The Taiwan Prescription Is Deterrence Without Provocation

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

April 23, 2001

The Bush administration will inform a visiting Taiwan military delegation this week which weapons systems it is willing to sell to the island. Even before the recent spy plane crisis, this year’s arms sales decisions were shaping up to be particularly difficult given the new administration’s sympathies for Taiwan and the sensitive items on Taipei’s shopping list, most notably destroyers with the Aegis anti-missile system. Now the anti-China mood in Washington could rebound against Beijing.

But Washington should decide what to sell based strictly on hard military realities. The United States is required under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to provide sufficient arms so that Taiwan can defend itself. This means that only truly defensive weapons should be sold.

For example, Taipei’s request for high-speed anti-radiation missiles and precision-guided joint direct attack munitions, such as those that struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, are clearly offensive weapons that Taiwan’s military could use to strike targets on the Chinese mainland.

Decisions should be guided in part by the modern weapons that China has received from Russia in recent years, particularly Kilo class submarines, Sovremenny destroyers, Su-27 and Su-30 fighters and surface-to-air missiles. These have changed the military balance. They give Beijing a greater range of military options. The U.S. decision should be guided by the actual Chinese military threats to Taiwan. The Chinese armed forces are not capable of invading and occupying Taiwan. At present they are capable of moving about 14,000 forces across the strait. Military experts estimate that it would take at least 10 times that number for a successful amphibious assault.

There are three things that the Chinese military can do: impose a naval blockade of Taiwan’s two major ports, launch ballistic missile strikes and mount electronic and information warfare attacks. China could inflict pain on Taiwan where it hurts most, economically. Much of the island’s commercial exports and energy imports pass through the harbors of Keelung and Kaohsiung. To defend against the threat of a blockade, Taiwan needs more modern and better equipped surface warships, like destroyers and frigates; P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft; de-mining vessels; and possibly diesel electric submarines.

The Chinese military poses a distinct threat to Taiwan with its buildup of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Some 300 such missiles are deployed within range of the island, and the number is growing by 50 per year. There are three ways in which China could use these devastating weapons.

The first would be as part of a blockade, as it did in 1996. The second option would be as terror weapons, attacking a few urban targets to frighten the population and deter the Taiwan government from political moves that Beijing did not like. The third would come in the context of a full-scale attack, where missile strikes would aim to destroy key airfields and command and control centers.

No anti-ballistic missile defense system exists that would provide full protection against such attacks, including the Aegis destroyers that are at the top of Taiwan’s wish list this year. But modified Patriot anti-missile batteries might provide some measure of deterrence.

Taiwan also urgently needs to improve its “passive defenses” against missile attacks, particularly by hardening concrete bunkers that house sensitive command and control sites as well as fighter aircraft. The final area where Taiwan’s defenses are vulnerable is in countering electronic and information warfare. China has invested heavily in this technology. It is probably capable of scrambling some of Taiwan’s military communications and “blinding” some reconnaissance equipment. Washington can help Taiwan immunize itself against such stealthy attacks.

While it does make sense to transfer Kidd class destroyers this year to strengthen the surface fleet, it is probably premature to sell the Aegis ships. These can always be held in reserve, and Beijing can be told that the sale will proceed if its missile buildup continues. U.S. decisions should give Taiwan assurance and deterrence without contributing to offensive capabilities or further stimulating an arms race. China appears to have little incentive to use force against Taiwan just now, but it must also be effectively deterred from doing so.