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US strategy ambiguity toward Taiwan is working… for now

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The headlines over the last couple of weeks reporting on Chinese military incursions through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone are concerning. Also, China’s abrogation of political autonomy and the rule of law in Hong Kong signal what could come next in Taiwan. And as Chinese state media organs like to suggest, the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan has allowed China’s propaganda machine to claim that Taiwan’s confidence in the U.S. has been undermined. How far will the U.S. go to defend Taiwan? 

Admiral Philip Davidson testified that China plans on bringing Taiwan under its control within the next six years. If that happens, China, which is second to the U.S. in military spending,  could push the U.S. out of the Asia-Pacific and weaken American allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. This would allow China to dominate vital commercial shipping lanes and sea lines of communication. 

Given the risks of a conventional military attack, China will likely intensify its hybrid war campaign against Taiwan. It will combine disinformation and cyberoperations with military maneuvers. China has already increased sorties near Taiwan’s air identification zone, boosted naval patrols, and expanded military drills. With its vast resources, China can afford to maintain a steady hybrid war of inflicting anxiety on the Taiwanese people by making them feel isolated. Hybrid warfare is a low risk, low-cost strategy that would likely not provoke the Biden Administration into ending America’s 42-year long policy of “strategy ambiguity” or providing security assistance to help Taiwan defend itself. 

China could take the riskier decision to seize the smaller and lightly defended Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu. The U.S. is unlikely to intervene militarily if China were to take them by force. The islands have some strategic value because they would expand the range of China’s bombers and anti-ship missiles. But an assault on the islands means China would have to end its hybrid war campaign and commit to a more conventional offensive strategy.                                 

As much as China is seeking to change the status quo, the U.S. is hoping to maintain it. U.S. Special Operations Forces and the Marine Corps have been secretly deployed to Taiwan and Taiwanese troops have been trained at U.S. military installations in Guam. In addition, in 2020, the U.S. approved $5.1 billion in arms sales to Taiwan

But the U.S. must go one step further and encourage Taiwan to develop a defense concept that raises the costs on China of invading and occupying the island. This includes providing Taiwan with mobile and survivable weapons that make China think twice about occupying Taiwan and subduing a hostile population. Taiwan needs more mobile coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range air defense systems, mobile artillery, advanced surveillance systems, and unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles. These are less expensive than maintaining legacy systems like fighter jets and naval vessels that will not fare well against superior Chinese forces near the mainland or in the Taiwan Strait. 

A modern defense concept aligns with U.S.-led balancing coalitions that can deter China from dominating the Asia-Pacific. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an expanding diplomatic and security pact with Australia, India, and Japan, is essential to such a strategy. Moreover, the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the U.S.) defense arrangement has naval, cyber, and other military elements aimed at denying China freedom of action. Moreover, the U.S. has been encouraging NATO to contain rising Chinese influence in Europe, the Arctic, and in cyberspace. In addition, Biden has proposed the Build Back Better World agreement to counter China’s Belt and Road. 

The U.S. must also move quickly to protect Taiwan’s semiconductor industry and make it difficult for China’s Huawei to maintain its advantage in telecommunications. Taiwan’s top semiconductor corporation TSMC controls 84% of the global semiconductor market and is a trusted American partner. TSMC and other Taiwanese semiconductor firms should become more integrated within the American military-industrial complex. This would allow Taiwan and the U.S. to shape global chip production and influence the direction of modern electronics. 

While the American people support a range of direct measures aimed at China, strategic ambiguity is working for now. Abandoning it in the near term means the U.S. would be locked into fighting a war with China at a time when it is recovering from 20 years of war in the Middle East. The U.S. needs time to complete the rebalance to Asia. Investing in research and development, updating its physical infrastructure, and adjusting U.S. national strategy doctrine toward what looks like a Cold War 2.0 with China will require patience in the near term.

Chris J. Dolan is Professor of Political Science and Director of the M.S. Program in Intelligence and Security Studies at Lebanon Valley College

Tags China China-Taiwan tension Cross-Strait relations Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Taiwan

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