By Michael Brown
January 25, 2023
Since the Ukraine war began, a growing number of U.S. officials have stressed the urgency of deterring Chinese military action against Taiwan. President Xi Jinping’s comments in October reinforced this view when he declared that China was prepared to take “all measures necessary” against foreign “interference” on the island and that “the wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification” with it. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Beijing may intend to seize Taiwan on a “much faster timeline” than previously thought.
Despite this assessment, the United States has not devoted sufficient attention to the current approach to deterrence—and whether it is adequate to meet an accelerated threat. For years, Taiwan has been preparing for a conventional war with China, for which it has acquired big military hardware from the United States, such as Abrams tanks and F-16 jets. But Taiwan cannot match China in these categories, and a direct military confrontation is one that it cannot win. Moreover, despite its long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, Washington has suggested that it would come to Taiwan’s aid if China invaded. Yet the United States has not taken adequate steps to put military resources in place and increase its own capacity to resupply those resources in anticipation of such an event.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would not resemble the Ukraine conflict in which the United States and its allies have been able to build economic sanctions and supply Ukraine with increasingly powerful weapons over many months. Given Taiwan’s location—only 100 miles from the Chinese mainland and 5,000 miles from the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii—Washington would not have time to prepare a response once an invasion was underway. Were the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense without sufficient planning, the outcome could be truly catastrophic. If China and the United States go to war, there would be few incentives for either side to back down and numerous paths to rapid escalation. With the prospect of a historically destructive conflict looming, ensuring effective deterrence is the most critical U.S. national security challenge in Asia, and by far the most urgent.
Given the growing threat of an invasion, deterring China will require a far more proactive approach. Taiwan must redesign the way that its forces are organized, armed, and deployed so that it can deny China a rapid victory. At the same time, Washington needs to evolve its own policy, making clear that direct military support is available to Taiwan today and would be strengthened if an invasion were to take place. Above all, by their actions and preparations, the United States and Taiwan must seek to significantly raise the uncertainty in Xi’s mind about whether military action against the island would succeed. Deterrence failed in Ukraine, and the United States must ensure that it does not fail in Taiwan.
THE PANDA AND THE PORCUPINE
Any effective deterrence strategy against China must begin with Taiwan’s own defenses. The United States needs to signal to Beijing that Taiwan will resist an invasion just as fiercely and creatively as Ukraine has. To be credible, Taiwan should double the proportion of its budget reserved for defense and double its current troop strength of 169,000. At present, Taipei spends about $19 billion on defense, a figure that pales in comparison with China’s $293 billion. And although Taiwan will not be able to close the gap with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it can greatly increase deterrence with a stronger and more prepared military. The goal must be to deny easy access to the island and cause significant damage to attacking Chinese forces, buying time for the United States and allies to assist.
But U.S. and Taiwanese officials must also recognize the lopsided threat Taiwan faces. Historically, Taiwan has spent its defense budget on equipping its military for a head-on conflict with China, including through the extensive purchase of U.S. tanks and fighter jets. But given the overwhelming numbers of tanks, ships, and airplanes that China can now field, this is not an effective use of procurement funds. For example, although Taiwan now has 400 fighter jets and 800 tanks, its forces are dwarfed by China’s 1,600 fighters and 6,300 tanks. China also has 450 bombers, nine nuclear submarines, two aircraft carriers, and other equipment that Taiwan does not possess. And in terms of manpower, China has a standing army of more than two million soldiers—nearly 12 times as many as Taiwan.
Faced with this dramatic force disparity, Taiwan would be better off developing asymmetric capabilities that can thwart superior firepower. The Taiwanese government could, for example, purchase the data as a service (DaaS) from dedicated commercial satellites, which could provide imagery of what and how many Chinese forces are amassing to provide as much early warning as possible. Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, for example, can provide images of the earth with resolution down to a third of a meter and, unlike traditional optical satellites, can operate through cloud cover and at night. SAR images have become a game changer for Ukrainian forces, giving Kyiv a real-time view of Russian tanks, trucks, and ground forces. Moreover, since this technology is available commercially, neither the Taiwanese nor the U.S. military need to own the satellites or the rockets to launch them.
Swarming drones and autonomous undersea vessels could help thwart China’s invasion plans.
Taiwan should also build a resilient and flexible communications network. Ukraine has shown the effectiveness of SpaceX’s Starlink system, which has allowed the country to withstand repeated attacks on its infrastructure without losing communications for its military or its citizens. Taiwan should establish a similar space-to-ground system to ensure uninterrupted communications availability during an invasion. Additionally, Taiwan should invest more resources into both cyberdefenses—to protect its critical infrastructure—and, with the assistance of U.S. Cyber Command, offensive cyber-capabilities to disrupt PLA operations during an attack.
As Ukrainian forces have demonstrated, Taiwan can strengthen its military with smaller, smarter weapons. Admiral Lorin Selby and I, as well as former State Department senior adviser James Timbie and Admiral James O. Ellis, Jr., have argued that Taiwan could enhance its forces by acquiring “a large number of small things”—weapons that can provide robust deterrence against an invading force, serving as a hedge to the large weapons platforms China is expecting to encounter. Examples of these include smart mines (which can be turned on and off); over-the-horizon, long-range antiship missiles (Harpoons); Javelin antitank missiles; and antiaircraft defenses such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). All of these weapons have proven valuable in Ukraine. For Taiwan to be able to use them, however, they will need to already be in place at the time of a Chinese attack.
Yet another way for Taiwan to enhance its deterrence would be to acquire more unmanned military systems. Such autonomous technology includes small drones that can swarm in the air; solar-powered surface vessels for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and undersea vessels that can gather intelligence or intercept enemy vessels. A combination of these systems would give Taiwan more comprehensive intelligence and, potentially, the power to intercept vessels across the Pacific—capabilities it currently lacks. The United States is already demonstrating the benefits of such technologies today with the navy’s Task Force 59, set up to integrate unmanned systems, sensor data, and artificial intelligence into maritime operations. Combined with enhanced satellite imagery, these capabilities would hinder the ability of China’s naval forces to project power or operate undetected in Taiwanese waters.
But asymmetric and autonomous capabilities alone will not be enough to withstand a Chinese invasion. Taiwanese forces will also need immediate access to fuel, munitions, food, and medical supplies to sustain their defense efforts in the opening phase of any attack. The United States should preposition these supplies to be accessible before a potential Chinese offensive or naval blockade. Currently, for example, Taiwan has only a seven-day fuel supply—for all its needs as a nation—concentrated in tanks on its west coast. By distributing ample fuel and other supplies around the island as well as on nearby islands, the United States and its allies can help Taiwan withstand an initial attack and prevent China from blocking crucial supply lines. The goal should be to transform Taiwan into what many have called an indigestible porcupine, brimming with asymmetric military capabilities that would surprise and frustrate any invading force.
STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY, PRACTICAL COMMITMENT
As Beijing steps up its pressure on Taiwan, the United States has confronted a growing dilemma. On the one hand, U.S. President Joe Biden has repeated publicly four times that the United States will not stand idly by if China moves to seize Taiwan. But on the other hand, according to its long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, the United States is not explicitly committed to defending the island, reserving instead the right to respond if an attack occurs. Clearly, this wait-and-see approach no longer serves U.S. interests. If the United States is not prepared in advance with prepositioned materiel on the island and the immediate capacity to resupply Taiwan, the administration’s statements become empty rhetoric. Yet abandoning strategic ambiguity as a policy would be a direct provocation to Beijing and would likely lead to an escalatory response.
Fortunately, the United States has another option. Without formally changing policy, Washington can provide Taiwan the military resources it needs before an invasion occurs. In doing so, the U.S. government can demonstrate to Beijing that China will face stiff resistance to any military action and that it is ready to supply the island with war materiel for an extended conflict. As a first step, the United States needs to stockpile on Taiwan such weapons as Harpoons, Stingers, Javelins, and HIMARS launchers. At the same time, Congress should authorize the Pentagon to aggressively ramp up production of these systems.
Equally important, Washington must eliminate the bottlenecks it has faced in supplying missiles and other munitions to Ukraine. A crucial vulnerability has been the production of so-called energetics—a broad category of explosives, propellants, and other material needed for ammunition, rocket and missile motors, and other devices. Because the United States has not fought a sustained conflict with a peer competitor in years, it has severely underinvested in energetics production, with the result that the Defense Department has struggled to resupply Stinger missiles to Ukraine. In the case of Taiwan, such a delay could prove devastating, as even a few weeks could determine the outcome of the war.
The United States should pre-position war materiel on and around Taiwan.
To avoid these logjams, the Pentagon needs to break the paradigm of single-year defense appropriations, which have in the past limited its ability to invest in greater production capacity. As William LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, has observed, by moving to multiyear appropriations, the U.S. would be far better equipped to increase production capacity of energetics in a sustained way. Representative Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee and chair of the House’s new Select Committee on China, has further suggested using the Defense Production Act to achieve more rapid stockpiles of munitions, provide project financing for munitions vendors, fast-track permits for vendors to expand capacity, and invest in workforce training. As the COVID-19 crisis made clear, the Defense Production Act gives the president broad authority to mobilize the private sector to meet a national emergency. To prepare for an extended conflict with China, the government needs to identify now which manufacturers will need to be tapped and for what items. Having such plans in place with preapproved funds to pay for them would itself have an important deterrent value.
In addition, Congress should give top priority to delivering the $19 billion in arms that Taiwan has already ordered, including Harpoon and Javelin missiles. Congress should also provide Taiwan the same drawdown authority to deliver weapons from current U.S. stockpiles as Ukraine has and appropriate funds for direct military assistance as it has with Ukraine. This would enable the Pentagon to send military supplies directly to Taiwan as well as weapons that might otherwise be decommissioned.
Lastly, the administration must continue its efforts to strengthen regional alliances such as AUKUS, the trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), a coalition including Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Beijing needs to know that a united front stands ready to assist Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack. Washington and its allies should also declare in advance a set of financial sanctions and trade embargoes that would be triggered by any Chinese military action against Taiwan. Such a declaration would clearly signal to Beijing the severe economic crisis that an unprovoked attack would cause—a prospect that may, in fact, be more persuasive in deterring the Chinese leadership than fear of U.S. military action.
LESS RED TAPE, MORE DETERRENCE
In addition to improving its military stockpiles and munitions capacity, the U.S. Department of Defense should accelerate its own development of the asymmetric systems that will help transform Taiwan into a porcupine. One type of such technology is small, unmanned electric aircraft. Currently in development as air taxis, these aircraft do not need runways and can amplify Taiwan’s air forces at relatively low cost. Other examples include autonomous floating barges that could serve as logistics platforms and could be positioned where needed; underwater drones that can gather intelligence or intercept enemy vessels; and small satellites serving as multispectral sensors, providing Taipei with precise images of enemy force movements within a large radius of the island.
A crucial advantage of these new technologies is the element of surprise they would bring to Taiwan’s military response. After all, the Chinese military has stolen U.S. aircraft designs and studied U.S. military operations around the globe for decades to prepare for a potential conflict. But since many of the asymmetric systems are new and can be fielded in only one to two years, they introduce capabilities that China is little prepared for. The more these systems create uncertainty and the greater their number, the more difficult it will be for the Chinese military to have confidence in its invasion plans. At the same time, these commercial capabilities also have the benefit of being lower cost than traditional defense platforms, and since they are unclassified, they can be readily shared with U.S. allies. In short, the United States can intensify deterrence without a dramatic shift in official policy and without enormous cost—provided it acts now.
The Pentagon needs to get new technologies to Taiwan faster.
In order to help Taiwan acquire these new systems, the U.S. Department of Defense will need to significantly streamline its procurement process. Currently, the department buys commercial items such as small drones the same way it buys fighter jets: after specifying what it wants to buy, the department enters a lengthy acquisition process with the desired weapon system funded through multiyear program requests. This means that even when funds are planned and agreed upon at the Pentagon, it can take years before Congress appropriates the money. In fact, on average, planning for every dollar the Pentagon spends begins 24 to 30 months earlier. To reform this process for commercial items, the Pentagon needs to eliminate unnecessary steps, such as the requirement to define the specifications for items that the commercial world is already building. It also needs to leverage more efficient federal purchasing mechanisms—such as Other Transaction Authority—and ask Congress for enough budget flexibility to buy lots of small things in a given fiscal year.
With such reforms in place, the U.S. government should be able to quickly identify the most valuable commercial technologies, determine which vendors can best provide them, and allocate funds to acquire them on a cycle that keeps apace with the development of new systems. For Taiwan, this would open up a host of new technologies from U.S. vendors that could be immediately deployed for enhanced defense.
Finally, the Defense Department should include Taiwan in its joint military exercises. Today’s exercises in the Indo-Pacific involve many nations’ forces, including those of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Yet they do not include Taiwan. Although China would regard such participation as provocative, U.S. diplomats can point out that the Chinese initiated the provocation by increasingly flying into Taiwanese airspace and crossing the maritime line dividing China and Taiwan with growing frequency.
CHANGING XI’S CALCULUS
Some of these steps will take years to complete. But by initiating them now, the United States can signal to Beijing, and to Xi in particular, that invading or blockading Taiwan would set off a confrontation that China could lose. By making the island difficult to conquer, Taiwan and the United States may be able to change Chinese thinking about an invasion, persuading Xi that it would be far better to continue strong rhetoric about reunification than to succumb to self-imposed pressure to seize Taiwan by force.
Beijing already has reasons to avoid a new geopolitical crisis. After all, Xi is already contending with many challenges at home, including dramatically slower economic growth (in part due to Beijing’s failed zero-COVID policies), an increasingly skeptical set of trading partners, and the biggest aging demographic crisis of any nation in history. And these leave aside the dire economic implications of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan: beyond the costs of a war, if China cannot get semiconductors from Taiwan, it would precipitate a collapse of the 70 percent of the world’s electronics that China produces and largely exports. If the United States and other countries lose access to semiconductors, a global depression will result. An unsuccessful effort to seize Taiwan, on top of these other challenges, might mean the end of Xi’s tenure in power and, possibly, the end of the Chinese Communist Party as the ruling regime.
But if the West appears complacent or distracted, Xi may see opportunity. To change his calculus, Taiwan, the United States, and its allies must show they are resolute about thwarting an invasion. With China’s increasingly bellicose declarations about retaking the island, time is running out for Washington to demonstrate commitment through action.
MICHAEL BROWN is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and is the former Director of the Defense Innovation Unit at the U.S. Department of Defense.