As the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait becomes increasingly tilted in favor of Beijing, Taipei is unlikely to achieve parity in military power with its rival. Therefore, the Republic of China (ROC, the official name for Taiwan) must rely on asymmetrical warfare, strategies usually adopted by the relatively weaker side of an armed conflict to exploit opponents’ vulnerabilities, and relevant American technology transfers toward the Island’s indigenous armament industries, in order to maintain the survival of its liberal democratic institutions.
Historical Background: The Unfinished Civil War
Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) on the Mainland, Taiwan has long represented the CCP’s final obstacle to concluding the civil war. The Nationalist Party (KMT) ruled China from 1927 to 1949, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. However, due to its reliance on the support of China’s business elites, right-wing intellectuals, and landlords, the KMT failed to address the interests of poor peasants, who made up the vast majority of China’s population. The CCP was able to exploit the KMT’s elitism by garnering support from these peasants. For example, it conducted mass executions of rich landlords in order to redistribute land to the peasants. In return, the peasants would fight for the CCP. After losing millions of its troops in the late 1940s, Chiang and the KMT regime relocated to the island of Taiwan, which had been occupied by Imperial Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). During the Cold War, the KMT regime became a staunch American ally, while ruling over Taiwan’s indigenous population with an iron fist.
Since the Nationalist-ruled Taiwan successfully transitioned to a liberal democracy after 1987, it has represented an ethnic Chinese democratic alternative to the authoritarian CCP-ruled People’s Republic of China (PRC). Also, since the CCP’s political legitimacy rests upon restoring justice to the Chinese nation following the perceived Century of Humiliation (1840-1949) – when China was forcefully carved up by foreign imperial powers seeking territorial and trading rights – Taiwan’s separation remains the last obstacle in overcoming perceived historical injustices committed against China. Therefore, from the CCP’s perspective, Taiwan remains the last obstacle to both ending the Chinese Civil War and recovering China’s lost territories.
Taiwan’s separation remains the last obstacle in overcoming perceived historical injustices committed against China
The Trump Administration’s Approach to Taiwan
The Trump Administration has arguably become the most pro-Taiwan Administration since the United States switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1979. For example, following his successful electoral campaign in 2016, Donald Trump broke the post-1979 U.S. diplomatic protocol and received a congratulatory call from ROC President Tsai Ing-wen.
Another demonstration of closer U.S.-Taiwan relations under the Trump Administration is the Taiwan Travel Act, which Trump signed in March 2018. This Act encourages high-level officials from Washington to travel to Taipei, and vice versa. However, with this Act, Beijing has accused Washington of violating its post-1979 commitments: to not restore direct official contacts with Taiwan.
Additionally, amid the ongoing U.S.-China Trade War, the U.S. Government approved the sale of $2.2 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in July 2019. These consisted of 108 M1A2T Abrams main battle tanks and FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. Then in August, the Trump Administration approved the sale of $8 billion worth of arms consisting of 66 F-16V fighter aircrafts, adding to the approximately 150 F-16A/Bs Taiwan purchased in 1992. The newer F-16V is a 4.5 generation fighter plane equipped with much more powerful active electronically-scanned radar (AESA), therefore greatly enhance pilots’ situational awareness compared to older F-16s.
The U.S. is required under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” While nearly all post-1979 U.S. Presidential Administrations have abided by the TRA and sold Taiwan defensive armaments, the sales of large platforms like the F-16Vs and M1A2T Abrams symbolize Taiwan’s growing strategic importance to the Trump Administration, which has designated China as a “strategic competitor.” China has long considered the sales of advanced fighter jets like the F-16s a “redline,” and neither the Bush nor the Obama Administration have sold fighter jets to Taiwan in order to maintain a stable relationship with China.
F-16Vs and M1 Abrams May Not Be What Taiwan Actually Needs
Although the sales of new fighter planes and 65-ton tanks symbolize improving U.S.-Taiwan ties amid China’s increasing military power, Taiwan’s problem is that its terrain does not support large scale movement of heavy tracked armored vehicles. Taiwan consists of jungle-covered mountains, rice paddies, and densely-populated urban centers stretching alongside the Island’s western seaboard. Thus, the only rational use of tanks would be near beaches where the Chinese People’s Liberal Army (PLA) could conduct amphibious invasion. However, since the PLA is unlikely to launch amphibious assaults across the Taiwan Strait unless it first secures air superiority, Taiwan’s M1A2T Abrams would become expensive sitting ducks in times of war.
With regard to the F-16s, the PLA has deployed more than one thousand ballistic and cruise missile launchers, aimed specifically to neutralize Taiwan’s airbases, especially targeting runways. Thus, the ROC Air Force might not even have a chance to utilize the 200 F-16s in service. Even if some were able to take off, they would face more advanced PLA Air Force fighters, such as the Chengdu J-20 5th generation stealth aircraft.
As Beijing continues to incentivize Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies to switch recognition to the PRC, Taiwan is losing international support for its de facto independence. Since Taiwan is competing against the PRC and is increasingly isolated diplomatically, its political leadership is, and has long been, seeking to raise Taiwan’s stature internationally. Showing the public that the ROC military remains a world-class fighting force through possessing expensive weapons platforms like the M1A2 Abrams and the F-16V satisfies both goals.
Taiwan’s Best Deterrence Would Be Asymmetrical Warfare with American Assistance
The ROC military already has dozens of stealth missiles boats capable of launching supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as a multi-layered air defense system composed of surface-to-air missiles of various ranges. However, as ROC President Tsai Ing-wen has recognized, Taiwan needs to further enhance its own asymmetrical warfare capabilities by building submarines domestically. Thus, even if the ROC’s air defense and missile boats were to be neutralized in times of war, the ROC Navy’s submarines – as long as dozens are able to be deployed underwater in the Taiwan Strait just in time for the conflict – would still hold the key to take out the PLA’s amphibious assault forces if the PLA tries to cross the Taiwan Strait.
The problem is Taiwan only has four submarines; only two of which remain combat ready. Additionally, since the United States has long ceased production of conventionally-powered submarines (all of the U.S. Navy’s submarines are nuclear powered), Taiwan could technically obtain support from U.S. allies like Japan and Germany, countries that make the world’s best conventionally-powered submarines, which could stay underwater for weeks. However, neither Japan nor Germany would likely upset their trade relationships with China in order to make short-term profits.
Therefore, the United States remains the only country willing to support Taiwan militarily. On this note, Congress and the White House could consider technology transfer of key submarine components, to support Taiwan’s domestic submarine project. Many of the transactions could be conducted covertly to avoid further downward spirals in U.S.-China relations. Such technology transfers would allow the U.S. to continue honoring its obligations under the TRA. Overt large-scale sales of advanced platforms like the F-16s and M1A2 Abrams to Taiwan could also cause Beijing to lose face and refrain from cooperating with Washington on issues such as ending the Trade War, containing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and tackling climate change.
Similar weapon technology transfer strategies could also be conducted for other asymmetrical hardware and trainings, such as drones, next-generation surface-to-air missiles, cyber warfare, and misinformation campaigns.
Ultimately, unlike in the 1990s and earlier, the ROC military can no longer match the PLA platform-by-platform. If a crisis were to occur, the PLA would most likely neutralize the ROC’s large naval surface platforms, air bases, and air assets at the onset of the conflict. Therefore, rather than relying on the Abrams and F-16s, Taiwan should focus its limited military resources on enhancing its asymmetrical capabilities, such as submarines. In the meantime, the U.S. Government could facilitate the transfer of relevant technologies to help Taiwan enhance such asymmetrical capabilities.
Wei (Josh) Luo is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Studies. He holds a B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has working experience from Mainland China and India, along with studying abroad experience in Russia and Hong Kong.