had come in for harsh criticism would be an understatement. The F16 program has been called “a waste of time” and “useless.” An article in Foreign Affairs called the Abrams “108 very expensive sitting ducks,” while a piece in the National Interest imputed that tanks like the Abrams would add little value in the event of an invasion on the island. A recent book produced by the George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government [PDF] used the scholarly euphemism “more aspirational than practical” to describe the reasoning behind Taiwan’s desire to acquiring amphibious warfare ships (i.e., LPD’s/LHD’s), while an article in The Diplomat called the submarine program “outdated” and an extravagant waste of taxpayer funds. Some have accused Tsai of indulging vanity purchases to promote her credential as the president that has “placed the greatest emphasis on defence.” The official Facebook page of the newly formed Left Party, for instance, directly stated that it “opposed Tsai Ing-wen’s use of weapons purchases to bolster her election campaign.” Similar critiques have been repeated by Western observers.

Of course, the question as to what may constitute the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ weapons is perhaps more complicated than many of these critics envisage. While the source of Taiwan’s threat primarily stems from one nation, the forms that threat may take are many, making a multi-tiered and faceted approach to defence and defence procurements respectively a necessity rather than an extravagance. It should also be noted that some defence experts are far from unanimous in their view on the core premise of these arguments – Richard D. Fisher, for example, has noted that while acquiring new asymmetric capabilities is a “key” to deterring a direct attack, “this can also be done by enhancing the symmetric or conventional systems that Taiwan also requires.” Yet if what is being pointed out is inconsistency between Taiwan’s procurement agenda and the core tenets of the ODC, then the above criticisms are well founded. What remains to be explored is whether these inconsistencies are indeed the product of domestic politics, or whether there are other factors at play.  

This last point returns us to one of the problems of the timing of the ODC. If we are to believe what numerous experts have been saying for the better part of a decade, the loss of the balance of power across the strait – the core factor underlying the ODC’s advocacy of an asymmetric approach – is hardly breaking news. The more current problem Taiwan’s strategist must now respond to is the ongoing shift in the balance of power between China and the United States in the west Pacific region. Put another way, the first problem has not proved fatal for Taiwan in that its quasi independence has thus far survived China’s purported military supremacy, and has done so prior to the implementation of the ODC. Whether Taiwan will survive Chinese hegemony in the western Pacific is another matter.

It is in view of this newer and still ongoing geostrategic shift that we should seek to reassess Taiwan’s strategic calculus. In other words, we need to consider not only what America can do to keep Taiwan safe, but what Taiwan can do to keep Uncle Sam around. In relation to the latter point, the United States has certainly been anything but shy in saying what it expects from its partners. As Trump’s former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon reiterated ad-nauseam, the United States wants “allies” and not “protectorates” – particularly among those nations strong enough economically to make bigger contributions to their defence. A concrete manifestation is that allies have been relentlessly pressured to pay “their fair share” by lifting defence spending above 2% of national GDP – although the expectations for Taiwan and South Korea in particular have been well above this baseline.

Trump’s attempts to put the squeeze on his allies on the issue of defence spending have not been popular, particularly in the case of his favourite whipping boy Germany, and increasingly in Korea and Japan. But whatever the motivation may be behind the Trump administration’s policy – and I do not wish to wade into the hazardous waters of American domestic politics here – it aligns with assessments that in the near future, the U.S. will most probably need a bigger contribution from its allies to maintain any form of preeminence over a growing and rapidly evolving coterie of hostile powers. Put another way, if America is to become “great again” (to use this much-maligned Trumpism), it will most likely need to do so as a leader of a coalition of capable partners, rather than as a standalone global hegemon. A similar view to this was recently put forward by Chad Spragia, the former US defence attaché in Beijing, to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was held in Washington in February. 

The implications this may have on weapons procurements in the region is clear. Principally, it means that America’s allies not only need to buy more weapons – they probably also need to buy different ones. The shift from protectorate to ally means that the asymmetric capabilities associated with the former may need to be compromised or complimented by the conventional capabilities a broader set of alliance obligations demand. The conundrum is that in terms of mobilising limited economic resources, these two agendas may both be necessary, but are not necessarily compatible.

As fantastic as this idea may sound to some, it is not without precedent or explanatory power. This is particularly so in the case of Australia – one of America’s most reliable allies in the Pacific/Oceania. When that nation bought 59 remodelled (read ‘junkyard’) M1A1 Abram’s tanks in 2004, some analysts felt the only way to make sense of the deal was to presume that they were to be used as training platforms to enhance crew interoperability with the United States. When the nation committed to purchase 72 F35A Lightning II multi-role joint-strike-fighters as early as 2002, and in the meantime procured a fleet of F/A18F Super Hornets followed by EA-18G Growlers, Canberra initially tried to paint the latter acquisitions as ‘stop gap’ measures prompted by F35 production delays, and only later tacitly acknowledged that the F35 is unsuited to many of the roles they were ostensibly acquired to perform. Yet more recently, as tests began to be undertaken on whether the amphibious Canberra class LHD could carry F35B fighters (short take-off/vertical landing versions of the F35A), Australian analysts began openly discussing “power projection” and Australia’s capacity to contribute to the “balance of power” in the western Pacific and Oceania. The latter occurred as China’s growing power and assertiveness in the region raised anxieties in Canberra and among Australian analysts and academics. And it roughly coincided also with the U.S. chargé d’affaires James Carouso praising Australia for “stepping up to the plate” to keep the west Pacific “free and open.” 

The case of the Canberra is instructive because one of the most peculiar mismatches with the ODC is Taiwan’s plan to build a 22,000 tonne LHD that is said to resemble the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I – the latter of which is said to be capable of carrying 12 F35B vertical launch/STOVL (Short Launch Vertical Take Off) fighters, and is unambiguously a power projection platform. This also comes on the back of Japanese plans – that appear out of alignment with that nation’s pacifist constitution – to turn its 27,000 tonne JS Izumo, and more recently its sister ship the JS Kaga, into virtual small aircraft carriers capable of launching F35Bs. South Korea – whose most pressing defence priority is arguably missile defence – is also planning to build a 30,000+ tonne Landing Platform Experimental (LPX) capable of carrying 16 F35B’s: a decision for which Korean politicians have cited the absurd (but politically expedient) reason of ‘inter-regional competition’ with Japan, and the protection of islands barely beyond visual range of its southern coast. Each of these acquisitions is peculiar and the collective sum of them is even more-so. They do, however, make more sense when we consider that the capabilities of these platforms resonate closely with those called for in the late senator John McCain’s Restoring American Power whitepaper. 

Resonating with James Carouso’s statements on Australia, Sandra Oudkirk, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, recently commented that the United States also sees Taiwan as a “partner” who “plays a key role in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” including in the realm of “security.” It is reasonable to assume that the United States has been more concrete in setting out what this means. The role of America’s ‘partner’ or ‘ally’ will probably mean it is not enough for Taiwan to hold out until an American rescue – it will be expected to continue to fight alongside the United States after it arrives on the scene, and to have the capabilities to do this. It is likely also that Taiwan is preparing for the possibility that the scope of such a conflict will widen to the South China Sea, whose shipping lanes are vital to feeding its economy as well as those of each of America’s Northeast Asian allies. But if the aim of Taiwan’s procurement programme is to also prepare for a shift from relying on a balance of power in the region between the United States and China, to helping develop one between China and a wider United States-led coalition, then a mix of enhancing complementarity in terms of capabilities (such as the case of LHDs), hardware compatibility, and interoperability with the United States military machine will be increasingly vital objectives.

The bigger question is whether, in view of recent events, this is the best way forward. And on this point the uncertain future trajectory of liberalism as a dominant paradigm in international relations is a key issue. An asymmetric strategy typically does not aim to destroy an opponents capacity to fight, but rather targets the cost threshold that makes military action untenable for a belligerent. Up till now, China’s integration into the international order has arguably meant that the cost of the very act of initiating military action may cross over or at least hover near that threshold. The strength of global bodies and the liberal international order has thus kept the threshold for an asymmetric strategy attainably low, and given Taiwan the capacity to resist the dictates of Washington. Yet if the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that global bodies and liberalism in international relations more generally are weakened, and that we see a return to realism, nationalism and strategic blocs, ‘balance of power’ may regain its mantle as the primary deterrent against Chinese aggression in the region. While it is too early to say, since the spread of the pandemic has coincided with an uptick in activity by both Chinese and United States assets along the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s procurement decisions may well prove to have been prescient.        

Corey Lee Bell is an editor at Taiwan Insight. This article is part of special issue on the U.S.-Taiwan relations.

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