The United States has a nasty habit of firing resources at a military problem first and asking questions about effective implementation later — as recently demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan — but that does not have to be the case with Taiwan. U.S. officials are starting to get more serious about supporting Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. They debate competing policy stances on defending Taiwan (ambiguity versus clarity) but largely agree that “bolstering Taiwan’s self-defenses is an urgent task and an essential feature of deterrence,” as recently stated by the Pentagon’s top official for Asia. Experienced U.S. officials are raising the alarm that China may attempt forceful unification with Taiwan later this decade if deterrence continues to erode.
In the 1970s, the United States used triangular diplomacy to gain leverage over the Soviet Union by opening relations with China and eventually switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei, which Washington had previously recognized as the seat of the legitimate Chinese state and government, to Beijing. Prior to this switch in 1979, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group-Taiwan was the central hub for planning, coordinating, and executing defense cooperation initiatives. It served as the eyes, ears, and voice of the U.S. military to the Taiwanese armed forces. It possessed the requisite staff and planning horsepower to facilitate the large-scale military arms transfers, training, and advising that contributed to decades of Taiwanese military superiority over China, which has since evaporated.
U.S.-Taiwanese defense initiatives are ramping up — to levels unseen since 1979 — due to legitimate concerns about Chinese designs on the island. However, the thick military organizational connective tissue that existed prior to 1979 is no longer in place to facilitate this cooperation. Without a military organization focused on the island, the U.S. personnel, funding, and materiel poured into supporting Taiwan may be inefficiently applied and generate limited return on investment — defined in terms of deterrence and lethality in conflict. To help to deter Chinese aggression, the United States should establish a 21st century version of this often forgotten advisory group to provide the staff capacity, synchronization, and interagency integration required to facilitate increasingly robust U.S.-Taiwanese military collaboration, bolster Taiwan’s defenses, and strengthen its will to fight. Despite inevitable Chinese government counterpressure, reestablishing this organization would probably not trigger military conflict and would be consistent with the U.S. commitment to the One China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.
The Original Organization
The original U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group-Formosa (this last word was later changed to “Taiwan”) operated from 1951 to 1979 and was instrumental in professionalizing and modernizing Taiwan’s military. During the Cold War, the United States established military assistance advisory groups in South Korea, Japan, South Vietnam, Europe, and the Middle East to strengthen allies threatened by communism. The group in Taiwan was a reincarnation of the similarly named organization that operated in China from 1947 to 1949, until the Republic of China was defeated by the Communists and withdrew to Taiwan. From 1951 to 1955, this group was responsible for all U.S.-Taiwanese defense matters. In 1955, upon ratification of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, the U.S. Taiwan Defense Command was established and absorbed many personnel, resources, and responsibilities that had previously been aligned to the advisory group.
The original advisory group was established in 1951 to facilitate large-scale arms transfers and provide military training and assistance to deter Chinese aggression. The impetus for establishing the organization was a U.S. military aid package worth $300 million — equivalent to over $3 billion today — that would have overwhelmed the small U.S. military staff in Taiwan at the time. In 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea, the United States shifted its policy to support Taiwan and sent a small team to the island to prepare a comprehensive report on Taiwan’s military that was the basis for the aid package. Once established, the advisory group was led by a major general and initially manned with 116 U.S. servicemembers, but later grew to over 2,000 personnel. The group established a comprehensive American-type military school system for Taiwan’s officer corps, helped the country to implement conscription, trained and advised the military, and oversaw military aid.
The U.S. advisory group deeply understood the Taiwan military, shaped its defense concepts, and built complementary U.S. war plans. Lessons from previous U.S. security cooperation efforts — including recent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan — suggest that Washington’s willingness to influence higher-order issues of mission, organizational structure, and leadership is critical. The original advisory group had offices in the same building as the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense and U.S. staff sections were directly attached to their Taiwanese counterparts. It embedded advisers in all major Taiwanese training units and at the regimental level and above. All of the group’s initiatives were informed by the in-depth understanding of Taiwan’s military that was gained through this integration.
The group also influenced Taiwan’s defense concepts. It translated hundreds of U.S. military training manuals into Chinese, which shaped Taiwan’s warfighting approach. In the early 1950s, U.S. advisors helped Taiwan to adjust its defense concept from static to mobile defense. The United States later helped Taiwan to shift from a defensive approach to an offensive posture, to hasten an end to the Korean War by implicitly threatening a second front in China’s southeastern underbelly.
Prior to the establishment of the Taiwan Defense Command, the advisory group developed U.S. war plans that complemented Taiwan’s own. It also planned U.S. support to the island’s wartime logistical requirements. As part of the U.S. strategy to leverage Taiwan to help to end the Korean War, the organization planned to help to deploy 25,000 Taiwanese military personnel to the Korean front by the end of 1954. A reestablished advisory group could similarly improve Taiwan’s defenses today while creating regional security benefits for the United States and its interests.
The Requirement: Control the Increasing Flow of U.S. Military Resources to Taiwan
A new advisory group would ensure that increased U.S. defense support provided to Taiwan is synchronized and woven into a holistic plan that enables a credible defense of the island and helps to reverse the erosion of cross-strait deterrence. China has rapidly modernized its fleet and increased its inventory of major naval combatants since 2005, while the U.S. fleet has aged and shed major combat vessels. The U.S. Navy still leads — 213 major combatants to China’s 145 — but China is expected to reach rough parity in major combatants and surpass the U.S. Navy in total submarines by 2030. Further, China’s navy is deployed almost entirely in the Indo-Pacific while America’s is dispersed around the globe. There is ample opportunity to bolster Taiwan’s deterrence to help offset declines on the U.S. side of the equation.
This organization would help to fulfill the legal mandate in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The law requires the United States to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity.” The group would ensure that the growing volume and complexity of “defense articles” and “services” being provided to Taiwan arrive in a timely manner and are “sufficient” to deter Chinese aggression.
Bilateral military initiatives are reportedly expanding, in accordance with the growing threat posed by China. Washington is reportedly considering using special operators to help Taipei to conduct irregular warfare, including establishing resistance networks and countering an amphibious landing. This could support Taiwan’s grassroots efforts to mount a whole-of-society defense of the island, integrating civilian militias with active-duty and reserve military personnel. Earlier this year, the United States and Taiwan signed a coast guard cooperation agreement. Taiwan is fielding coast guard vessels capable of carrying anti-ship missiles and envisions its coast guard as a second navy during wartime. Taiwan is also revamping its military reserve system. These are complex undertakings that would benefit from substantial U.S. advice and assistance — especially if they are to be realized this decade.
Congress is also pushing for more tangible U.S. support to Taiwan’s defensive preparedness, beyond routine U.S. arms sales. The recently introduced Taiwan Deterrence Act and Arm Taiwan Act would authorize $2 billion and $3 billion a year respectively in foreign military financing for Taiwan. This could help Taipei to purchase relevant defense articles like survivable communications systems, coastal defense cruise missiles (including in shipping containers), small missile boats, sea mines, loitering munition swarms, and mobile air defenses. The Taiwan Partnership Act would establish a partnership between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwan’s military. Taiwan’s plan to spend an extra $9 billion on domestically manufactured missiles and other capabilities may also generate demand for increased U.S. military assistance.
Unless it reestablishes a dedicated Taiwan-focused organization, U.S. military staff planning capacity — rather than U.S. policy — may soon become the limiting factor that slows the momentum of expanding U.S.-Taiwanese defense initiatives. U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. Forces Japan headquarters are staffed with hundreds of personnel dedicated to bilateral military cooperation and supporting the defense of their host-nation allies. The U.S. military lacks an equivalent organizational headquarters focused on military cooperation with Taiwan.
The United States needs an integrated organization that is dedicated to military deterrence and tightly networked with other elements of national power. It should be flush with U.S. interagency personnel and allies — especially from Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan. To have credibility with Taiwan’s senior officers, it should be led by a U.S. general or flag officer who is empowered to speak authoritatively on military matters on behalf of the U.S. government. It should start with 100 to 200 personnel and grow as additional initiatives come online or scale-up. It should also maintain well-staffed satellite offices in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Washington. The advisory group would facilitate training for Taiwanese personnel beyond the borders of Taiwan, in the United States and throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
This new security cooperation and assistance organization should be headquartered in Taiwan to enable integration with Taiwanese counterparts. Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, it should be affiliated with the American Institute in Taiwan — the non-profit organization responsible for U.S. relations with Taiwan. This new organization would not be a military “command” — like the old U.S. Taiwan Defense Command — and placing it in Taiwan would not constitute “basing” troops on the island. Most of its personnel should be contractors and retired military personnel, with a smaller contingent of active-duty liaisons and interagency personnel to fill key leadership and staff positions. These personnel would serve in an unofficial capacity, consistent with how the institute is currently staffed in order to maintain Washington’s adherence to the One China policy. If placing this new organization on the island is deemed politically infeasible, it could be headquartered elsewhere — perhaps Palau, Guam, Japan, or Australia — with forward elements in Taiwan.
Establishing this organization would trigger retaliation from Beijing, which would decry this move as a change to the status quo, but the United States could carefully calibrate its rollout to avoid provoking military conflict. This new organization would be provocative and further enflame already heightened domestic nationalist sentiment calling for Chinese leaders to take forceful action against Taiwan. Rather than hyping it, U.S. officials should only indirectly reveal the new organization’s existence and respond to queries for information with stock responses about how the U.S.-Taiwanese defense relationship “remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China and is in line with our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and our One China policy.” This would give Chinese officials the space needed to temper the domestic narrative and calm full-tilt nationalists — defusing pressure for military conflict.
Nevertheless, Beijing would retaliate. China’s responses could range from military aircraft incursions in close proximity to — or overflying — Taiwan, to missile launches that impact near Taiwan, similar to those that bracketed the north and south of the island during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. In a more extreme scenario, China could seize Taiwanese-held Pratas or Itu Aba island in the South China Sea, but this is far less likely and may be counterproductive for Beijing, since it could prematurely trigger large-scale war before China is ready, drive the United States and Taiwan closer together, and rally international support for Taiwan. Beijing’s near-term ire is the price of mid- to long-term deterrence — and it is well worth the cost.
The Benefits: Understand, Shape, and Complement Taiwan Defenses
Besides facilitating U.S. military support, this advisory group would help to deepen and maintain America’s understanding of Taiwan’s military, shape its concepts, and inform complementary U.S. war plans to defend Taiwan. U.S. support to Taiwan should be informed by an in-depth understanding of Taiwan’s military, including its strengths and weaknesses, bureaucracy, culture, interservice rivalries, and key personalities. Taiwan’s capability and concept development is influenced by parochial service interests and complex internal rivalries that are difficult to discern and disentangle. Additionally, Taiwanese officials often pursue high-end, prestige U.S. capabilities because they reassure the Taiwanese people about U.S. support for the island — not because they provide credible wartime capability. Some Taiwanese military officers prioritize maintaining “face” over adapting for survival, while others have a genuine sense of urgency. The new organization’s unparalleled understanding of the inner workings of Taiwan’s military would enable more effective and targeted engagements and prioritized support to reform-minded military counterparts.
This increased understanding of Taiwan’s military could translate to influence over Taiwan’s defense approach. Based on clear guidance from the political leadership, the Taiwanese military is in the throes of transitioning to a more credible defense concept, but reformers are struggling to overcome bureaucratic inertia and entrenched countervailing interests. The advisory group we call for here could help to tip the balance in favor of the reformers by giving them “face” via regular high-level military engagements and by publicly championing promising initiatives. It could also funnel the resources, advice, and training that would build momentum for these initiatives.
Leveraging its understanding and influence, this organization could inform complementary U.S.-Taiwanese war-planning. Although not its intended purpose, it could also form the nucleus of a U.S. wartime command that activates to help to execute the plan, if required. The Taiwan Relations Act does not obligate the United States to defend Taiwan, but it says that any non-peaceful Chinese attempt to achieve unification will be “considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also requires the United States to maintain the military capacity to defend the island. Whether the plans are executed or not, U.S. and Taiwanese war-planning should be complementary.
The United States can keep its policy of strategic ambiguity while establishing this organization. The U.S. president and top officials have repeatedly signaled American intent to defend Taiwan — achieving the deterrence benefits of strategic clarity, while shrewdly retaining the strategic autonomy inherent in the policy of ambiguity. Japanese and Australian leaders have followed suit. This organization’s existence would signal U.S. intent to help defend Taiwan, but it would not commit the United States to doing so.
Bolstering Taiwan’s Resolve and Cross-Strait Deterrence
Reestablishing this organization would symbolize tangible U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan. The original military assistance advisory groups were primarily intended to provide critical political and psychological reassurance to friendly nations resisting communist expansion. For Taiwanese officials, the symbolic value of U.S. military support is as important as its practical utility.
This organization would bolster the Taiwanese perception of U.S. commitment to the island, which is correlated to the population’s will to fight. A study discussed in these pages showed that Taiwanese citizens become more willing to defend Taiwan as U.S. military support becomes more certain. This organization would help to solidify the population’s will to fight without requiring the more extreme step of establishing formal alliance institutions or even necessarily abandoning the policy of strategic ambiguity. Its existence would also relieve the pressure felt by Taiwanese officials to pursue expensive, symbolic U.S. capabilities that are of questionable value in conflict. This organization would enable Taiwan to translate popular resolve into concrete defensive preparations. Steel resolve, resistance, and resiliency against Chinese aggression are the key to saving Taiwan, but are not sufficient on their own. Unless Taiwan translates resolve into credible defenses, deterrence will fail.
Taiwan Is Not Alone
The new U.S. organization would also show Taiwan that it is not alone. China understands the importance of Taiwanese resolve and is engaged in a comprehensive pressure campaign that aims to steadily increase Taiwan’s sense of psychological isolation, demoralize the citizenry, and erode the island’s will to resist unification. If unable to win without fighting, China will attempt to shatter Taiwan’s psychological resolve and cohesion at the outset of conflict, via devastating missile barrages and non-kinetic attacks.
This organization would help Taiwan to psychologically and militarily prepare to absorb these blows and continue fighting. When the organization is revealed, the United States and Taiwan could announce the sale of large quantities of explosives, small arms, and shoulder-launched weapons to signal that Taiwan is preparing — with a new organization’s help — to mount a protracted whole-of-society resistance. Taiwan’s political leadership and much of the military and civilian population is earnestly preparing for war with China. The United States needs a dedicated organization to stand side-by-side with Taiwan, bolster the island’s resolve, and rebuild credible deterrence, so that rather than “winning without fighting,” China will face a long, costly fight without winning.
Maj. Jake Yeager is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, assigned to 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He was previously detailed to the intelligence community where he focused on China and Taiwan. He has experience in Taiwan.
William Gerichten works for the U.S. Defense Attaché Service as a civilian attaché and serves in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves as an intelligence officer, a foreign area officer specialized in China and Taiwan, and a Marine attaché. He served in the Defense Attaché Office in U.S. Embassy Beijing and has experience in Taiwan.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and not those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Defense Attaché Service, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, or any part of the U.S. government. The adjective “Taiwanese” is used by the editors for grammatical correctness, but this does not imply the authors are ascribing nationhood to Taiwan.