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Beyond Weapons: Time for a New U.S. Strategy on Taiwan

Taiwan
Chinese PLA Tank. Image: Creative Commons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most recent, but far from only, incident highlighting Taiwan’s vulnerability to Chinese attack. Western assistance to Ukraine, particularly sharing intelligence, has contributed significantly to its defense, but the underlying failure of deterrence was tragic. Prior to Moscow’s attack, Washington and its allies lacked credibility, unity, and adequate appreciation for larger geostrategic issues. The consequences are evident daily.

China and Taiwan are watching closely, and debate has accelerated over the military capabilities Taipei needs to maximize deterrence and defense against Beijing. Unfortunately, as with Ukraine, this debate lacks a broader politico-military foundation, which threatens Taiwan whatever its military arsenal. Biden administration myopia is missing critical opportunities to strengthen not just Taiwan, but the entire Indo-Pacific’s resistance to Chinese belligerence.

For the United States, implementing more effective deterrence for Taiwan is not simply a tactical case study. “Defending” Taiwan (or whether it has the right weaponry) is far too narrow a politico-military framework. Taiwan is not some isolated problem, but a strategically critical component of an Indo-Pacific, indeed global, counter-China strategy. Nonetheless, too many still view Taipei as an irritant to Beijing, an unnecessary burden we are protecting.

This misperception persists despite fundamental changes in Taiwan. It is no longer just the “losing side” in China’s Communist-Nationalist civil war, but a functionally independent country that intends to remain so. Its successful, growing economy is critical to America and the world, and its robust democracy has no appetite for anschluss with China. These are not just fun facts, but are integral to Taipei’s strategic position and its relationship with Washington.

Given its dramatic social, political, and economic changes since 1949, Taiwan has little doubt the “one China” concept, like “strategic ambiguity,” is past retirement age. Thirty years of surveys have asked residents how they identify themselves. Those identifying as “Taiwanese” rose from 18% to 62%; “Chinese” fell from 26% to 3%;  “both Taiwanese and Chinese” fell from 46% to 32%;  and non-responses fell from 11% to 3%. Taiwan’s people have rejected the Shanghai Communique language of “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait” as archaic. Perhaps more than any other reason, this is why “Taiwan” is Asia’s synonym for “Ukraine.”

President Biden has said three times that America would defend Taiwan if it were attacked, and three times his staff has tried to pretend he didn’t. Such confusion has not been limited to Taiwan. So, if Biden intended to reinforce “strategic ambiguity,” he and his administration have done a masterful job. In April, 2021, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testified that:

“[if] we were to see a U.S. shift from strategic ambiguity…,to clarify our willingness to intervene in a Taiwan contingency, the Chinese would find this deeply destabilizing….It would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide.  That is our assessment.”

If Biden disagrees with Haines’s assessment, which counsels against a “shift from strategic ambiguity,” he needs to say so. Rather than press-question answers followed by cleanup patrols, Biden must speak comprehensively, bury “strategic ambiguity” unambiguously, and establish plainly that Washington sees Taipei as an ally. Being explicit would benefit both countries, and everyone in the Indo-Pacific who assess China’s menace similarly.

Enlarging Taipei’s military cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific is today potentially the most effective way to break Beijing’s heavy-handed efforts to quarantine Taiwan politically.  Deciding what military assets America should provide Taiwan is crucial, but the bigger picture is to interweave Taiwan into the emerging alliances and coalitions forming to deal with the Chinese threat.  That would be real “integrated defense.”

Taiwan’s critical geographic position in the “first island chain” between China and the broader Pacific alone explains why.  Beyond the East China Sea, Taiwan has inherited territorial claims in the South China Sea; its air and naval assets could play vital roles, alongside other navies, ensuring freedom of navigation and refuting Beijing’s unfounded sovereignty claims across that critical space.

Many such duties for Taiwan come readily to mind. The recent Tokyo meeting of Quad heads of state (India, Japan, Australia, and the United States) launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), an excellent initiative in which Taiwan could play a vital part. Intended to “build a faster, wider, and more accurate maritime picture of near-real-time activities in partners’ waters”, the IPMDA contemplates “immediate consultations” with others, which should obviously include Taiwan.

The AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) initiative to produce nuclear-powered submarines for Australia provides another template for mutual cooperation on sophisticated, interoperable defense capabilities in which Taiwan could be seamlessly integrated into larger Indo-Pacific coalitions.  There is no imminent need, or potential, to have one comprehensive alliance structure like NATO, which itself grew and evolved over decades.  But Taiwan should be a part of whatever steps are being taken in the Indo-Pacific.

It was, therefore, a significant disappointment, and a significant error, not to include Taipei in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), unveiled the same day as IPMDA. Taiwan (under the outdated name “Chinese Taipei”) is, after all a WTO member;  it is manifestly insufficient to say the U.S. will continue enhancing bilateral economic relations with Taiwan as if that is a substitute for participation in initiatives like IPEF. If other IPEF members feared Beijing’s reaction to including Taiwan, it shows they still gravely underestimate China’s threat and will fear other necessary and appropriate steps in the near future. Such timidity augurs poorly for IPEF’s prospects.

Taiwan

New Taiwan F-16V fighter jet. Image Credit: ROC government.

Taiwan’s broader, entirely appropriate regional roles cannot be fulfilled merely with “defensive” weapons against potential Chinese amphibious assaults, whether in traditional or asymmetric capabilities, which Biden’s advisors are pressing. Their focus is too narrow. It undercuts effective U.S. regional strategy, including their own initiatives like IPMDA and IPEF. Properly providing for an expanded, coalition-based military role for Taiwan requires assigning responsibilities to coalition-of-the-willing members and equipping them accordingly. We will then have a realistic context to assess specific weapons systems that will assist not just Taiwan, but the larger regional program to counter Beijing’s belligerence.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 5, 2022 at 9:01 pm

    The Chinese must assume that the US will indeed come to Taiwan’s aid if (when) they launch their invasion. We must thus assume that the Chinese are planning a pre-emptive strike against US Pacific bases right at the outset. They might even manage to disguise their preps enough to make this a truly surprise operation: “Pearl Harbor 2.0”, if you will. They might, indeed, even strike Pearl itself.

    We had thus better plan accordingly. I am no expert on these things, but I would think that these assumptions increase the value and importance of our attack subs, whose dispositions can be hidden for long periods and deployed in some surprises of our own. We had better make a priority of building as many of these as possible, and as quickly as possible, before we really need them.

    I would also think that dispersing our long-range bomber and tanker fleets would be prudent. Yes, the flight time to destination might be shorter from Guam, but not if the planes that are based there are reduced to ashes before they even get off the ground. Better to spread them out around the globe, assuring that we have enough of them to get within range within less than a day – rather than possibly not at all. Similarly, we might want to reconsider whether basing our naval ships in Japan, where they are sitting ducks during the considerable times they are in port, is really a good idea. Better to have them take a few days to make it across the Pacific than for them to be out of action from the start.

    It might also be prudent to quietly launch some spare GPS & intel satellites that can be parked in reserve orbits, ready to be activated if the Chinese take out some of our active satellites in their pre-emptive strike. (Or maybe they are doing this alreaedy? I hope so!)

  2. Joe Comment

    June 6, 2022 at 11:41 am

    The article is missing a list of specific Mainland Chinese behaviors that the author considers belligerent, with a real strategy to offer them a different direction. Constantly shaking one’s fist is not a good political strategy, as the author’s record in government well attests.

    • Mark Romano

      June 7, 2022 at 1:43 pm

      You must read The New York Times.

      • Joe Comment

        June 8, 2022 at 11:02 am

        Mark Romano: One doesn’t need to read the New York Times to find out what Bolton was up to during the George W. Bush administration. Suffice to say, before these activities North Korea did not have nuclear weapons, and now they do.

  3. DanS

    June 6, 2022 at 4:15 pm

    We know what China’s strategic goals are in an invasion of Taiwan, but what are its tactical goals. How and where would it achieve this incredible feat of logistics and engineering?

  4. from Russia with love

    June 6, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    the author is twice an idiot. most recently, the United States staged a “small victorious war” in Ukraine and got a food and energy crisis. did it teach the US something? No! now you need to make a war in Asia and kill that bunch of idiots who follow the US of all microelectronics. great idea! 🙂 the shortage of microchips is not serious, you need to make sure that there are no microchips at all 🙂

    • from Russia with love is Russian prick

      June 7, 2022 at 6:08 am

      be quiet Russian troll

      • from Russia with love

        June 7, 2022 at 9:59 am

        it’s funny that an American called himself a jerk 🙂

  5. William Barrett

    June 7, 2022 at 8:05 am

    I was very much in agreement with the entire article until I saw who wrote it.

    I’m still in agreement, but re-reading to see where the neo-con nonsense is hiding.

    Much as it pains me to admit it, Amb. Bolton is correct here, and the US does need to step up it’s forceful push-back against China.

    There is no future in which China is anything other than an enemy of the United States for the next 20 – 30 years.

    Continuing to pretend they are anything else is more blind stupidity by the foreign policy elite and the financial and business community that cares more about profit than preserving our Constitutional Republic.

    Because I guarantee the Chinese will place profit behind strengthening their regime.

  6. Tits

    June 7, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    China we all hope annex Puitlers Russian land while military in Ukraine, let’s hope China do annex Russia land and the have a war and China anhilate Russia and their world fall apart ha ha ha ha oh yes oh yes ha ha.

  7. self

    June 7, 2022 at 10:58 pm

    John you lame SOB. The only way to stop this coming war in its tracks, is the threat to burn the dragon with nuclear fire.
    All three US allied nations, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan should build their own or be supplied with H-bomb and means to deliver them by the US.
    China will fold like a cheap suit.

  8. Bihari Krishna Shrestha

    June 8, 2022 at 1:03 pm

    Nobody in the US ever trusted Bolton, not even Trump. Therefore, he should be the last person to be writing such an article, essentially telling his own country to ruin itself further. Going by its track rcord in Vietnam War, Afghan War, Iraq war and so on, America, like Russia, is an incompetent country and therefore, must never embark on another irresponsible adventurism. That will be only disastrous all around. Taiwan has always been a part of China historically, and nobody should be doing things that will unnecessarily alienate and infuriate China. Just Imagine, if the Japanese had succeeded in keeping Hawai under their control after the Pearl Harbor, would US allow that island reincarnate itself as a sovereign country. If America wants to be a responsible power in the world, what it should do is to contribute to a peaceful reunification of Taiwan wih the rest of China.

    • Joe Comment

      June 8, 2022 at 2:07 pm

      Bihari Krishna Shreshtha: Japan never had control of Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, and moreover they were a foreign invader who lacked any popular support in Hawaii, unlike the case of Taiwan. As for peaceful unification, the main obstacle to that is the Mainland’s Communist Party, which is not ready to share power with other political structures. Why would anyone in Taiwan want to unify if the Mainland only offers to destroy Taiwan’s political parties, justice system, news media, etc. as they did in Hong Kong?

      • Bihari Krishna Shrestha

        June 9, 2022 at 11:23 am

        While taking about Hawai I was only citing a hypothetical situation to make my point that no country tolerates dismemberment of its territory, let alone the superpower in the making, China, that is expected to supersede the US in just a few decades. It is none of America’s business to decide whether China recognizes political parties in Taiwan. After all, it has been America that had befriended “friendly dictators” in South America and around the world for a long time and continues to do so with the Arabian kings in particular, including the one in Saudi Arabia just now. As a citizen of an impoverished country, Nepal, myself, I must add that we hold China in great awe and respect, given her historic achievement of eliminating poverty for a billion people. The point is, whatever the form of government in China, it remains one of the most accountable around the world that has always been focused on the betterment of people’s lives. You don’t find equivalents in China of the long-suffering and discriminated colored people in your own country, nor one percent of the obscenely rich controlling 85% of nation’s wealth as in the US. Let’s look at your “democratic” ally, India, a country that is situated next to China. The country remains “home to world poverty” even after three quarters of a century of independence. Millions perished in India, first, due to Modi’s mindless move of demonetization in 2016 and more recently, due to utter mismanagement of Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, China deserves to be treated with great respect and consideration and America has no business wrecking peace in our part of the world. America has done enough damage to the world, and it is time to try to keep its own house in order before it arrives at a situation wherein it would have to learn from that Asian giant. After all, America just ran away from the ragtag Taliban in Afghanistan. So, there is clearly no way it would ever be able to face China in a battlefield.

        • Joe Comment

          June 9, 2022 at 12:05 pm

          Bihari Krishna Shreshta: I could dispute many parts of your statement above. Mainland China has been allied with many of the worst dictators, like Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kim dynasty, and Putin, has oppressed many minority people far worse than the US, has a lot of wealth inequality, it’s very questionable how well its military can perform, etc.

          But the important thing is, it is not a matter of “China reclaiming Taiwan.” It is a question of two countries that both came out of a former China potentially rejoining willingly. If this is to be a fair agreement, there must be power sharing. Nobody in Taiwan can possibly trust the Mainland’s legal system to interpret and enforce such an agreement.

          Until that changes, we can’t be talking about a peaceful solution. If the Mainland wants to deal with its brother country in a non-peaceful way, it becomes an international issue and that concerns us all.

          Even Nepal was formerly a tributary of China under the Qing dynasty. Would you accept unification of your country under Mainland China? If they try to use force for that, would you not hope the rest of the world might object? Or would you expect them to “mind their own business”?

          • Bihari Krishna Shrestha

            June 9, 2022 at 2:34 pm

            Your argument distorts historical facts and, therefore, is mischievous in its intent. China and Taiwan were not and are not “two countries”. When Chiang Kai-shek was defeated in 1949 civil war, he had retreated to Taiwan and, with US support, ruled the island as Republic of China. The point is, the reason he could retreat to Taiwan without any resistance was because it was a part of China. The problem with your country is its arrogant sense of exceptionalism and the license you take to impose your whims on other weaker nations, the war on Iraq being the latest and most infamous of them. While Putin is being touted as a possible war criminal for his aggression against Ukraine, George W Bush remains cozy at home with no such threat over his head, although he too have avoided stepping out of the US. Regarding my country’s relationship with China, it has been a complicated one. While Tibet paid annual tribute to Nepal, the latter did the same to China once every five years. This had resulted from the fact that China had come to Tibet’s aid in one of the many Nepal-Tibet war, ending in a tripartite treaty that allowed Nepal to have monopoly trading rights in Lhasa, and the tributes mentioned above even as Nepal too did the same to China. However, with the communist takeover of China, a new diplomatic relationship has been established even as Nepal also voluntarily renounced it tributary and trading rights over Tibet. As things stand, China makes one of Nepal’s most reliable friends and partner even as predatory India–that has the record of illegally annexing another landlocked country, Sikkim, in 1975–regularly blockaded Nepal, the last one being as recently as 2015. In short, the sooner US acknowledges its limitations and recent failures around the world and chooses to end deception and hostilities with China, the better it would be for the world as well as for increasingly disorderly US.

  9. Joe Comment

    June 9, 2022 at 5:06 pm

    Bihari Krishna Shreshta: Yes, the Republic of China (today’s Taiwan) was the legitimate government of China when the rebels seized control in Beijing in 1949. But where does that lead us? Should the Mainland government disband itself so the former rightful rulers can return from Taiwan and restore things how they were until 1949? If they aren’t willing to do so, why should they expect the one on Taiwan to do so? And without acceptance by both sides, a peaceful solution disappears – a peaceful solution to the existence of the Mainland and Taiwan with two separate governments.

    It is a fact that one country has become two, or several, many times in history, and there is nothing mischievous or distorted in saying so. You disagree? Then must I list other examples? As for the stronger imposing whims on the weaker, in this case the US is not demanding of the Mainland, it is the Mainland demanding of Taiwan.

  10. Joe Comment

    June 13, 2022 at 2:28 am

    I’m almost convinced that the US needs to grant full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In the other cases of Cold War split countries like Korea and Germany, both the sides did become members of the UN.

    The Mainland has been abusing Taiwan’s lack of official status to wrongly claim that Mainland-Taiwan problems are purely internal. Was the Korean War internal? Were all the Berlin crises internal? And frankly, it’s hard to see in what way North Korea is more worthy of UN membership than Taiwan.

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