How Taiwan — with US assistance — can deter China's overt aggression
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Crucial to maintaining peace and stability in East Asia is protecting Taiwan’s thriving democracy. After the enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law and subsequent domination of Hong Kong’s democracy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese government undoubtedly has refocused its rapacious gaze upon democratic Taiwan. As the only functioning Chinese language democracy in the world, Taiwan’s democracy and freedoms pose an existential threat to the CCP’s authoritarian rule over the Chinese people.

The United States must stand with democratic Taiwan as it continues to confront China’s efforts to take over the island.

Taiwan’s geopolitical importance to the United States stands without question. Enjoying one of the world’s freest societies, Taiwan’s population of approximately 23 million is roughly the same as Australia’s. Taiwan is a world leader in advanced technology, particularly in the semiconductor industry. CCP control of centers of technological excellence, such as Taiwan Semiconductor, would give China an enormous technological boost, potentially resulting in a strategic disaster for the United States.

Geographically, Taiwan sits astride one of the busiest trade routes in the world. The government that controls Taiwan also thereby controls Japan’s and the Korean Peninsula’s sea lines of communication. Should China succeed in its designs to take over the island, it would not be surprising to see People’s Liberation Army (PLA) submarine bases spring up in order to deploy submarines into the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, a move that likely would complicate U.S. Navy efforts to locate them.

Taiwan must improve its national security posture. It needs to strengthen its internal security and intelligence apparatus, its military forces and cyber defenses, and make its infrastructure more resilient to cyber and kinetic attacks. Taiwan has been strengthening its legal framework to better disrupt incessant Chinese espionage activities directed against the island. However, more must be done to protect sensitive information and deter Taiwan’s citizens from cooperating with Chinese intelligence. Taiwan security services also need to focus on the possibility of the CCP trying to use a fifth column to attack and disrupt the Taiwan government. Investigating and disrupting potential Chinese collaborators is an important task for the security services.

As one of the few countries having insights into the CCP and PLA, Taiwan’s intelligence services require more resources to assist policymakers in understanding the threat they face and in countering Chinese intelligence activity. Better internal security controls in the intelligence services — and within Taiwan society — would give Taiwan’s foreign intelligence partners greater confidence that its services and government are not fatally compromised by the CCP. Greater confidence in Taiwan’s ability to handle sensitive information, in turn, would assist in creating stronger international cooperation to understand and counter CCP aggression.

Militarily, Taiwan is outmatched by the PLA’s growing size and sophistication. Recently reported U.S. military sales to Taiwan are a welcome development, but these focus enormous amounts of limited Taiwan resources on force–on-force systems instead of cheaper options. Rather than concentrate on expensive systems with long procurement and deployment times, Taiwan would be well-advised to take advantage of asymmetric defense options, using its natural urban and mountainous terrain to deter Chinese attack.

Small, mobile and lethal systems such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, naval mines, and unmanned underwater vehicles, in conjunction with Taiwan’s indigenous HF-3 anti-ship missiles, would complicate the PLA’s planning to take the island by force. In any conflict, Taiwan likely would face an environment in which both its power and communication systems are destroyed, impeding its forces’ ability to effectively engage the PLA. Empowering Taiwan’s junior officers to be flexible and adaptable to local circumstances, once hostilities have started, would improve Taiwan’s defenses. An effective military reserve system, in which reserve personnel are regularly called up to train, also would help increase Taiwan’s overall defense preparedness.

Taiwan routinely is the subject of CCP cyber attacks. These attacks span all domains; seemingly no network is too insignificant. In this environment, Taiwan would be well-served to work with other democratic nations to increase its ability to detect, counter and control Chinese cyber attacks. Taiwan’s infrastructure must be resilient in order to resist Chinese pressure and outright aggression.

While Taiwan’s democracy faces an implacable foe, increasing the country’s investment in sound national security policies, in conjunction with appropriate U.S. assistance, should assist Taiwan in deterring an overt CCP attack. Time is not on Taiwan’s side, and China’s growing power has created a significant cross-Strait strategic imbalance. In short, in order to deter communist China, the U.S. must stand with and accelerate assistance to democratic Taiwan.

U.S. policy helped to create today’s Taiwan. If the United States does not stand with a democratic nation under threat from its larger, authoritarian neighbor, then what really does the United States stand for in international relations? Taiwan’s future is a crucial national security issue that deserves increased U.S. policymaker attention and action.


David Sauer is a retired senior CIA officer who served as chief of station and deputy chief of station in multiple overseas command positions in East Asia and South Asia.