Deterrence Gone Wrong: Taiwan Edition

Taiwan is planning significant growth in defense funds as China continues to fly aircraft into the island’s air defense identification zone, operate military vessels in nearby waters, and prepare for a cross-strait invasion scenario. On October 4th, Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang announced a budget of about $19.4 billion for fiscal year 2023, roughly 13% greater than this year’s budget, Taiwan News reports. The budget includes a special fund for the purchase of high-profile, conventional hardware—such as new fighter jets and long-range missile systems—that Taipei hopes will deter a Chinese invasion. However, Taiwan’s record-breaking increases in defense spending may do little to repel a possible attack from the mainland. While China readies its military to invade Taiwan, experts worry that Taiwan’s defense plans are “going off the rails.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters that “pressure or threats” from China would not weaken the self-governed island’s resolve to defend its territorial sovereignty. According to legislation proposed by the Executive Yuan—Taiwan’s cabinet—greater funds will be allocated towards the enhancement of air and naval combat capabilities, Janes reports. Yet many U.S. observers and top officials in the Biden administration, Taipei’s strongest and staunchest ally, are growing impatient with Taiwan’s perceived failure to adapt to the changing balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. The government’s current defence plans, which involve major investments in and procurements of big-ticket weapons, largely ignore advice from U.S. counterparts to adopt a “porcupine strategy”—also known as asymmetrical warfare—that foregoes flashy conventional platforms in favor of large quantities of small, mobile, and resilient anti-air and anti-ship systems.

One such critic is Michael Hunzeker, a former Marine who now works as assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Instead of “pitting Taiwanese units in direct combat against the vastly superior People’s Liberation Army,” Hunzeker said in a recent War on the Rocks article, Taiwan should focus on exploiting enemy vulnerabilities and raising the prospect of a protracted fight on the ground. Echoing calls from other analysts, such Admiral James Ellis Jr. and Dr. James Timbie, both visiting fellows at the Hoover Institution, Hunzeker argues that conventional platforms are expensive to maintain and would stand little chance of surviving the initial strikes of any cross-strait invasion. In this way, overreliance on conventional assets undermines the credibility of Taiwan’s deterrent for foreign military aggression, making a forceful attempt at unification more likely.

It is deeply troubling that Taiwan’s top civilian and military leaders have neglected the development of asymmetric capabilities in favor of offensive weapons, such as long precision advanced rocket systems that can reach far into mainland territory and Lockheed Martin F-16V fighter aircraft on order from the United States. The Tsai government’s failure to embrace a “porcupine” defense puts the island at serious risk, not only for the reasons outlined by the U.S. national security community, but also because it provokes China to take aggressive action against Taiwan. Long-range missiles, for instance, are intended to deter a Chinese attack by threatening to strike targets within China’s homeland. But the deployment of Taiwan’s long-range arsenal is more likely to galvanize mainland support for Beijing and isolate Taiwan on the international stage. By creating the perception that Taipei is targeting innocent civilians, Beijing could use Taiwanese missile strikes to direct public outrage at Taipei and justify more extreme military action against the island’s “independence forces.”

In mid-October, the U.S. Senate advanced new legislation ostensibly designed to bolster Taiwan’s asymmetric capabilities, Politico reports. The Senate’s annual defense authorization bill will provide Taiwan with $10 billion in Foreign Military Financing, an increase of $4.5 billion from defense provisions originally proposed by the Foreign Relations Committee last month. However, it is unclear whether weapons released to Taiwan through the foreign military sales program will enhance its ability to wage asymmetric warfare or support the continuation of a policy that experts widely agree will exacerbate the mounting disadvantages Taiwan would face in defending against a Chinese invasion. According to Defense News, the current backlog of U.S. weapons designated for Taiwan includes missile systems, fighter jets, and other high-profile assets that would ultimately hinder China’s ability to mount a credible defense.

Overall, the present orientation of Taiwan’s defense policy puts the island on a trajectory of direct confrontation and potential conflict with mainland China. Rising top-line expenditures coupled with a focus on attention-grabbing legacy platforms may be politically expedient for the Tsai administration, but such measures compromise the protection of people’s lives and properties in Taiwan and across the Indo-Pacific region more broadly. If deterring a cross-strait invasion is the primary objective of Taiwan’s defense strategy, then Taiwan should invest a larger share of its national security budget into non-violent methods of peace maintenance and adopt a low-profile, purely defensive military posture that protects the island from military takeover, as much as possible.