The US has to take dramatic steps to reset its relationship with Taiwan in order to provide deterrence not only for Taiwan but for the region. If a conflict breaks out between China and Taiwan it will impact not only Taiwan but also Japan and Korea and other democratic governments in East Asia.
The current way potential US intervention is seen as grossly inadequate in light of China’s military buildup and her increasingly aggressive interventions toward Taiwan and Japan, and militarization of some of the South China Sea islands and reefs.
Speaking at a conference at the Hudson Institute, I put on the table a number of proposals that could greatly improve regional stability through deterrence. The panel of experts at Hudson included Dr Parris Chang, former deputy director of Taiwan’s National Security Council and professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University, Mr Michael Tsai, former Taiwan Defense Minister, and Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute.
The idea that the US could “rescue” Taiwan if trouble brewed, as it did in the missile crisis of 1996 (where I was present with former CIA director James Woolsey) is obsolete in light of China’s military buildup.
Even in 1996 it was a big risk to use the “rescue” scenario when the United States finally (after two weeks of equivocating) deployed two aircraft carriers to the region. Since then China has focused on weapons that can kill an American aircraft carrier, but even if the aircraft carrier still has utility, the time it takes to get them in position and their vulnerability means they alone could fail in their mission.
Practical planning needed
The US has bases in Japan, on the main island and Okinawa, plus important bases on Guam, but Guam is far away – over 2,700 km – and in both cases there is no operational plan or CON-OPS (the concept of operations) that has been worked out with Taiwan or Taiwan’s neighbors.
Urgently needed, as I explained at the Hudson conference, is the need for high-level coordination between the US and Taiwan. This means planning for various scenarios, working out expeditionary operations with Taiwan’s military, putting in place communications and command and control sharing for defense.
In short, the US should work with Taiwan and Taiwan’s neighbors the same way it works with NATO at the operational level. The immediate task is to set up a series of in-depth exchange meetings with the military leaders of the United States and Taiwan – not ceremonial but practical planning.
I also presented the need for virtual training and recently shared that idea exclusively with Asia Times. It is based on the use of modern simulators and electronic networking to test various scenarios against a range of threats that China could use against Taiwan or perhaps against both Taiwan and Japan, where Chinese aircraft and ships are also conducting harassment operations.
Virtual alliance simulator training
In Operation Spartan Alliance, Italy linked 22 simulators in two countries (Italy and Germany) to test out NATO defense scenarios. The entire affair was done electronically – no airplanes or ships or submarines or soldiers were used, everything was by simulation.
There is no reason in the world why the US and Taiwan should not adopt the same approach and do so quickly. In fact, others including Japan, Korea and Singapore, for example, could join in the same process. As it is also carried out over encrypted links in cyberspace, there is very little the Chinese could complain about, and even if they do, they won’t know exactly what took place.
Such a “Virtual Alliance” has many benefits, because it removes uncertainty, which casts a big pall over East Asian security, and it shows how coordination can improve security.
Another significant benefit is that any shortcomings or holes in defenses can be pinpointed and solved well in advance of a crisis.
Beyond putting in place programs leading to Virtual Alliances, the US must also encourage setting up regional alliances that include Taiwan, especially with Japan, which basically is almost in the firing line as much Taiwan.
Among other things we need to work out with Japan are explicit agreements covering the use of our air, naval and Marine bases in Japan for regional defense – as without doing so we face the possibility of a political crisis that is unacceptable in any war scenario.
Allow Taiwan to buy F-35s
Beyond that Japan is improving its military capabilities, albeit slowly – and is acquiring the formidable F-35, which the US is already deploying at its bases in Japan and on Okinawa. Korea is also getting F-35s.
It is strongly in the US interest for Taiwan to also get the F-35 and the administration should not offhandedly reject Taiwan’s request to acquire them.
The F-35 has powerful internet-like plane-to-plane optimization and visualization, vital as a force multiplier against a growing and sophisticated Chinese Air Force. China will outnumber all of East Asia’s air arms including the United States, but the F-35 can act as a powerful deterrent.
Moreover, the US needs one supply chain and resupply capability. America cannot easily support Taiwan’s domestic fighters, its aging F-16’s or its Mirage fighters (that come from France).
The secret to any defense strategy is compatible equipment and common logistics. With F-35s in Taiwan, Japan and Korea the US can preposition vital supplies and common support facilities. No one has talked about prepositioning material on Taiwan, but it makes sense and there is no reason not to do so.
The US is Taiwan’s main arms supply source, and prepositioning spares and munitions can be done in that context and framework without giving China much cause to complain (any more than it does anyway while we don’t officially complain about China’s stepped up harassment operations or its military buildup).
Finally, we need to practice using air bases and other facilities in Taiwan. The recent allegedly unplanned arrival of two F-18’s to Taiwan is an example of what we need to do systematically in future. We should not be making excuses in using Taiwan’s air bases and naval facilities, and the experience both sides will gain from doing so will be very helpful in any future conflict scenario.
The above are some of the suggestions I made at Hudson. The US is truly at a crossroads and needs to properly commit itself to defending democratic countries in East Asia.
The loss of Taiwan would be a body blow not only to the Taiwanese and Japan, but it would push the US out of the East Pacific region entirely. It is clear we can’t let that happen, and American leaders must bite the bullet and move now before it is too late.