In the Wake of the Afghanistan Withdrawal, the US Must Send the Right Signals on Taiwan (Part II)

Written by Corey Lee Bell.

Image credit: afghanistan by The U.S. Army/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In part one of this series, I discussed how important it is for the US to move quickly to convince China that its withdrawal from Afghanistan is not symptomatic of a retreat towards isolationism but rather part of a strategy of redirecting American resources to the Indo-Pacific and the defence of Taiwan in particular. However, with the Biden administration likely to stop short of formally declaring ‘strategic clarity’ (i.e., that it will definitely fight China if it invaded or embargoed Taiwan), and with China thus far having a low estimation of America’s resolve and capacity to defend the island, I suggested demonstrating this through actions that show that America is not only strengthening its regional presence, but also its preparedness and combat readiness. My suggestion is thus to enhance strategic, operational, and tactical interoperability between American and Taiwanese forces, preferably through instituting regular joint exercises between America and Taiwan’s navy.

Interoperability and Making ‘Strategic Ambiguity’ Credible

Why Interoperability?

Firstly, if the Biden administration wants China to decode its signals to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, then it needs to speak China’s language. So far as China’s approach to the western Pacific goes, that language clearly abides by the adage that actions speak louder than words. In 2013 Beijing began its expansive island-building project in the Spratley and Paracel Islands. Moreover, it began militarising some of these in 2016 – while denying the Obama administration that these actions were occurring. In early 2021 an armada of Chinese maritime militia boats occupied the Philippine’s Whitsun Reef and did so in the backdrop of a long-running Chinese campaign to charm the Philippines and promote ‘friendship’ between the two nations. Put simply, for Beijing, talk is cheap, and since actions speak for themselves, establishing strategic trust through rhetoric is neither a priority nor a necessity. Even if America announced a policy of strategic clarity, this is unlikely to assuage China’s doubts about America’s resolve to defend Taiwan militarily.

This prompts a more critical question: Have the Biden administration’s recent actions sent the right signals? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Beijing sees American activities such as dispatching military assets to the region as merely an attempt to maintain Taiwan’s confidence in their ally so that the island does not capitulate to Chinese pressure and head to the negotiating table. This is what is meant by oft-heard Chinese accusations that America is “sending the wrong signals to Taiwanese secessionists,” or that America is fomenting instability in the Taiwan Strait by making a peaceful settlement between China and (a coerced) Taiwan less likely.

Beijing has capitalised on the Afghanistan withdrawal to paint such actions as nothing more than a bluff. In other words, with ‘peaceful reunification’ increasingly off the cards due to widespread opposition in Taiwan, Beijing is trying to sow doubt on America’s reliability to pressure Taiwan to capitulate. But as noted by Qiao, more than a few analysts in the inner circles of the PLA themselves hold such an assessment. One main reason is that in contrast with the strategic benefits China has gained through its island-building projects and other actions in the regions, America’s actions – weapons sales aside – have been largely symbolic and have made little concrete contributions towards securing a strategic advantage. Thus, without going a step beyond strengthening hardware compatibility through weapons sales and undertaking joint meetings and exercises to improve strategic, tactical and operational level interoperability with Taiwanese forces, America’s readiness and capability to fight China in its own backyard alongside Taiwanese servicemen will continue to lack credibility in the eyes of PLA planners, to say nothing of America’s willingness to enter the fray in the first place.

Strategic, tactical, and operational interoperability means that two or more allies’ armed forces know what each other are doing and are both coordinated and working together effectively from the war cabinet, to the war room, to the front line. This is vital because Taiwanese forces will be the ‘first responders’ in an attack on the island and will almost certainly be expected to fight alongside the United States if the latter enters the fray. But it is particularly crucial given the Taiwan Strait’s distinctive geography. By the standards of modern naval and air warfare, the Taiwan Strait, which is a mere 100 miles wide at its narrowest point, is an exceptionally tiny theatre. Yet, given the size and capabilities of each belligerents’ forces, it will be expected to be a densely cluttered environment awash with electronic signals and jamming. And due to the immense speed of modern weaponry and computerised weapons systems, critical tactical decisions will need to be made in either information dark or information overloaded scenarios within seconds rather than minutes. It is perhaps on these grounds that Jonathan Selling, in an article published by The Centre for International Maritime Security, emphasised that “Taiwan’s surface fleet can do more to protect Taiwan by assisting and cooperating with the United States than it does by lying in wait for a Chinese invasion force to materialise.” This is a sentiment that senior researcher Seth Cropsey echoed in the 2019 Hudson Institute’s ‘Reinforcing the U.S.-Taiwan Defence Alliance’ seminar.

Risks and Rewards

None of this is news to either American, Taiwanese, or Chinese military planners. The real question for America is whether the risks of taking such measures outweigh their perceived need. China’s early efforts to capitalise on the Afghanistan withdrawal and other factors (see Part 1) arguably underlie the fact that such a need is now greater and more urgent than it has been for some time.

Yet, the fear that such actions pose an exceptional risk of crossing Chinese red lines and possibly inciting a conflict have arguably been overstated. Firstly, undertaking joint training exercises capable of advancing interoperability in a battlefield scenario are not unprecedented. Beijing has long tolerated the Starlight project – a defence agreement between Taiwan and Singapore that sees Singaporean troops train on Taiwan island, which both nations re-signed in late 2019. After the program was suspended due to the COVID-19 crises, it was reported in November last year that US Marine Raiders were training Taiwanese Marines in assault boat and speedboat infiltration operations. This was several months after footage emerged of the US Army 1st Special Forces Group engaging in training exercises with Taiwanese troops. Joint naval exercises that start small and incrementally expand in scale – such as shifting from anti-smuggling operations up to anti-submarine exercises – could be sold as an augmentation of, as opposed to a disjuncture from, these past precedents.

In addition to this, several factors tell us that Taiwan is far better prepared to engage in this type of exercise than in the past. American weapons sales during and prior to the Trump administration mean that hardware compatibility has improved, and concomitant with hardware compatibility is some degree of technical and operational interoperability. Taiwan has also made inroads in addressing long-standing interoperability problems between its own defence, which would otherwise serve as an impediment to joint exercises with other nations’ forces. In addition, for several years, Taiwan’s annual large-scale exercises have been bilingual (English and Chinese). Moreover, the Ministry of National Defence recently announced it was bolstering the education of English in its defence forces for what has been reported to be the objective of “fighting in an alliance” 同盟作戰. Perhaps most importantly, with Taiwan emphatically against Beijing’s desired imposition of a Hong Kong style “one country two systems” model on the island, and with Taiwan being led by the independence-leaning administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the political will is likely to be there on both sides of the Pacific.

But perhaps most importantly of all, whether America goes down this route or signals its resolve through other actions, it must do so quickly. Only by following the withdrawal from Afghanistan with an immediate escalation of its actions around Taiwan can Washington signal to Beijing and the Taiwanese people that protecting its East Asian allies is the reason for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and that they are not just the next in line.

Corey Lee Bell is a former editor at Taiwan Insight and is currently serving a postdoctoral position in Taiwan. He is the editor in chief of NEASAIR, which provides translations on articles from East Asia on regional security and diplomacy. This article is Part 2 of a two-part series of articles.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Reflections from Afghanistan to Taiwan’.

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