WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has accelerated efforts to reshape Taiwan’s defense systems as it projects a more robust U.S. military presence in the region to try to deter a potential Chinese military attack, U.S. officials said current and former.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has made American and Taiwanese officials realize that an autocrat can at any time order the invasion of neighboring territory. But it also showed how a small army can withstand a seemingly powerful enemy.
U.S. officials are learning lessons from arming Ukraine to work with Taiwan to build a stronger force that could repel a seaborne invasion by China, which has one of the largest armies in the world.
The goal is to turn Taiwan into what some officials call a “porcupine” — a territory bristling with US-led armaments and other support that seems too painful to attack.
Taiwan has a long history of missiles that can hit China. But the American-made weapons it has recently purchased – mobile rocket platforms, F-16 fighter jets and anti-ship projectiles – are better suited to repel an invading force. Some military analysts say Taiwan may buy sea mines and armed drones later. And as it did in Ukraine, the US government could also provide intelligence to reinforce the lethality of weapons, even if it refrains from sending troops.
US officials have quietly pressed their Taiwanese counterparts to buy weapons suitable for asymmetric warfare, a conflict in which a small army uses mobile systems to carry out deadly strikes on a much larger force, US and Taiwanese officials say.
Washington is increasingly using the presence of its military and those of its allies as a means of deterrence. The Pentagon has begun disclosing more details of US warship sailings through the Taiwan Strait – 30 since the start of 2020. And US officials are praising partner nations like Australia, Britain, Canada and France when their warships pass through the strait.
By stepping up its posture and its language, the United States is trying to draw a fine line between deterrence and provocation. These actions risk pushing Chinese President Xi Jinping to order an attack on Taiwan, some analysts say. A Chinese offensive against Taiwan could take several forms, such as a large-scale sea and air assault on the main island with missile barrages, an invasion of the smaller islands closest to China’s southeast coast, a blockade naval or cyberattack.
“Are we clear on what deters China and what provokes it?” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The answer to that is ‘no’ and that’s dangerous territory.”
“We need to think long and hard about how to strengthen deterrence,” she said.
US officials often discuss potential deterrent actions that end up being dropped because they are deemed too provocative. In the Trump administration, National Security Council officials discussed sending US troops to Taiwan, a former official said. White House and Pentagon officials also offered to send a high-level US military delegation to Taiwan, but that idea was dropped after senior State Department officials objected, another former veteran said. responsible.
Learn more about Biden’s trip to Asia
President Biden’s strong language during a visit to Tokyo this week amounted to provocation, Ms. Glaser and other analysts in Washington said.
The president claimed on Monday that the United States was “committed” to getting involved militarily to defend Taiwan – the third time he has made such remarks during his presidency. And he has explicitly said he will take action beyond what the United States has done in Ukraine. While Beijing might consider the words belligerent, they are consistent with Washington’s new emphasis on forceful deterrence.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden said in Tokyo that the decades-old policy of “strategic ambiguity” – leaving open the question of whether the US military would fight for Taiwan – still stands. “The policy hasn’t changed at all,” he said.
Harry B. Harris Jr., former US ambassador to South Korea and retired admiral who headed US Pacific Command, said the United States must now embrace ‘strategic clarity’ rather than ‘strategic ambiguity’ to serve as a deterrent. China, he said, “does not delay its preparations for whatever it decides to do just because we are ambiguous about our position.”
The United States has urged its allies to talk about Taiwan in a bid to show Beijing that Washington can rally other nations against China if it attacks the self-governing democratic island. On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a press conference with Mr Biden that the two leaders affirmed “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
During the three-month war in Ukraine, Washington formed a coalition of European and Asian partners to impose sanctions on Russia. U.S. officials say they hope the measures will send a message to China and other nations about the costs of carrying out the type of invasion overseen by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. US officials are already discussing the extent to which they could replicate the economic sanctions and military aid deployed to defend Ukraine in the event of a dispute over Taiwan.
“I want PLA officers to wake up every day and believe that they cannot isolate Taiwan in a conflict and must instead face the decision to start a costly and larger conflict where their goals are beyond their control. range,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to U.S. Pacific Command who is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, referring to China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, by its initials.
US intelligence analysts have been studying the evolving relationship between China and Russia and the lessons Beijing could learn from Ukraine.
Chinese leaders face a complicated calculation to assess whether their military can take over Taiwan without incurring crushing cost.
A Pentagon report published last year said China’s military modernization effort continues to widen the capability gap between the country’s forces and those of Taiwan. But the Chinese military has not fought a war since 1979, when it attacked Vietnam in an offensive that ended in a strategic loss for China.
To take Taiwan, the Chinese navy would have to cross more than 100 miles of water and make an amphibious assault, a far more complex operation than anything Mr. Putin has attempted in Ukraine.
And in any case, the capabilities perceived on paper might not translate into performance on the ground.
“As we learned in Ukraine, no one really knows how hard an army will fight until a war actually begins,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. University. “China is probably not ready to risk an invasion with the current force levels and capabilities in terms of attacking Taiwan.”
US officials do not make that assumption. They pressed Taiwan to buy weapons systems they deemed suitable for asymmetric warfare against China. The Biden administration recently told the Taiwanese Defense Ministry not to order MH-60R Seahawk helicopters made by Lockheed Martin, and it also discouraged orders for additional M1A2 Abrams tanks.
Admiral Stavridis said the United States needed to get weapons into the hands of the Taiwanese quickly if an invasion seemed imminent, emphasizing systems that would exhaust Chinese offensive capabilities.
“This would include smart mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, cyber security capability and special forces capable of neutralizing Chinese forward teams and air defense systems,” he said.
US officials see mobility as essential and are encouraging Taiwan to purchase land-based mobile Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles could also be useful in repelling the Chinese Air Force.
The pace of arms purchases from Taiwan has accelerated. Since 2010, the United States has announced more than $23 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, according to last year’s Pentagon report. In 2020 alone, authorizations totaled over $5 billion. Sales included advanced unmanned aerial systems, long-range missiles and artillery, and anti-ship missiles.
Taiwan’s annual defense budget is more than 2% of its gross domestic product. President Tsai Ing-wen increased the annual figure by modest sums.
US and Taiwanese officials say Taiwanese troops need better training, but each government wants the other to take on more responsibility.
“Taiwanese troops hardly have the opportunity to conduct exercises with allies,” said Shu Hsiao-huang, a researcher at Taiwan’s government-funded National Defense and Security Research Institute. “Military cooperation between Taiwan and the United States should be strengthened in aspects of regional exercises and weapons deployment.”
Ms Glaser said Taiwan needed to create a strong reserve force and territorial defense force that could wear down an invading army, as the Ukrainians did.
“The United States has encouraged the Taiwan military for years to talk to countries with a strong defense force,” she said. “Taiwan sent delegations to Israel, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, some Baltic states. Today, the situation is much more serious and much more urgent. There is a lot more pressure.
Jean Ismay and Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington, and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan.