Why Taiwan Is Still Safe

Why Taiwan Is Still Safe
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

The concerns that a Biden presidency portends the end of Taiwan are misplaced.

Some Taiwanese are proclaiming the end of Taiwan with Joe Biden elected as the 46th president of the United States. Not only is this perception largely guided by sensationalist media, but it is also undermining the strong U.S.-Taiwan friendship built on years of cooperation and dialogue.

Characterizing the Biden presidency as a threat to Taiwan’s security imperils the U.S.-Taiwan bond built on shared values of democracy. How can the U.S. continue to support Taiwan if Taiwan became skeptical of this friendship?

U.S. support for Taiwan will not cease under a Biden administration

While Republicans often take the initiative in proposing Taiwan-friendly policies, U.S. support for Taiwan is undeniably bipartisan. Democrats have historically been less reluctant to provide Taiwan with defense and military-related assistance, but their support for Taiwan has not been absent. Recent bills such as the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act were passed into legislation with bipartisan co-sponsorship.

As many scholars have pointed out, it is unlikely that U.S. strategy toward China will revert back to what it was during the Obama administration. Although Democrats and Republicans differ in their methods, there is bipartisan recognition of China as a growing threat to American interests domestically and worldwide. This is a warning that any future U.S. president will take into account regardless of his or her party affiliation. While Biden will likely approach the China question in a different manner, tensions between Washington and Beijing suggest that a complete “China reset” is improbable.

Strong U.S.-Taiwan relations and U.S.-China cooperation are not mutually exclusive. Although U.S. support for Taiwan has grown amid U.S.-China strategic competition, Taiwan is not simply an alternative to China. The country has many attractions of its own, including secure 5G data networks, biotechnology and the development of cybersecurity. The U.S. has taken increasing interest in these industries, and this trajectory is unlikely to change under a Biden presidency.

RTRLE5E
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Joe Biden as chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting with then-President Chen Shui-bian at the Presidential Office in Taipei, August 6, 2001.

Evolving defense strategy

Uninformed Taiwanese politicians often compare Chinese and Taiwanese military capabilities in absolute terms. Based on this crude comparison, they conclude that Taiwan has no hope of withstanding a Chinese attack. This ignores that the two militaries are directed toward different objectives. China’s priority is to bring Taiwan completely under its control while Taiwan merely seeks to thwart a Chinese invasion. Although the Taiwanese military certainly pales against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in sheer numbers, it does not need to match the PLA in terms of size and capabilities to achieve its goals.

It is far more costly and difficult for the PLA to conduct its annexation operation than it is for Taiwan to defend against it. Under the Tsai Ing-wen administration, Taiwan has gone through multiple policy reforms and purchased modern weapons defense systems. These strategic decisions, dubbed as Taiwan’s “porcupine strategy,” attempt to make a Chinese annexation of Taiwan so costly that the PLA becomes hesitant to invade.

In September, when the PLA repeatedly encroached on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), the Ministry of Defense gave frontline units full discretion in responding to clear signs of hostility instead of seeking approval first. Last month, Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa announced a series of reforms that would strengthen Taiwanese reserve forces: call-ups would occur more frequently from five to seven days every two years to 14 days per year, and annual training cohorts would increase from 120,000 men to 260,000 men. The Executive Yuan has also proposed to increase Taiwan’s defense budget by 10% in 2021.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have also become more frequent and normalized. In the past, congressional notifications of arms sales to Taiwan were accumulated and bundled up into packages as they awaited approval. The U.S. has streamlined the approval process by reviewing purchase proposals upon request, allowing Taiwan to acquire arms in a timely manner. This has facilitated the recent sales of Boeing’s Harpoon Block-II Surface-launch Missiles and launcher transporter units, which would enhance Taiwan’s asymmetric capabilities, and four MQ-9 SeaGuardian drones that would improve Taiwanese ISR abilities in the region.

Some worry that a Biden presidency would put an end to the normalized arms sales process, but military analysts have suggested that there is no reason for Biden to place any restrictions. Only last week, the Taiwan Navy signed a NT$3.06 billion (US$107 million) deal with the U.S. for “an uninterrupted supply of ammunition for the next nine years.”

That said, no rational government will stake its survival on foreign military assistance. As Legislator Wang Ting-yu often reiterates, Taiwan will always welcome help from allies, but it will never count on another country to preserve its own security.

王定宇出席民進黨中執會
Photo Credit: 中央社
Legislator Wang Ting-yu at a Democratic Progressive Party meeting, May 22, 2019.

Taiwan is still safe

In his book The Chinese Invasion Threat, Project 2049 Senior Director Ian Easton explained that it would be obvious when a Chinese invasion is imminent. One example would be the gathering of large fleets and maritime militia in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, to prepare their crossing of the Taiwan Strait. Another sign would be China stockpiling resources and commodities such as oil and wheat. Currently, there are no indications that the PLA is ready to attack Taiwan.

Similarly, the rise in foreign investments in Taiwan indicates that there is not only confidence in Taiwanese talent, but also in its security environment. Microsoft announced plans to invest its first cloud datacenter region in Taiwan, with a projected revenue of NT$300 billion (US$10 billion) over the next four years. Google has also confirmed a NT$20 billion (US$681 million) investment in the country’s third datacenter. Facebook, Supermicro, Amazon, and Qualcomm have made similar plans to invest in Taiwan. Given that businesses conduct political risk assessments before investing abroad, one can be sure that Taiwan is still safe enough for multinational businesses to thrive.

Even though there is no reason to panic, Taiwan still needs to remain vigilant. A Biden presidency will not put Taiwan in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, but the costs of a Chinese invasion are certainly rising for both the U.S. and Taiwan. There is still so much that the two countries can do alone and together to safeguard a peaceful Taiwan and a free and open Indo-Pacific.

READ NEXT: What’s Behind Taiwanese Support for Trump?

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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