Photo Credits: Flag of Republic of China, Taiwan – 中文（臺灣）：飄揚的中華民國國旗 – Public Domain
Not even halfway through the decade, the 2020s upturned priorities for U.S. foreign policy, as the immediate threat of a strategic competition with China replaced the War on Terror. The island nation of Taiwan plays a central role in this conflict, with American attempts to arm Taiwan and deter a naval invasion by China. The United States boldly broadcasts its interest in preparing Taiwan for an attack, but Taiwan uses American support to purchase equipment with little relevance to an invasion, such as their recent 10,000 ton LPD warship. This apparent lack of strategic sense prompts confusion and American arm-twisting.
There is a clear reason for this. It is important not to patronize Taiwan and oversimplify their spending motives as indifference or “prestige spending”, as this leads to poorly informed policy. Instead, the United States needs to understand that Taiwan’s unique position informs its spending habits, and changing this pattern invites serious risks. Instead of dominating Taiwanese defense policy, America should trust Taiwan’s risk-averse approach to China and avoid being more aggressive than a partner with existential stakes in the conflict.
Calls to compel Taiwan into changing their spending habits chalk their actions up to old-thinking or apathy. These voices hold sway in the upper echelons of American government, and Biden recently twisted Taiwan’s arm in the 2023 National Defense Appropriations Act. This bill promised Taiwan $2 billion in military aid annually, conditioned upon only purchasing America-approved asymmetric systems.
Asymmetric systems are ones dissimilar to Chinese offensive capabilities. For example, instead of buying fighter jets to fight Chinese fighter jets, Taiwan must buy surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down Chinese jets. A condescending view of Taiwan informs these forceful policies and risks convincing China that their window of opportunity for taking the island is closing fast.
Taiwanese leadership remains motivated to remain independent from China in order to protect their country’s economic success and their way of life. However, preventing an invasion from an increasingly nationalist neighboring superpower requires political savvy. Taiwan must balance many factors to preserve its independence, so American political posturing can create existential dangers.
America provides a key deterrent to China but this support originates from political needs to appear strong rather than to sustainably resolve Asian security crises. Taiwan has clear national security interests in American support, so Taiwanese leaders play to American political language like “containing China”. As such, when it comes to buying weapons and visiting with diplomats, Taiwan may be motivated more politically than defensively.
These purchases and diplomatic visits must remain below China’s response threshold to avoid any perception by the Chinese Communist Party that they would need to move quickly for any chance to take control of Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan now must manage purchases and visits so they are frequent and substantial enough to satisfy America and pro-independence Taiwanese voters. Taiwanese politicians have learned to satisfy their voting constituents by portraying themselves as either uncompromising or diplomatic at the right times over the right issues while toeing the party line. But America should not complicate their delicate compromise.
This balancing act caps Taiwan’s defenses at well below what would likely be required for the “porcupine strategy” that America insists on. Several American wargames as well as the recent document leaks substantiate this fact. Taiwan’s political balancing act results in an under-trained and under-equipped military reserve force, an inefficient mix of American defense systems, and seemingly spontaneous diplomatic visits with high-ranking American officials that offer little benefit to Taiwan itself.
Some misinterpret the Taiwanese military issues as proof that America must force Taiwan to prepare for a defense. But America forcing Taiwan to arm itself to the teeth despite its unique situation risks provoking Chinese aggression. Even if it is America’s job to more directly pressure Taiwan into more asymmetric arms purchases, the approach should be very specific to Taiwan’s complicated circumstances. Time is Taiwan’s most critical asset. Arming Taiwan too quickly or at the wrong time without carefully avoiding a security dilemma could risk drawing the United States into a confrontation with China over Taiwan, the worst case scenario being nuclear war.
It’s not too late for America to take pause and consider these questions, especially when there are other avenues for deterring China. For example, America can buy itself and Taiwan more time to confer about the situation by forming a more united front with regional allies against Chinese aggression.
One such ally is India, which has a scalable navy and significant economic power that could be used to balance out Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The two have traded blood for blood over disputed territories like Doklam or in Ladakh, but India is hesitant to commit to defending Taiwan because despite their tense history, China is still one of India’s largest trading partners. In 2022, trade between the two states hit an all time high of 135 billion, mostly in commodities and electronic components. But the United States has much to offer India that could persuade it to join the ranks of American allies defending Taiwan.
For example, in Biden’s recent visit with Modi, the United States promised to sell India previously denied advanced weapons systems. Outside of being able to promise lucrative weapons deals, the United States can offer to use its influential voice in the United Nations to help India obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in exchange for Indian security commitments. By committing to more shared intelligence, training, technology, and trade, the United States can mitigate fall out from China if India commits to protecting Taiwan.
Claiming that Taiwan’s spending habits stem from them being unserious or outdated is dangerous because it motivates US policymakers to intervene in ways that provoke China. The United States should not try to force Taiwan into making purchases without demonstrated interest. Instead, America should focus on bringing more allies into the circle of nations committed to protecting Taiwan together as a means of deterring China until the U.S. has more concrete answers to questions about Taiwan’s defense situation.
Garrett Ehinger is an Assistant Editor at Realist Review and a China analyst who holds a bachelor’s in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Brigham Young University in Idaho. He is currently a master’s student at the University of Utah studying public health. He has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.