No Free Rider: Stronger Defense, Better DC Interaction Needed to Make Taiwan a Pivot Asset

Source: Flickr/KevinH, accessed via Center for American Progress
Source: Flickr/KevinH, accessed via Center for American Progress

The birth of the rebalancing, formerly known as the pivot, was one accompanied with great proclamations and perhaps even greater expectations. It came about during until then unusually assertive Beijing’s behaviour vis-à-vis its neighbors regarding sovereignty claims in the South China Sea after the spring of 2009. The rebalancing was given more specific shape with the article America’s Pacific Century written by then Secretary of State Clinton in the magazine Foreign Policy in October 2011 and President Obama’s speech before the Australian Parliament in November 2011. In her article, Secretary Clinton identified  the following areas crucial for the rebalancing: “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.” Generally speaking, rebalancing has two mutually dependent pillars. The military pillar aims for strengthening current deployments across the region and employing strategy that would be able to counter China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities within the first and second island chains. While strategy for that is not in place yet, operational concept for joint deployment of naval and air assets called AirSea Battle are being discussed along with alternatives such as ‘Offshore defense’ concept.  The economic pillar is centered on Trans Pacific Partnership that has an ambition to create a large Asia-Pacific free trade zone under American leadership. However, some critics have started to worry about US resolve after the level of attention that has been given to the developments in Syria, and Obama’s absence at the  APEC summit in Indonesia in early October as a consequence of the government shutdown. Across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, are another source of doubt casted on the rebalance. While some of those factors are more serious than others, the rebalancing is not going anywhere far. After all, the rebalancing is a result of China’s rise and the common interest of the US and its regional allies to manage (if not counter) that rise.

Now the question is what the role of Taiwan in the US rebalancing is? This cannot be answered without outlining the importance of Taiwan for the US interests. Perhaps the most ignored aspect is Taiwan’s value as an economic partner and a potential asset to TPP-related efforts. Yet, Taiwan is the 11th largest trade partner of the US, 4th largest trading partner of Japan, and ranked in the top 30 of the world’s economies according to nominal GDP. More discussed is the geostrategic importance of Taiwan. Should Taiwan fell under the control of the PRC, the PLA Navy would possess crucial strategic advantage in its pursue to break through first island chain. Finally, Taiwan has crucial importance for the key US ally in the region: Japan. Tokyo has come under significant pressure recently after Beijing stepped up its activity in around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands in East China Sea. Even neutral Taiwan gives Japan some sense of security. However, Taiwan in the possession of the PRC would put Japan’s control over the disputed area under great stress. Therefore, it is imperative for the position of the US and US allies to prevent violent takeover of Taiwan by the PRC.

Whether the current or any future administration in Taiwan pursue policies of closer engagement with the PRC is less relevant in this respect. Firstly, for all the states in the region China is a crucial economic partner. Taiwan is by no means special in this respect. Secondly, if Taiwan’s government is able to find peaceful way of resolving its dispute with the PRC then it will only be one of the favourable conditions foreseen in Taiwan Relations Act. The other favourable condition is that Taiwan won’t be coerced into unification by force. Arguably, Taiwan is in its economic interaction with Beijing in more sensitive situation than, say, Japan or Philippines given the former’s peculiar political status. Would be Beijing willing to use economic interdependence as a weapon against Taiwan? Very likely so! But that does not mean that such effort is determined to be successful. Use of economic sanctions as a tool of punishment or coercion does not have particularly successful record. If China tries to coerce Taiwan economically rather than militarily it may avoid risk of running into conflict with the US. However, it will also send a clear signal that peaceful solution is off the table while risking that government in Taipei will not follow suit and agree with the unification under Beijing terms. Peaceful unification is something the US (and Japan) would have to deal with but at the moment there is no market in Taiwan for promoting unification policy and any democratically elected government in Taiwan has to reflect as major constraint limiting pursuing political talks with Beijing.

The set of items on Taiwan’s to do list is manifold if it wishes to play any role in the rebalancing. I will elaborate on three of them: (1) increasing of self-defence capabilities; (2) representation of Taiwan’s interests in the US, namely in Washington, D.C. and (3) mitigation of Taiwan’s economic dependence on the PRC. Each of those categories does not require specific reaction from the US. They simply create more favourable conditions for Taiwan to become implicitly beneficial for the US interests in the region which are arguably to a large extent also Taiwan’s interests.

Firstly, Taiwan will contribute to the rebalancing by increasing its asymmetrical defense capability aimed at overcoming PRC’s quantitative and increasingly also qualitative edge. And Taiwan is making some steps towards that direction. Domestic development of supersonic anti-ship missiles Hsiung-Feng 3 and cruise missiles Hsiung Feng 2E and new type of missiles with extended range will put significant constraint on the PLAN and PLA if they ever try to cross the Taiwan Strait. Development and deployment of stealth-capable fast-speed boats carrying HF-3 anti-ship missiles is another step in a positive direction. So is hardening of air bases or rapid runway repair capability as well as utilization of highways as an alternative air strips. Much is to be yet accomplished to fully develop asymmetrical defense force but above mentioned steps are encouraging. In addition, Taiwan needs to address issue of low morale in the military and not quite favourable image of the army among the populace. Recent outrage over the death of young conscript shows that much remains to be accomplished in the direction of better communication between the military and the public. Transition to all-volunteer force appears to be necessity also given to future demographic constraints cause by low (negative) fertility rate. Nevertheless, current administration’s efforts to transit to all-volunteer army has been already postponed twice and recruitment targets are below expectations. Increasing own defense capability is generally what the US expect from all the regional partners and allies. Arguably, it is also in Taiwan’s own interest.

Secondly, important improvements should be made in the area of diplomacy, namely Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in the Washington, D.C. Taiwan is one of very few issues that have broad bi-partisan support in the increasingly sharp partisan polarization in the US Congress (The Hill). However, US lawmakers are often left in confusion when TECRO – Taiwan’s unofficial embassy in the US – says one thing and various pro-Taiwan advocacy groups say another. While some lawmakers take TECRO’s position as official (rightfully so), some others do not consider TECRO as very credible. Naturally, much of this reflects blue-green political divide in Taiwan, one of the defining features of Taiwan’s politics. However, bringing this divide on The Hill is not very sensible thing to do if both sides wish to convey positive image about Taiwan. While advocacy groups should not consider TECRO as rival entity, TECRO should not serve as an extended hand of the ruling party in Taiwan (whichever is in the power at given moment) but should represent interests of all the people in Taiwan no matter what is their political identification. Despite the differences, there is a platform on which Taiwan’s diplomacy and the interest groups operating on The Hill can find a common ground: PRC’s military modernization presents clear threat to Taiwan’s security and neither side of Taiwan’s political divide is particularly keen about forceful unification of Taiwan as a province of the PRC.

Thirdly, Taiwan needs to explore ways how to diversify its economic dependence on China’s market. Arguably, this is nothing easy to accomplish but it is imperative to seek to decrease Taiwan’s vulnerability in this area. Government in Taipei cannot forbid Taiwan’s companies to operate and invest in China but it can increase efforts to expand trade relations with other countries. This cannot happen overnight but even the debate about trade diversification is strikingly missing in the discourse.

Having listed some of the steps that Taiwan can do to contribute to the success of the rebalancing, there are some arrangements that the US could and should do to make Taipei more comfortable. It is clear that Taiwan, lacking formalized defense arrangement with the US such the one that Japan has, will seek dual approach towards the PRC: engagement with and hedging against. It is understandable that some voices in the US are concerned about Taiwan getting too close to China. Yet, these worries can be mitigated by giving Taiwan comfort zone by expressing public support. This can be done in various ways and does not necessarily include grand political declarations. Frequent visits of senior cabinet officials is one option, lifting absurd policy that prevents Taiwan government officials to enter D.C. is another. US needs Taiwan and Taiwan needs US and in many ways this mutual need is restricted by impractical arrangements.

This piece was written for Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security, published by Center for Security Studies @ Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University in cooperation with National Defense University. Electronic version of Strategic Vision 11 can be accessed here and complete archive here. Text on this blog differs from the published version in small details.

One comment

  1. What’s your assessment regarding the following two questions:
    1. Is President Ma YJ on the same page with the US about the rebalancing? Maybe, he is more interested in letting Taiwan be part of PRC’s strategic alliance in the long term.

    2. Is his corporation critical to the US rebalancing?
    is on the same page with the US Re-balancing?

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