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I just returned from Taiwan, having met with President Tsai Ing-wen, her cabinet, and various ministries over a week-long trip to this island nation of 23 million. I was curious to see what changed since my visit the summer prior, just days before the stop by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that jump started this very turbulent period between Taipei and Washington, and Beijing.
My view last year was that Taiwan needed to do much more, and quickly, to improve its defenses, and thus its ability to deter Chinese President Xi Jinping from attacking this thriving democracy, an action he instructed his military to prepare for by 2027. Increasing the defense budget, adopting an asymmetric warfare strategy, acquiring the right arms to effect it, extending conscription, enhancing training, improving reserve mobilization, stockpiling key items, and building resilient communications comprised my list of recommendations.
But in the months since that visit – and a year marked by constant PRC threats across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait, the discovery of Chinese spy balloons above America’s skies and police stations in our cities, more revelations of espionage, and intimidating military moves against our allies in the region, to name a few – solid progress has been made.
Tsai made the bold and right decision to extend conscription from four months to twelve; defense spending is ticking up to 2.5 percent of GDP; stockpiling of critical items is underway; and the military is figuring out how to train for and implement a “porcupine & poison frog” defense strategy, all while challenging near daily PRC incursions across the strait. Importantly, polling indicates that large majorities support these moves.
This last part is the most encouraging. I’ve come to view the growing willingness of all Taiwanese to fight for their country – a whole of society approach – as the key to deterring a Chinese invasion. This evolution was shocked into being by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor and sustained by the courage and success of the Ukrainian people. Let’s also hope that Xi is learning the painful lesson the Ukrainians are teaching Vladimir Putin – that a smaller nation with the will to win can beat back a larger foe, inspiring global support in the process.
That said, there is more to do, beginning with a greater sense of urgency in both Taipei and Washington. While I believe Taiwan’s defense spending needs to be much higher, stockpiling should be expanded, and training reforms accelerated, the U.S. must re-prioritize and hasten arms deliveries to Taiwan. The recent move to leverage Presidential Drawdown Authority was a good one, but Washington should use the Defense Production Act to reallocate weapons production, and the Excess Defense Articles program to convey platforms (like soon-to-be-mothballed Littoral Combat Ships?) to Taipei, for example.
Congress should also give the Pentagon the multiyear production authorities and appropriations requested to build up our defense industrial base and start pumping out the thousands of anti-ship and anti-air missiles, sea mines and mine layers, loitering munitions, and other weapons needed by U.S. forces in the IndoPacific, Taiwan, and others. Xi’s deadline to his military is only a few years away, but he could act sooner if the results of Taiwan’s upcoming election upset him, or if the Chinese economy collapses and he needs an external issue to distract his masses.
Lastly, more should be done to rally the world in defense of another vulnerable democracy. President Biden’s recent summit with the leaders of Japan and South Korea was a solid move to bring allies together against the backdrop of a malevolent Chinese Communist Party determined to overturn international rules and dominate the global order. But more multilateral efforts (especially with our NATO allies) specific to Taiwan – joint transits of the strait, enhanced air and sea patrols in the area, multilateral exercises and training of Taiwan’s military – would push back against the new norms Beijing is trying to establish, while also improving deterrence.
And non-military actions like concluding a free trade agreement with Taiwan and eliminating double taxation measures against businesses would not only strengthen economic ties between our countries but would also green light others to do likewise. Further, this would give Taipei the opportunity to de-risk its trade and investments out of the PRC — something all nations would be wise to pursue.
It’s regrettable that this era of great power competition has devolved into a hot war in Europe and the beginnings of a cold one in Asia. This is not what the democracies of the world wanted, but this is what the autocracies are presenting.
Ukraine is now the front line, and we must help them win, but let’s take the lessons of that conflict and the short amount of time we have to ensure Taiwan doesn’t become the next front in this global struggle. After all, America’s national security and economic prosperity are ultimately on the line as well.