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Monterey Talks – Biden Administration Needs Strategic Clarity in the Face of Its Enforced Gaps in Taiwan’s Defense
As the Biden Administration directs Taiwan to procure weapons to deal with only a single contingency — a D-Day style attack on the island — the U.S. government must accompany this direction with strategic clarity over the role the U.S. military will play in filling the gaps American policy will now create.
June 21, 2022
US-Taiwan Business Council
While visiting Japan on May 23, when asked if the United States would “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” President Biden answered unequivocally “yes.” In so doing, Mr. Biden clarified for the third time in his presidency that the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the defense of Taiwan was on the move to a clearer statement of American intent.
Mr. Biden is right. His comments decisively strengthen American interests in North Asia. Unfortunately only for a brief moment, as his staff quickly walked back his statement, thereby exchanging a policy win for greater confusion on America’s stance in the region.
President Biden’s inclination to be clear about American policy toward Taiwan is both timely and necessary. His comments come at a time when his State Department and National Security Council are working to upend the security assistance process for Taiwan. They are re-imposing heavy restrictions on arms sales – normalized for the last 5 years – by narrowing what the U.S. is willing to provide in order for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability across all phases of conflict.
The Administration is focusing on a so-called “asymmetric” approach to Taiwan’s defense. Support will now only be provided if it fits the U.S. government definition of the term, and if it conforms to American assessments of what Taiwan can afford. The definition of “asymmetric” is a moving target. Others in the U.S. hold differing views of the definition, and on how this policy should be applied to an overall Taiwan defense strategy. On affordability, it’s worth noting that Taiwan is also one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with currency reserves of over US$545 billion.
This approach is designed to focus solely on a D-Day style attack on Taiwan. All other phases of conflict — including grey zone activities, reported near daily in Taiwan’s air and sea space, and blockades of the island’s air and seaports — have been downgraded in importance. Indeed, Taiwan’s ability to handle challenges under these scenarios as time passes will be significantly degraded by this new U.S. policy. Far from sharpening Taiwan’s spear, this policy will quickly open new vulnerabilities for the PLA to prey upon.
The arms sales process has been plunged into confusion at the very time when we need clarity and purpose. The U.S. has cancelled three arms sales to Taiwan since March, because they don’t meet the new “asymmetric” definition and are seen as too expensive. The policy is paternalistic and directive, stripping Taiwan of its democratic agency. In addition, communication on this to date appears to be one-way only. The practical ramifications of this new approach have yet to hit Taiwan’s defense and national security establishments.
The Administration is committed to pursuing this approach, so the challenge now is how to ensure that it doesn’t accelerate an attack on Taiwan’s new vulnerabilities but contributes to deterrence.
The White House recently proclaimed that the U.S. pursues a policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan. That includes ambiguity on whether and how it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack. If the U.S. does not allow Taiwan to acquire a full range of capabilities to defend and deter China in all phases of battle, it is unclear whether U.S. military forces would fill the capability gaps created by this new policy approach – one that will leave the island in a deeply vulnerable position.
On June 22-24, the U.S. and Taiwan will meet for a combined meeting of the annual Special Channel and Monterey Talks in Washington, D.C., a gathering of the political and military leadership within each government. The Biden Administration is expected to present its new policy to Taiwan and direct it to upend its present plans for an all-phases approach to the island’s defense, and replace it with a narrow “asymmetric” focus on a D-Day style invasion.
The U.S. should follow President Biden’s direction and present the Taiwan delegation with strategic clarity over American intentions. If the U.S. is directing Taiwan to only acquire certain capabilities, then it should accompany that approach with clarity on when and where the U.S. would be willing to step in and fill the gaps its new policy is creating. If we refuse to sell submarine hunting helicopters or command and control aircraft to Taiwan, then the Administration should be crystal clear that the U.S. Navy will fill this requirement for Taiwan’s defense. It would also mean training with the Taiwan military to ensure interoperability, while forging a clear division of responsibility to ensure the best utilization of collective resources.
If the Biden Administration intends to dictate specific arms sales to Taiwan, they should immediately and publicly end the legacy policy of strategic ambiguity, replacing it with clarity on when and where the U.S. would be willing to step in and fill the gaps created by their new strategy. This would permit Taiwan to focus on a narrower defensive posture, as demanded by Mr. Biden’s government, with the clear expectation that the U.S. would fill any resulting gaps if necessary. Otherwise, Taiwan’s vulnerability to Chinese attack will increase and not decrease.
美國應遵循拜登總統的指示，向出席會議的台灣代表團展現美國戰略清晰的意圖。如果美國主導台灣只籌獲部分的裝備，則應清楚說明美國將在何時願意介入、並且如何介入，以填補新政策所致台灣的能力缺口。如果美方拒絕售予台灣反潛直升機，或指揮及控制(command and control)的機型，則拜登政府應清楚說明美國海軍將會滿足台灣這些防衛的需求，包含訓練台灣軍隊以確保互相操作性(interoperability)，以及劃分明確的責任與分工，確保整體資源被充分地運用。