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One of the highlights of Han Kuang, the annual military exercises Taiwan is conducting this week, is the take-off and landing of fighter jets on a highway. The performance is meant to demonstrate the air force’s ability to continue operating in the event of a Chinese attack even if air bases are destroyed by missiles.
For most military experts in the US — the sole, if unofficial, guarantor of Taiwan’s security — the show is an indication that Taipei is not doing enough and not the right things to strengthen its defences against an ever mightier adversary.
“Any American president would find it very difficult to stand aside in the face of a Chinese armed attack on Taiwan,” Bernard Cole, a professor emeritus at the National War College in Washington, wrote in a commentary last week. “However, a decision to intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf would almost certainly occur only in light of Taipei’s making maximum preparations to defend its own territory — and this currently is not apparent.”
Summing up more than a decade of analysis from US government officials and think-tankers, Cole observes that Taiwan is failing to reorient its military towards an asymmetric strategy, meaning an approach that seeks to exploit the enemy’s disadvantages instead of trying to match its strengths.
In 2008, William Murray, a professor at the US Naval War College, first prescribed a “porcupine” strategy for Taiwan, under which it should enable itself to survive the initial phases of an attack from the People’s Liberation Army until the US could join the fight.
Since then, Washington has implored Taipei countless times to heed that advice: acquire large numbers of mobile and relatively cheap weapons such as portable surface-to-air missiles, harden its critical infrastructure and stockpile resources, and train a territorial defence force that could wage guerrilla warfare against an occupying PLA. The last thing Taipei should be focusing on, according to those suggestions, is its air force, because Beijing would destroy it at the start of a conflict before its fighters could even get off the ground.
As Beijing has stepped up its military threats, US defence experts are growing exasperated over the Taiwan military’s reluctance to decisively act on their instructions. A new defence concept adopted in 2018 that stressed a shift towards asymmetry fell victim to factional struggles and disagreements within the military after its author, former chief of the general staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, retired in 2019. And while Taipei has started acquiring some weapons that fit an asymmetric strategy, it is spending vastly larger amounts of money on buying new F-16 fighters from the US and building an indigenous submarine.
But some insiders argue the disconnect between Washington’s prescriptions and Taipei’s actions cannot all be blamed on Taiwanese complacency.
“We have had the same tired conversation for more than a decade, and it is beside the point,” said Eric Chan, a strategist for the US Air Force. He argued that an exclusive focus on preparing for survival under a potential future Chinese invasion would rob Taiwan of the ability to withstand the encroachments from Beijing that are happening right now.
“The most immediate challenge we face is Chinese grey-zone tactics including information warfare aimed at shattering the public’s morale and frequent air incursions seeking to undermine our control over our own airspace,” said a person close to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. “If we only train how to flee and hide, that will shake morale. If we give up on developing our air force, the PLA will win before the war has even started.”
Moreover, Taipei has doubts about the US idea that making the conquest of Taiwan more difficult for the PLA can deter Beijing. “Holding objects on the mainland at risk has a stronger deterrent effect than building a shield that can last a little longer,” said the person close to the defence ministry.
To truly address the shortcomings in Taiwan’s defences, analysts argue Washington and Taipei need to update their security exchanges.
“The main difficulty is that we are still using a co-operation model designed in the 1990s,” said Chan. “We only have a few set venues, and there is a big hole in between. In the past, discussions have been mostly focused on what Taiwan should procure, but many other things like training were on nobody’s radar.” The time to change that is now, he said.