Taiwan, US struggle over differences on weapons to counter China

Officials are ‘misleading Washington. We’re definitely not ready,’ retired Taiwanese general warns

CM-11 tanks fire artillery during live-fire drills in Taiwan on Sept. 7 amid intensifying invasion threats from China. (Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
CM-11 tanks fire artillery during live-fire drills in Taiwan on Sept. 7 amid intensifying invasion threats from China. (Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Posted September 13, 2022 at 5:58pm

TAIPEI — Weapons transfers to Taiwan from the United States likely will begin picking up in the coming months and years amid deepening concerns about China’s mounting threats to attack the self-governing island.

But U.S. and Taiwanese government officials still have multiple policy disagreements over what Taiwan’s defense strategy should be. That lack of alignment between Taipei and Washington is contributing to already long delays in Taiwan acquiring arms from the United States, which remains the only country in the world willing to risk China’s wrath by providing weapons to Taipei.

At the same time, some Taiwanese security experts feel Washington has for years been overly cautious and patronizing in trying to tell Taipei what its strategy should be toward China — especially while also still not definitively committing the United States to Taiwan’s defense, should China launch an invasion.

On the other hand, some members of Taiwan’s defense community, including top retired military officers, believe the Taiwanese Defense Ministry and its armed forces are dangerously hidebound and unwilling to implement key lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Former Taiwanese Air Force Lt. Gen. Chang Yan-ting told CQ Roll Call he sees little chance of Taiwan being able to fend off a Chinese invasion as capably as the Ukrainians have done against Russia, even if the United States were prepared to spend the next several years focused on bolstering Taiwan’s defenses.

“We’re not prepared enough. We’re good at boasting how prepared we are, but we’re actually not. For the Ukrainians, we can’t compare to their patriotism and their willingness to protect their country,” said Chang, who was the deputy commander of the Air Force before he retired two years ago. “The government’s misleading Washington,” he said, referring to the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. “We’re definitely not ready, especially in terms of military morale.”

These differences of views both inside Taipei and inside Washington, as well as between the two governments, are set to get a fuller hearing as lawmakers debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday potentially landmark bipartisan legislation that would direct the executive branch to enhance its diplomatic relations and defense cooperation with Taiwan.

Tsai has worked to capitalize on the growing Western attention that Russia’s war against Ukraine has shed on Taiwan’s own strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis China. With U.S. lawmaker visits to Taiwan this year already at a decade-high point, according to figures tabulated by Bloomberg, Taipei has been pressing its case for more defense assistance.

The argument from Taiwanese officials essentially boils down to this: Just as the Ukrainians were able to use the roughly eight years of U.S. weapon donations and military trainings to fend off the Russian military onslaught, so, too, can the Taiwanese armed forces defend themselves against a much larger Chinese invading force. But only if they are given the tools they need and in an expedited fashion.

The Senate legislation from Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is largely supportive of that argument. The bill would for the first time authorize the donation of U.S. weapons, $4.5 billion worth, to Taiwan. It would also modify the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to clarify that Taiwan is allowed to acquire “arms conducive to deterring acts of aggression” rather than just the more generalized weapons “of a defensive character” already permitted. Equally notable, the bill would direct the Pentagon to establish a “comprehensive” training program for Taiwan’s military with a focus on “interoperability” with U.S. forces, including through full-scale military exercises.

While any version of the legislation that has a chance of clearing Congress would likely be watered down somewhat from its current form in negotiations with the White House, which is generally less hawkish than Congress on many China-related issues, the bill has been received well in Taipei.

The introduction of the Taiwan policy bill “underscores the high-level of bipartisan consensus and staunch support that Taiwan enjoys in the U.S. Congress,” the Taiwanese Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

“That legislation has been vetted with President Tsai’s administration, and they support it. Some of the provisions are actually things that they suggested,” Menendez, who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “We have negotiated both with the [Biden] administration and others who have some concerns about elements of it, and we think we’ll land in a good place tomorrow.”

Asymmetric vs. conventional

Despite the success Ukrainian forces have had in using asymmetric arms such as drones, light anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles to inflict heavy casualties and retake large swaths of territory from the much larger, conventionally equipped Russian military, many Taiwanese defense analysts say it would be unwise for Taipei to shift its own security strategy too much in that direction.  

“We still need the big-ticket items like the fighter jets just to defend our gray zones,” said Shu Hsiao-huang, an associate research fellow with the Taiwanese government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research think tank, arguing the hundreds of incursions by Chinese jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone this year constitute psychological warfare against the Taiwanese military and society. “If we don’t try to deter the [Chinese People’s Liberation Army], they will gradually come closer and closer and then their drills will become normalized.”

Shu argues the Taiwanese military needs to focus on deterring an invasion rather than responding to one, including through deploying longer-range weapons that can strike a PLA invasion force as it masses on China’s eastern shores or is just beginning to cross the Taiwan Strait, adding: “If we have this ability, we will make the PLA recalculate their [invasion] strategy” because the PLA would know some of its amphibious landing ships would be lost.

However, retired Navy Adm. Lee His-min, a former chief of general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces, said Taipei can no longer afford the prioritization of deterrence capabilities and needs instead to proceed at an all-out sprint to get ready to respond to a likely Chinese invasion, which could come in just a few years.

“Conventional platforms are good for countering gray zone activities, but it doesn’t help for an invasion. Gray zone activity is not an existential threat; invasion is. So what is more important, more critical for you,” said Lee, who earlier this month published a book that details what types of weapons he believes are best suited to Taiwanese asymmetric warfare. “I don’t mean that conventional platforms are useless; we still need them, but we don’t have so much [money]. So if we can save our money to invest on the asymmetric capability, then we can defend ourselves and we can survive. That is the point.”

In 2019, the Trump administration approved an $8 billion sale of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan, which the island democracy wants to use to intercept Chinese military aircraft that violate its airspace.

However, U.S. defense contractors are dealing with a significant work backlog, which they say the war in Ukraine has exacerbated.

Michael Tsai, a former Taiwanese vice defense minister, said the Tsai government is privately worried the Biden administration could look for ways to cancel the F-16 order, which isn’t scheduled to be fulfilled until 2026, and to redirect the resources from it to the acquisition of more asymmetrical weapons.

“The main problem is the disagreement and communication gap between the Taiwanese government and the U.S. government because a lot of the weapon items Taiwan wants, it can’t get approval to receive them because the United States doesn’t think Taiwan needs them,” said Tsai, who is not related to President Tsai.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration formally notified Congress it planned to sell Taiwan $1.1 billion worth of mostly asymmetrically focused war reserve munitions and logistical support, including $665 million worth of maintenance support for Taiwan’s surveillance radar program and $355 million in Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Murky strategy

Rather than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s escalating military incursions causing the two sides in the asymmetric vs. conventional deterrence debate to come closer together, views in Washington on the importance of asymmetrical weapons have hardened, while the Taiwanese defense community appears more deeply torn than ever, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst based in Taipei with the International Crisis Group.

While Taiwan clearly faces immediate gray-zone threats that are eroding the physical cross-strait status quo in China’s favor and likely contributing, according to Taiwanese experts, to a PLA assessment that Taiwan lacks the resolve to militarily defend itself, it’s also true that big-ticket conventional weapons platforms are “going to be destroyed in the first moments of a war, period,” said Hsiao.

More important than whether Taiwan settles on an asymmetric or a conventional weapons strategy is that there be a strong political consensus both in Taiwan and in the United States on it, she said. “If you don’t have buy-in from everybody, there will maybe be efforts to go other ways that will undermine [the strategy]. If there is no clear strategy, you’re not going to get the outcome you want.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has tried to apply lessons learned from U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to the Taiwan policy bill, according to Lara Crouch, a committee staffer for Republicans focusing on Indo-Pacific issues.

Speaking at an August panel discussion on Taiwan’s defense needs organized by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, Crouch said the debate over what constitutes an asymmetric weapon has muddied the conversation between Taipei and Washington. For that reason, her boss, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has pushed to scrub the Taiwan legislation of references to “asymmetric defense.”

“Asymmetric, I think, is actually bringing some confusion to the conversation,” Crouch said. “We basically removed asymmetric capability references throughout the bill because of that. What we’re really trying to do here is advance an [access] denial strategy.”

CQ Roll Call’s Suzanne Monyak and Annabelle Chih, a local journalist, contributed to this report.

Reporting for this article, the second in a series, was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.