“Shining City Upon a Mountain” needs US help now v. US overreaction later

“Shining City Upon a Mountain” needs US help now v. US overreaction later
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At its current pace, sometime within the next 300 million years, the eastern edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate will fold under the northern edge of the Philippine Sea plate, uniting Taiwan with mainland China in a geo-physical sense.  

Although this seismic shift will be tumultuous, the resulting unification technically will be peaceful and will fulfill a key requirement of the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act, which insists “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

Unfortunately, the 16 probes and encirclements by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) around Taiwan’s territory in the past year indicate that the PRC might have a different unification timeline in mind — and a much more violent means to achieve its desired objective.


After Chinese President Xi Jinping declared China to be the “keeper of international order” during the recent 19th Party Congress, there is little doubt the PRC will keep flexing its diplomatic, military and economic muscle against all its "core interests" — South China Sea, Indian border disputes, Tibet and the "rogue province" of Taiwan. Despite China’s limited legitimacy and general disregard for international law with these “core interest” claims, China has encountered minimal resistance in recent years.  

No nation feels the pinch like Taiwan, already stressed by diplomatic and economic isolation. Taiwan now sees a PRC approaching technical and mass superiority where the millions of man-hours dedicated to the People’s Liberation Army’s No. 1 priority, the Joint Island Attack Campaign against Taiwan, is no longer a theoretical exercise in lunacy. What once was dismissed as a 100-mile “Million Man Swim” now is edging toward a marginally credible course of action.  

In recent years, the Bush and Obama administrations, with crucial congressional support, provided a lifeline to Taiwan’s self-defense by approving the sale and delivery of Apache helicopters, Patriot missiles, P-3 anti-submarine aircraft and upgraded F-16 fighters. Given the new National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on countering China’s expansionist agenda, one can hope for additional rations of "Peace through Strength" for Taiwan to further complicate the PRC's invasion calculus.

To clear up a popular misconception, status-quo Taiwan is far from a lost cause, as Ian Easton expertly details in “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.” First, the PRC has only a percentage of the smart weaponry the U.S.-led coalition once used to cripple Iraq, and has less precision. Additionally, whereas Iraqi defenses were built on shifting sand, the Taiwanese built theirs upon (and under) rock. With decades of preparation, due diligence indicates (and PRC computer simulation corroborates) that a significant portion of Taiwan's air defense capabilities would survive the planned massive initial onslaughts of ballistic and cruise missiles.  

An immensely greater PRC requirement for weapons tonnage may confound Americans used to seeing aircraft only protected from the elements, but Taiwan has used the past six decades to prepare bunkers, tunnel networks, underground hangars capable of storing hundreds of planes, and to install a dizzying shell game of hardened aircraft shelters, complemented by mobile surface-to-air missile sites, since the last PRC attack in the mid-1950s. Taiwan also is the world leader in turning highways into runways and in rapid runway repair capabilities.

In addition to resilience, many experts endorse asymmetric strategies, to include man-portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles conducive to guerrilla warfare, and the ability to cost the invader time, impose costs, and await U.S. or international support. These capabilities, plus unmanned air and undersea vehicles, are worthy of pursuit. However, a situation that lends itself to guerrilla warfare is a situation where all — Taiwan, the United States, the PRC and the world — have lost. Taiwan needs systems that change strategic calculus — assets that not only avoid a punch, but counterpunch as well.   

Unlike tactical and naval surface capabilities, there are several strategic solutions which would mandate that the PRC push any serious invasion consideration to the right. The least costly improvements are for the United States to help Taiwan upgrade the remainder of its fourth-generation fighter fleet, to include more powerful, cost-effective engines, Active Electronically Scanned Array radars and better missiles, which dramatically increase the ability to simultaneously eliminate multiple targets at greater ranges.

Second, an expansion of Taiwan’s fighter fleet would leverage the existing doctrine, supply chain and training pipeline, while ensuring a larger force would emerge from the underground hangars when commanded.

Upgrading and expanding the fighter fleets requires less political capital on the U.S. side versus more sensitive options. If the United States allowed the release of more cutting-edge capabilities, Taiwan could receive increased U.S. technological support for its Indigenous Submarine Program or pursue the latest, fifth-generation fighters — both of which have been highlighted publicly by Taipei’s leaders. Although these options increase the potential for critical U.S. technologies to be compromised, intentionally or otherwise, each nonetheless merits serious policy consideration since these programs represent a down payment on decades of deterrence.

As President Xi made clear at the 19th Party Congress, China is offering the world a potentially enticing authoritarian alternative to meet not only the needs of its citizens, but the needs of the world. This vision is in stark contrast to the past 70 years, in which free elections, free markets, the rule of law, self-determination and individual liberty were on the right side of history. The greatest counter-argument to Xi's vision within China itself is the freedom-loving “shining city upon a mountain” across the strait in Taiwan.

Enhanced support for a like-minded democracy such as Taiwan, and enhanced support for U.S. jobs by selling arms to a Top 10 trading partner, put American interests first and fulfill our moral (and legal) obligation to help defend this democratic partner. Although normalizing arms sales to Taiwan would break the U.S. tendency to ignore a problem and then to overreact, ounces of prevention to support Taiwan’s deterrence efforts now could prevent a U.S. requirement for pounds of cure, gallons of blood and tons of treasure later.

Trey Meeks is a principal with The Asia Group, a strategy and capital-advisory firm based in Washington. He is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, with two flying commands and two Pacific Command senior staff tours; his last post was at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore as chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation.