Some China-Taiwan specialists and other foreign policy experts have been caught up lately in a declinist narrative that has China overtaking the United States not only economically but also in terms of military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. They see that power shift as putting democratic Taiwan at a terminal military disadvantage vis-à-vis China.
Some, such as Robert Kaplan, say Washington’s failure to provide Taiwan with new F-16 aircraft or other defense articles necessary to meet the U.S. commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act shows we accept the reality of China’s imminent dominance.
It is far too fatalistic, however, to conclude that Communist China’s incorporation of democratic Taiwan is inevitable, and equally defeatist to believe that the United States cannot realistically prevent such an outcome.
It is true that its 100 mile proximity to China and an array of new Chinese anti-access, area-denial weapons complicate America’s defense of Taiwan. But the United States Navy and Air Force are already in the region in strength and can deploy other high-tech long-range air, space, and other systems on short notice. U.S. military planners have not sat idle as China has developed its anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines.
While a 2009 Rand study predicted Chinese air superiority by 2020, it also doubted China’s ability to launch a successful amphibious operation and noted the formidable U.S. nuclear submarine capabilities that would confront China in a cross-Strait operation.
Moreover, the forces already present in the area can be beefed up with additional air and naval assets during the time Taiwan is mounting its own self defense. That’s where the F-16s come in. The Obama administration’s upgrades to Taiwan’s current fleet of F-16s cannot match the capabilities of China’s Su-27 and Su-30 fighter aircraft, but the faster new F-16 C/D models which Taiwan has urgently requested would fit the bill.
The Obama team fears Beijing would retaliate against a full F-16 package by downgrading bilateral military relations, such as they are, as it has done periodically to express annoyance with U.S. policies. They believe that engagement with China is a better way to protect Taiwan than to provide it with arms in an effort to keep up with China’s military advances.
The administration is hardly the first to make the mistake of excluding from China’s calculus a clear and convincing message of American deterrence. U.S. official statements that, under certain undefined "circumstances” America will not defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, invites Beijing to seek or create those circumstances. It is precisely the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that has encouraged China’s military planners for decades to continue preparing for that contingency.
A similar muddled message of U.S. lack of clear commitment triggered North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the South. As Henry Kissinger recently wrote, once the attack occurred Washington discarded its policy papers and met force with force: “We didn’t expect the invasion, China didn’t expect the response.”
We would be doing the Taiwanese and ourselves a favor if we stated clearly and firmly that we simply will not allow the use of force or coercion against Taiwan to succeed. We can strengthen the hand of China’s moderates by selling Taiwan the new F-16s and affirming America’s commitment to a secure and democratic Taiwan.
Those same moderates would also be enabled to do what the Communist regime has often paid lip service to—start moving China along the path of democratization in a deliberate, rational, step-by-step manner, just as Taiwan’s anti-Communist dictators did in the 1970s and ‘80s.
China is, after all, a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Observing its provisions can provide a roadmap to the kind of political reform China promised the world in return for being awarded the 2008 Olympics.
A democratic, or at least democratizing, China would be a lot more attractive cross-Strait partner for Taiwan than the Leninist regime that now rules the mainland Moreover, a Chinese government committed to political reform would gain a new popular legitimacy with its own people that would not require it to whip up nationalist fervor over issues like Taiwan, Japan, or the South China Sea.