Analyzing “Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan”

Wakana Mukai,Research Fellow, Ocean Policy Research Foundation


This paper is an annotation of Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao’s paper “Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan” which appeared on The Diplomat in April 2012 and takes a general view of Taiwan being an important strategic actor which cannot be ignored when it comes to the stabilization of East Asia’s security environment. In “1. Summary of the Original Paper,” a brief introduction with quotations from the original paper is made, while in “2. Brief Comments,” the author’s personal view and comments toward the issue is stated.

1. Summary of the Original Paper

(1) Taiwan’s Strategic Importance

The U.S. Department of Defense has continuously been emphasizing the importance of the Joint Air-Sea Battle Concept as a strong means to counter anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) strategies. Stokes and Hsiao first quotes U.S. Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA4)’s view in which the Congressman advocates the importance of the United States cooperating with its allies to project power effectively in the presence of A2/AD.

Such arguments are heard because the United States tackles many security issues in the Asia-Pacific area; among them, the most problematic concern would no doubt be the expansion of China’s military presence and assertive actions. As the ability of People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s A2/AD grows, it would become more difficult for the United States to project its forces into the region.

The Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) launched by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs not only shows how the joint forces achieve operational access in the presence of A2/AD, but also proves that, along with the Joint Air-Sea Battle Concept, it can reinforce deterrence, “demonstrate to U.S. allies and partners that Washington is committed,” and counter PLA’s military coercion.

On the other hand, the United States must seek ways to “diversify defense relations with traditional allies in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.” However, although Taiwan and the United States share common security interests in the region, “little consideration appears to have been given to the significant role that Taiwan can play in the evolving U.S. defense strategy.”

Thus, according to Stoke and Hsiao, “Taiwan should be the central guiding focus of defense planning in the Asia-Pacific region” and “the greatest emphasis should be placed on contingency planning” in order to counter PLA’s “amphibious invasion” to Taiwan. That said, however, many view and suggest U.S. defense planning should shift towards South China Sea matters and the defense of the global commons. Stokes and Hsiao warn that issues regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan are two separate matters, and respective measures must be conducted.

There is no doubt that the “Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with Taiwan” and hence “China’s main strategic direction remains unchanged:” sharply directed towards Taiwan. Issues regarding the South China Sea “can be modulated” at China’s will; however, a democratic Taiwan remains a strong threat to the Chinese Communist Party, which leads China to maintain its tough military presence towards Taiwan. As Stokes and Hsiao note, one would hope that President Obama would take Taiwan as a top priority when it comes to U.S. strategies in the Asia-Pacific region.

(2) “Taiwan as JOAC Partner”

So in what areas can Taiwan actually contribute? Stokes and Hsiao first raise Taiwan’s ability to interdict single points of failure in the PLA’s A2/AD system. This knowledge can be helpful as it may reduce the United States’ “heavy operational burden” and “risks of escalation.” This becomes possible because “Taiwan is uniquely positioned to contribute to regional situational awareness of the air, space, and cyber domains.” For example, peacetime air surveillance data collected by Taiwan can be used in combination with other sources of information “to better understand PLA Air Force tactics and doctrine.” Taiwan’s ability to accumulate long range UHF early warning radar data as well as to grasp unique undersea geography and hydrological environment in the West Pacific Ocean can also contribute to being prepared against unpredicted Chinese actions.

But an even more urgent subject is “to build in firewalls to ensure potential adversaries are unable to penetrate U.S. networks through those of its allies and partners,” say Stokes and Hsiao. They suggest that releasing space-based systems including broadband communications and remote sensing satellites to Taiwan would promote broader regional situational awareness architecture which may contribute both in the military and civilian sphere.

Of course, cooperation in the field of defense industry cannot be forgotten. The U.S. Department of Defense can seek R&D cooperation with institutions that possess highly sophisticated industrial and military technologies such as the Industrial Technology Research Institute and Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology.

It is not that the United States has done nothing towards Taiwan: the Bush administration assisted Taiwan in acquiring diesel electric submarines which are crucial “for island defense and could play a critical role in interdicting amphibious ships transiting from mainland China in waters northwest and southwest of Taiwan, counter-blockade operations, and surveillance. Submarines act as a strong deterrent means against China.

Alongside with the above cooperation, the U.S. Department of Defense and its Taiwanese counterpart “should consider the formation of an innovative capabilities working group.” This working group could deal with issues such as cruise missile defense, anti-submarine warfare and also Taiwan’s role in the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia.

Stokes and Hsiao emphasize that there is “no free and open society” that “understands China as well as Taiwan.” Nonetheless, neither are there hardly any U.S. military officers who conduct training in Taiwan nor any known students who attend Taiwan’s intermediate/senior service schools. More interactions between military institutions which enhance personal exchanges are thus required.

(3) “Political Paradox in the Taiwan Strait”

Since economic interdependence between Taiwan and China is growing, the likelihood of conflict is diminishing. On the other side of the coin, however, Taiwan’s democratic system of government remains an existential challenge to the Chinese Communist Party, leading China to further military buildups and coercion. Stokes and Hsiao call this the “political paradox in the Taiwan Strait.” They underline that as long as China retains its attitude to use force to resolve political differences in the Taiwan Strait, the United States “should deepen and broaden defense relations with Taiwan.” In doing this, “acknowledging Taiwan’s pivotal role in the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific region would be a proper starting point.”

By implementing cost effective solutions to meet China’s military challenge, Taiwan may be looked on as “a transformational test bed for others to emulate.”

Integrating Taiwan and the United States’ efforts in defense-related R&D and low cost, high quality electronic components may be worth considering. Since the United States supplies a large amount of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Taiwan, “industrial and technological cooperation has been limited to date.” For the United States, arms sales to Taiwan serves as a supporter for the promotion of Joint Air-Sea Battle Concept since interoperability and cost savings are promoted. Arms sales through FMS clearly implies “a patron-client relation” between the two countries, and thus Stokes and Hsiao argue that “rebalancing U.S.-Taiwan defense relations into a true partnership would likely be more suitable” when it comes to strategies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Since “Taiwan attempts to become more self-reliant in its defense,” it will need to develop cutting-edge technologies and obtain a sound economy in order to draw resources for modernization, manpower and readiness. The same can be said regarding the United States as it promotes Joint Air-Sea Battle Concept. Stokes and Hsiao stress that cooperation between the two countries can equally and mutually benefit both countries.

In conclusion, the authors reiterate that Taiwan is the country that “has the greatest interest in the success of Air-Sea Battle.” Friends and allies of the United States must “play important roles in sustaining a stable military balance” in the region, and among them, Taiwan is the most important potential partner.

2. Brief Comments

When contemplating many of the security issues in East Asia in regards to Japan’s national interest, one cannot ignore the presence of Taiwan. This is because Taiwan’s behavior along with cross-strait relations affects greatly the achieving of peace and stability in East Asia as well as moves toward the integration of this region.

This tendency can be seen not only in the counter China strategy, but also when considering the issue of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For one thing, there is tremendous potential in the Taiwan Strait which can lead China and Taiwan to an intensive arms race; but more importantly, Taiwan is geographically located in a place which the world’s main sea lanes cross, making Taiwan a potential port for proliferators transporting WMD related materials for transshipment. This makes Taiwan a crucial actor when considering international nonproliferation policies.

Keelung port, which is located north of Taiwan, and Kaohsiung port, south of Taiwan, are two mammoth hub ports that rank in the world’s top 100 ports regarding the number of containers that are transported through them. In August 2003, Taiwan’s customs authority took into custody a North Korean cargo ship which had 158 barrels of phosphorus pentasulfide at Kaohsiung port. The cargo ship had departed from Italy heading to Thailand, then stopping at Kaohsiung, heading to its final destination, North Korea. At that time, Thailand had no export control legislation that made it able to handle the cargo ship in question, and hence Taiwan’s export control legislation was applied. This shows a clear case in which the international community can cooperate to detect suspicious activities that may cause further proliferation.

Although Taiwan has shown increasing interest in the issue of WMD nonproliferation and specific measures, international treaties that deal with nonproliferation do not apply to Taiwan: strictly speaking, Taiwan has no obligation to implement these treaties. On the other hand, Taiwan has constantly been seeking strategic ways to be recognized by the world by actively being involved in worldwide polices: Taiwan has been participating in the U.S.-led Container Security Initiative (CSI), for example . Furthermore, Taiwan has adopted respective control lists of the Australia Group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in order to reinforce its export control mechanisms. It has also enthusiastically amended its domestic laws to cope with respective situations.

Taiwan’s interest in nonproliferation policies can be heard constantly from officials and/or knowledgeable academics at various conferences and seminars. For example, at the “Japan-Taiwan Strategic Dialogue for a New Era,” a track II conference hosted by the Ocean Policy Research Foundation, various participants have stated that Taiwan’s cooperation and contribution towards improving the security environment in East Asia in the field of anti-terrorism and international nonproliferation movements such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are truly welcomed and much needed. Active contribution in the field of nontraditional security is needed for Taiwan in order to prove itself as a sensible and responsible actor in the international society.

On the other hand, continued attention must be given to the relation between Taiwan and China. The conclusion of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and operations of direct flights between the two countries are clear signs that the Taiwan-China relation is maturing. If Taiwan continues its appeal to international society, it may create suspicion and invite containment from China, which can lead to deterioration between the two countries. Since Taiwan wishes to avoid additional conflict with China, it is rather rational for Taiwan to be passive in further international cooperation that may make China feel uncomfortable. Therefore, Taiwan must face a complex dilemma and weigh its relation with China against cooperation towards certain policies that the international society is promoting.

From an international society’s point of view, as much as Taiwan craves recognition from the world by actively contributing to certain policies, the international society also is in strong need of Taiwan’s cooperation. As both stakes match, the way in which we will be able to embrace and make Taiwan cope with multiple international issues becomes extremely important not only for Taiwan itself, but also for the rest of the world.

From “Intelligence Analysis (April 2012)”