Across multiple wargames conducted last year, the U.S. military repeatedly failed to defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion. The one success they had relied on critical military and intelligence contributions from Taiwan. But this was a fictional simulation assuming an optimal Taiwanese strategy employing technology that does not yet exist. As the United States prepares to deter China from attacking Taiwan and defend it from an attack, are the Taiwanese themselves doing everything they can to defend their territory?
Michael Hunzeker recently argued that Taiwan has shelved its asymmetric defense strategy in favor of high-tech capabilities that will at best fail to defend the island against China and at worst serve to strengthen China’s resolve to retake what it views as a renegade province. Washington is counting on Taiwan to hold out long enough for the United States to muster its forces and intervene before Beijing imposes a fait accompli. Jettisoning asymmetric defense, the thinking goes, means that Taipei is not serious about its own security and instead just wants to free-ride on American troops’ lives. Some analysts have called for the United States to abandon Taiwan unless the latter meets American demands.
But before the United States starts coercing its security partners, perhaps policymakers should ask why Taiwan has chosen a different defense strategy than what the United States wants. A major reason is America itself: Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” does not provide Taipei with a clear security commitment, even as American intervention is essential to any effective defense. Taiwan’s new strategy is therefore designed to maximize the likelihood of U.S. intervention, even as it reduces the longevity of its forces against Chinese attack. Washington can convince Taipei to adopt asymmetric defense by ameliorating its fears of abandonment, switching from ambiguity to clarity.
The U.S. government currently believes that Taiwan’s best chance for survival against Chinese invasion is in a “porcupine strategy” of asymmetric defense. It would bristle with anti-ship missiles, anti-tank munitions, and air-defense weapons enabling a prolonged campaign of survival and attrition. These capabilities would seriously degrade, if not entirely defeat, a Chinese invasion, buying Washington time to intervene before Beijing completes and consolidates its conquest.
Instead, Taipei has taken the opposite approach. Its operational planning and acquisitions focus on a relatively small number of high-tech, high-value capabilities — platforms that will quickly be destroyed in the opening salvo of a China-Taiwan war. As Hunzeker notes, Taiwan took its first, halting steps towards asymmetric defense in 2017 with the Overall Defense Concept. But the 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Defense Review have firmly shelved those plans.
U.S. analysts accuse Taiwan of free-riding and fecklessness. Charles Glaser argues that “There is a strong case for cutting back on these commitments [to Taiwan and the South China Sea].” Doug Bandow contends, “Countries whose people are unwilling to take serious steps to defend themselves have no claim to the lives and wealth of Americans.” Citing reports that many Taiwanese do not want to fight (although that has decisively shifted), Daniel Davis declares that “it would frankly be immoral to force American men and women to die in their place for Taiwan’s defense.” Elbridge Colby even argued [emphasis his]: “Washington *must* use *every* tool at its disposal to induce and yes even coerce Taiwan to do so [defend itself].” If Taipei fails to do this, Washington should “abandon Taiwan if it becomes destructive to our overall position to defend it. We can avoid that by we and they amping up our defenses and focusing them correctly.”
So, why is Taiwan reluctant to adopt asymmetric defense? Hunzeker points to inertia at the Ministry of National Defense, the Kuomintang-leaning military bureaucracy, and the Democratic Progressive Party’s lack of military experts. Tanner Greer likewise points to domestic politics, with both major parties eager to use symbolic incidents to score political points against one another. Richard Bush highlights broader structural tensions between Taiwan’s security needs and its domestic political, economic, and social problems.
These voices all miss the root of the problem: the lack of U.S. political commitment to Taiwan’s security and survival. Until that issue is resolved, Taipei will always concentrate on the question of whether the United States will show up to a fight, rather than how they can best fight together.
Taiwan faces a difficult operational and political tradeoff in adopting asymmetric defense. Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka convincingly argue that Taipei should adopt an elastic denial-in-defense strategy, investing in popular resistance to Chinese invasion. In doing so, however, Taiwan deliberately reduces its ability to confront Chinese gray zone strategies and operations, as well as to defeat China’s air force and navy. Instead, it would acquire numerous small and cheap capabilities to deny territory, attrit Chinese forces, and prolong the conflict.
But Taiwan cannot hold out forever against superior Chinese forces. Asymmetric defense is ultimately predicated on the U.S. military showing up. If Washington instead chooses not to intervene, Taipei would have taken a large gamble on its defense policy for no gain.
So, consider what the United States is asking Taiwan to do: Reduce its ability to contest the strait, accept a higher probability of an amphibious landing, and prepare its citizens for a guerilla-style war of attrition — all for the possibility that the United States might show up. Asymmetric defense reduces Taiwan’s ability to contest certain Chinese provocations, like October’s record number of air defense identification zone incursions. Scrapping its fighter aircraft and submarines forces means that Taipei must accept a higher risk of a successful Chinese amphibious landing. It must also expend significant political capital and effort to convince its population to fight a prolonged war of attrition. And Taipei must do all this without any guarantee that the U.S. military will actually show up. Indeed, Washington has repeatedly clarified that it remains committed to strategic ambiguity, not Taiwan’s defense. As Hunzeker notes, “Asking the Taiwanese people to prepare for a long and bloody war of attrition — one that might become a fool’s errand if the United States ultimately decides to stay on the sidelines — is a tall order.”
U.S. participation is the linchpin of Taiwan’s survival, and so Taipei maximizes the odds of that participation by buying and fielding advanced platforms to engage U.S. prestige and highlight Taiwan’s political and strategic importance. Prestige capabilities — even if or perhaps especially if they are destroyed — bolster public morale and demonstrate the military’s ability and willingness to defend their homes. As a senior Taiwanese official stated, “You can’t create a hero pilot of a [unmanned aerial vehicle].” Even more important, states evaluate their security ties in light of their partner’s commitments to third parties. States search for signals confirming that their partnership is more valued by their partner than that partner’s other relationships. In some cases, they even fight for this status.
Arms sales are just such an indicator. Taiwan places particular importance on them, as they “strengthen military morale and show to the world the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense” in the absence of formal alliance institutions or even “normal” diplomatic channels. As another Taiwanese official noted, “when you sell us the latest fighters, it lets China know America would intervene on our behalf in a conflict.” The United States — the thinking goes — sells its most advanced and expensive weapons to its closest allies. In the same vein, during a commissioning ceremony for Taiwan’s first F-16V squadron — what its maker Lockheed Martin calls “the most technologically advanced 4th generation fighter in the world” — President Tsai Ing-wen declared that “Taiwan-U.S. defense industrial cooperation not only advances Taiwan-U.S. friendship, but also represents a firm commitment to the Taiwan-U.S. partnership.” Asymmetric defense would have Taiwan demote what limited commitment it receives from the United States, getting cheaper, lower-profile weapons in return.
To be clear, arms sales can be a strong indicator of patron support, particularly from the United States. However, in this particular case, it is unclear if they actually increase the chance of American intervention. But Taiwanese political and military leaders believe that they do. Consequently, this problem is not a military nor an economic one. It’s fundamentally political. The U.S. Department of Defense should clarify how its operational posture will complement Taiwan’s adoption of asymmetric defense, as Hunzeker recommends. Congress can pass the Arm Taiwan Act to facilitate further arms purchases. But neither of these address the foundational question driving Taiwanese reluctance to adopt asymmetric defense: Will the United States show up?
My own research suggests that alliances are unique in their ability to demonstrate political commitment. Richard Haass and David Sacks argue that strategic clarity — a clear U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense — would lower the risk of Chinese miscalculation and war. Clarity would also alleviate Taiwanese concerns about asymmetric defense and thereby enable more effective preparation against Chinese coercion. Indeed, a 2019 survey found that Taiwanese willingness to fight increases the more the United States commits to the island’s defense. The survey’s authors conclude, “In this regard, strategic clarity would appear to be better for deterring China so long as there is no prior declaration of independence.” Washington would also gain a greater ability to shape Taiwan’s arms acquisitions, force posture, and operational planning through formal alliance institutions.
Several analysts urge the United States to instead maintain strategic ambiguity. A vague commitment mollifies Beijing and prompts greater effort from Taiwan. But this policy in fact drives Taiwan’s inefficient defense posture in a bid to increase American intervention. If that intervention is essential to Taiwan’s survival, then removing the question of American commitment allows Taipei and Washington to focus not on if they will fight together, but how they can best do so.
Raymond Kuo, Ph.D., is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.