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Can Taiwan be Saved?

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

In my last short piece on the conflict between China and Taiwan, I introduced how Beijing sees its “estranged twin” and what are their methods when it comes to undermining the country’s will for sovereignty. The aim of the second part is no more and no less than to describe the choices Taiwan and the international order face today in an era with an ever-assertive China. 


The cat shows her claws…

Taiwan is a very small country with a population of less than 24 million people, the 26th most powerful army and it is holding the 22 position by nominal GDP. But to be frank, the country is a loser in the geopolitical lottery. So how can Taipei overcome all the disadvantages caused by Beijing? Shortly, the answer is it can’t, at least not on its own. That is why regional and international alliances play a key role in the country’s foreign and security policy.

The re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen angered China greatly, because of various reasons, but most notably of Taipei’s push for further independence from mainland China by the New Southbound Policy (NSP), as well as further military cooperation with the giants in international relations, most notably the U.S.

The NSP aims to build upon the regional cooperation between states in the disputed South-China Sea and beyond. This includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Most of them have one thing in common, that is they all know the capabilities of China. So far the NSP succeeded most in the economic and cultural field as an effective countermeasure against Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Still, this policy can be a stable starting point to a regional military cooperation which aims to preserve the freedom and sovereignty in the Indian-Ocean. Taiwan has already proven to be a trustworthy and keen ally when it comes to the anti-China measures, and with the strategic ambiguity of the U.S. it must strengthen its ties with the rest of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, specifically Japan, India and Australia. Of course to be in an open alliance with Taiwan also means that those countries recognize it, thus angering the Chinese government even more. As of 2020 only 17 countries recognize Taiwan’s democratic government, and the important ones are not among them.

Since 2016 the government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has been trying to shift the military balance in the Taiwan-Strait, or at the very least counter China in every way possible. Taipei’s National Defense Report in  2019 emphasized the country’s support for the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and greater cooperation with US allies in the region. The report also highlights arms sales agreements with the US, including M1A2T Abrams main battle tanks, BGM-71 TOW and FGM-148 Javeline anti-tank missiles, and FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. It is also important to mention another agreement for 66 F-16C/D Block 70 combat aircrafts by 2022, and that Taiwan began the construction of the first amphibious-assault vessel in May 2019. The latest is that the Trump administration plans to sell three advanced weapons systems after notifying Congress of the deals which infuriated Beijing even more.


The eagle can’t find its nest…

Taiwan is an eager buyer of US weapons, which is no surprise considering that for the country being free means living in constant fear of invasion. In October, when President Tsai Ing-wen offered an olive branch to Beijing, they answered with footage showing large-scale military exercise simulating an invasion.  So is Taiwan’s military- with all its high-tech weapon systems- enough to deter China from its ultimate goal? Definitely not, but Taiwan is very important to the region’s stability- and from an ideological perspective- supporting democracies against authoritarian regimes is very crucial to the region.

The only way to deter Xi Jinping from invading Taiwan, besides a stronger regional cooperation with Japan, India and Australia, is if the West recognizes Taiwan and stands behind it as united as possible. If most European countries recognize the country it would send a clear message to Beijing, a message which is not threatening but rather characteristic to building a more cooperative international landscape. However, because the US is the only western country with serious forces in the region, besides a small island which belongs to France, the real question is how the next president should act in this matter.

The US needs to give up strategic ambiguity, and should adopt a position of strategic clarity. This change is as necessary as ever before, especially now that Donald Trump has questioned the value of NATO , abandoned the Kurds, and is currently reducing the number of U.S. troops in Germany and threatening to do the same in South Korea. Such a clear policy would lower the chances of any steps from Beijing that might prove to be a catalyst for war. Last but not least, the US must stop selling the wrong weapons to Taiwan; the number of state-of-the-art conventional weapons look great on paper, but in the case of a prolonged war- which is inevitable in China’s case- they are very much vulnerable and costly to maintain.



Further steps from Beijing are certain in the near future. Xi Jinping wants to overcome the one hundred years of national humiliation, and by 2049, on the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, if his power is retained, it will certainly be done. Taiwan must (a.) build out its own A2/AD network of radar, sensors, and weapons (surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, etc.), and (b.)  make the Overall Defense Concept a reality, which seeks to re-orient the island’s defenses towards a genuinely asymmetric air- and sea-denial posture, giving proper training and equipment to its 2.5 million reserve forces. Finally, Taipei must start spending on the territorial defense force which means the possibility to wage a protracted insurgency in case of an invasion. It is time for Taiwan to stop being a cat and become a tiger, and for the West to act accordingly to the serious nature of stability in the region.

— Written by Gabor Papp, Political Science major at the University of Szeged  and Associate Editor at FA Bulletin —