4 Ways Taiwan Can Survive
It may be a sign of the times that Taiwan seldom comes up during Q&A sessions following Asia talks these days. But it does sometimes—especially with savvy but lay audiences. So it was this week with the Financial Technology Forum, a gathering of IT professionals on Goat Island in Newport. Question: in light of China’s rise to diplomatic, economic, and military eminence and well-documented ambition to rule Taiwan, is it inevitable that the island will find itself subsumed within the mainland’s communist regime?
Short answer: no. As a philosophical matter, I reject the idea that a free people is doomed to fall to foreign—and Taiwanese increasingly define the Chinese as strangers from a strange land—conquerors. Nothing is inevitable. Taiwan can master its destiny if it does a few basic things and refuses to succumb to despair. Specifically:
Don’t be taken in by hooplah over cordial cross-strait relations. Much has been made of the supposed thaw in cross-strait relations during the Ma Ying-jeou years. This will last precisely as long as Beijing sees the trendlines going its way—i.e., toward unification. Sun Tzu makes much of China’s imperative to win international contests without fighting. That maxim has a touchy-feely, peace-studies afterglow to it, n’est-ce pas? It’s all about nonviolent conflict resolution! Well, no. The keyword in there is win. Tacit corollary: by any means necessary.
I prefer the Western take on winning-without-fighting proffered by Carl von Clausewitz, who proclaimed that even aggressors love peace. Exclaimed Clausewitz, even Napoleon did so. The little emperor would gladly have us surrender our country without a fight—and spare himself the hardships, dangers, uncertainties, and diplomatic and economic blowback from war. Substitute Xi Jinping for Napoleon and you have the right attitude toward China.
You bet Xi would like to settle things without resort to arms. That hardly adds up to an era of good feelings.
Don’t kid yourself about Big Brother’s coming to the rescue. One hopes Taiwan has divested itself of the unhealthy assumption that U.S. forces will bring salvation in times of war. Think about it. America has to be willing and able to intervene in a cross-strait contingency. It could be able but not willing, or willing but not able.
Consider willingness. The Taiwan Relations Act is a rather full-throated, general statement of American commitment to Taiwan’s defense. It is not an automatic guarantee that warplanes will take to the skies and warships to the seas should China strike with conventional arms. Still less will U.S. forces spring into action should China deploy some sort of hybrid, murky, tough-to-pin-down strategy meant to upend or dishearten the ruling regime in Taipei.
Think decisionmaking couldn’t bog down in Washington? Think again. Here’s the closest the Act comes to a security guarantee: “The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.” How long would it take, say, a Democratic White House and Republican Congress to agree on appropriate action? Hmmm.
And how about capability? The struggle between access and access denial hardly needs revisiting here. Suffice it to say that China’s military—land-based air and missile forces, seagoing pickets, the battle fleet—will do its utmost to keep the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet and Pacific Fleet reinforcements from reaching the combat theater in time to make a difference. Anyone who tells you China has no strategy for opposing U.S. access to places it holds dear, or that swift American access is a foregone conclusion under access-denial circumstances, is selling you snake oil. Caveat emptor.
That being the case, Taiwan must ready itself to hold out as long as possible while the U.S. political process sorts itself out, orders are given, and U.S. relief forces try to pry open the region. Self-help—the oldest principle of international relations in the book—should be the watchword for Taipei’s defense preparations. Threaten credibly to make things hard and drawn-out for Chinese forces, and Beijing’s success doubtful, and you may balk its plans—or deter aggression altogether.
Bottom line, Taiwan, be pessimistic about allied support: events will either prove you right, and you’ll be ready, or you will be pleasantly surprised when American planes appear overhead and gray hulls come over the horizon. Expect the worst while working to bolster your chances of being pleasantly surprised.
Conscript your island as part of the defense. Savvy defenders can make a cross-strait amphibious assault hell for the invaders. Taiwan’s topography is extraordinarily mountainous, offering numerous emplacements for anti-ship and and anti-air missiles and long-range gunnery. Some have likened landing on the island to landing in Normandy. Dug-in forces armed with such weaponry can withstand serious punishment from air and missile strikes, China’s chief methods of softening up the island’s defenses. The heavier hits they can take, and for longer, the better.
Furthermore, thinking ahead about the worst case—namely, if Chinese forces get ashore—and preparing to stage an insurgency could help dissuade Beijing from ordering an invasion in the first place. Visibly preparing for protracted resistance would telegraph Taipei’s seriousness, and could bolster deterrence. Make your surroundings work for you.
Tend to your offshore defense. For a long time Taiwan’s navy and air force clung to the conceit that they could vanquish China’s air and sea forces in a stand-up fight. It’s time to abandon that conceit as China’s armed forces improve both in technological sophistication and in raw numbers. Yet all is not lost. Taiwan’s navy can shift to deploying swarms of lethal, missile-armed small craft around the island’s periphery. Guerrilla war at sea can work for Taiwan’s defenders the way it worked for Mao Zedong’s irregular forces against Japan and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
The weak can win if they deploy scarce assets cunningly. Make it so.