Planning for the Unthinkable

A newly inaugurated President Tsai Ing-wen should move decisively to strengthen Taiwan’s ability to deter the possibility of a Chinese military attack by improving its standing in the United States
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Peter Enav

I recently suggested in a recent article for Thinking Taiwan that Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) likely victory in next January’s presidential elections will almost certainly provoke a Chinese pushback of considerable heft — something far beyond just poaching Taiwanese diplomatic allies, or fulminating wildly on state-controlled media. I wrote that given the impulsiveness of Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平), Chinese military action cannot be ruled out after the next election (in 2020), always assuming the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins that contest as well.

I based this conclusion on well-founded Chinese fears over the implications of the ever-increasing acceleration of Taiwanese national identity, and the possibility that slowing Chinese growth rates will encourage cross-strait military adventurism to dampen rising discontent at home. This is underscored (among other things) by the fact that Chinese debt is now at about 300 percent of GDP, very close to the 350 percent that Japan had to deal with when things began to unravel for it in the late 1980s. It suggests future annual Chinese growth rates of only 2.5 to three percent, which is far below the minimum needed to guarantee social stability.

To be sure, I may be unnecessarily alarmist here, not least because China obviously understands that attacking Taiwan would provoke dire economic and political consequences, including the possibility of trade boycotts and other punitive measures. Beyond that China would also have to bear in mind that notwithstanding a 25-year program of military modernization, an amphibious invasion of Taiwan is by no means a sure thing. On the contrary, even allowing for the military superiority that most analysts predict will accrue to the Chinese armed forces by the early 2020s, success cannot be assured.

Yet even assuming that China’s threats against Taiwan could be overblown, Taiwan’s new government should still take them seriously, because to do otherwise would constitute a gross abrogation of its fundamental responsibility to do everything in its power to guarantee an open-ended continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence.

Unfortunately, planning for worst-case scenarios is not at all a natural fit on an island where a willful denial of the obvious has long been accepted practice. For all too long now the Taiwanese media has dished out a daily ration of celebrity gossip, political innuendo and sensationalist rumor mongering, instead of dealing with the fundamental truth that Taiwan lies only 160 kilometers offshore from a well-armed super-power which has long threatened to attack it. Making matters worse, the island’s soon-to-be discarded Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) management has consistently downplayed the notion of a Chinese threat to Taiwanese sovereignty, largely amid a helter-skelter attempt to tie the Taiwanese economy ever closer to that of China, and to initiate a dialogue aimed at bringing about political union between the sides. The result has been the institutionalization of a soporific Hello Kitty culture that glorifies the comfortable and frowns on discussing any reality that might be emotionally upsetting.

That having been said, the past 18 months or so have witnessed the crystallization of a newfound political consciousness among many Taiwanese, particularly young people who to a considerable extent have cast aside the Hello Kitty mindset and embraced a reality-based appreciation of Taiwan’s geopolitical status. The Sunflower Movement of March 2014 and the recent student protests against what are widely perceived to be China-friendly changes to curriculum guidelines in Taiwanese high schools have clearly shown that many young Taiwanese are no longer willing to accept fatuous government blandishments about beneficent Chinese intentions toward their country’s future. Helping them along of course has been China’s uncompromising stand against political reform in Hong Kong and the aggressive stance of the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Both have served to fracture the dangerous Taiwanese complacency over China’s Taiwan policy — not enough to destroy the Hello Kitty worldview in its entirety, but for all that, to give it a healthy shake.

If and when Tsai Ing-wen takes office in May 2016, her first priority should be to build on this emerging Taiwanese consciousness and take concrete steps aimed at aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s ability to deal with the possibility of a Chinese attack in the post-2020 period — not only military measures, but political ones as well. Insofar as possible, these measures should not be overtly provocative — lest the Chinese use them for political advantage — but at the same time they should still be sufficiently robust to serve notice on Beijing that any assault upon Taiwan will exact an extremely heavy cost — heavy enough at any rate to deter the Chinese leadership from undertaking the assault in the first place.

The measures should be aimed first and foremost at enlisting elite and popular opinion in the U.S., which remains Taiwan’s most important foreign backer, despite having shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Under the provisions of that year’s Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. remains obligated to supplying Taiwan with defensive weaponry (though a subsequent codicil mandates a gradual reduction in the quality and quantity of such weaponry), but does not explicitly commit Washington to coming to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack; indeed, over the past several decades a succession of American leaders has made the possibility of such assistance deliberately ambiguous, in an apparent effort not only to keep both Beijing and Taipei off balance, but also to provide themselves with a maximum of diplomatic and military wiggle room.

This should now be changed. China may talk a good game about its rising military competence but by almost any objective standard it remains decades behind the U.S. in terms of its ability to project its military forces and deploy them effectively. Accordingly — and always assuming rational decisionmaking on the part of the Chinese leadership — it is very much in Taiwan’s interest to raise the possibility of U.S. intervention in the western Pacific to the highest possible level. Simply stated, the more China believes in the possibility of American intervention on the Taiwanese side in the event of a Chinese attack against the island, the more it would be deterred from contemplating such an attack to begin with, unless of course, it is willing to put up with potentially debilitating losses.

Fortunately for Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan looks set to begin her prospective term in office with American skepticism about Chinese political and economic policies at its highest level since 1972, when president Richard Nixon embarked on his historic visit to Beijing. Major inputs in the souring American mood include China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea (including its artificial development of assorted reefs and islets in disputed waters), and China’s repeated hacking of sensitive American computer systems. The Aug. 11 move by Chinese authorities to devalue the renminbi by 1.9 percent — the most substantial devaluation in years — seems all but certain to add a new element of animus to an already fraught situation, particularly against the background of longstanding American complaints that the value of the Chinese currency needs to be significantly raised in order to level the international economic playing field.

Yet as promising as all of these developments might seem for the Taiwanese cause in the U.S., the China-Taiwan dynamic there is by no means a zero sum game, with disadvantage for one automatically translating into advantage for the other. This reflects a longstanding American fear that U.S. favoritism toward Taiwan — in the form of the sale of new American weapons systems to Taipei for example, or high profile visits by American Cabinet officers to the island — acts as an absolute red flag for Beijing, capable of provoking the most acerbic diplomatic reaction. Thus for example, while the U.S. has spent the past three years touting the strategic benefits of its pivot toward Asia in countries like Australia, Singapore and Vietnam, it has done so without once mentioning Taiwan — a particularly strange omission, given the island’s central position in the first island chain, which bestows upon it a vital strategic importance in preventing the projection of Chinese power eastward toward vital American military installations in Guam and elsewhere in the western Pacific.

What then can Taiwan do to improve its position in the U.S., and so raise the chances that the American military would come to its aid if China attacked it with impunity? The question is a critical one.

To begin with, it could work hard to convince Washington that it is serious about its own defense. Under Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) stewardship, Taiwan’s military spending as a percentage of GDP was on a generally downward trend, and now stands at only two percent — well below the 3-5 percent standard maintained between 1988 and 1999. At the very least Tsai should commit herself to raising the percentage anew to 3 percent — much as Ma mendaciously did in the run-up to his own election in 2008. Such a move would not only suggest to the U.S. that Taiwan is very much on its side within the context of its Pacific pivot (something which was not necessarily the case during Ma’s China-friendly presidency). Beyond that it would also go a long way toward bolstering Tsai’s domestic standing, by winning her important friends in the upper echelons of the Taiwanese military, where DPP sympathies are not particularly widespread. It is true that China might well criticize this increased military spending, though given its own record of 24 consecutive years of rising defense outlays (most recently of more than 10 percent annually) it is doubtful that anyone outside Beijing would take such criticism seriously, not least because of its aggressive Taiwanese posture, which includes the deployment of upwards of 1,500 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets and its well-publicized holding of military exercises keyed to an invasion of Taiwan.

Beyond increasing defense spending, Taiwan could also improve its standing in the U.S. by implementing a comprehensive effort aimed at minimizing (if not completely curtailing) the diffusion of classified military and other security information to Beijing. Under President Ma, this has become a virtual epidemic, with more than a dozen serious cases recorded over the past seven years, including one involving the apparent compromise of a sophisticated American-supplied command and control system. At the same time, dozens of newly retired Taiwanese military officers have been allowed to freely travel to China, raising the specter of even more leaks. The upshot of all of this has been to cause serious misgivings in important parts of the American defense establishment about the trustworthiness of the Taiwanese military and the Taiwanese security establishment in general and to act as a powerful disincentive to military and security cooperation between the sides.

To reverse this trend, Tsai should order a far-reaching review of existing security procedures, including everything from security clearance modalities to the physical safeguarding of classified information, to the rules governing face-to-face and other contacts between retired Taiwanese military officers and their Chinese counterparts. Only when such a review is completed and far-reaching changes in Taiwan security procedures are implemented will Taiwan be able to win back the trust of the U.S., which remains vital to securing its de facto independence over the long term.

Finally, Taiwan should commit itself to a far-reaching lobbying effort in the U.S., aimed at convincing both elite and popular opinion of the justness of its cause (the cause of open-ended de facto independence, that is) and its unquestioned value as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism in the western Pacific. Its model here should be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which whatever one may think of its politics, is very good at its job. Far too often in the past Taiwan has left its American image making machinery in the hands of incompetent public relations companies and poorly funded sectarian advocacy groups, which to be fair to both have been badly hampered by the political peccadilloes of Taiwanese governments, both of the right or the left. This is not the serious approach that Taiwan now needs in Washington. A different approach is required.

Even before her first day in office Tsai Ing-wen should give it one by committing herself to doing whatever it takes to raising Taiwan’s positive profile in the U.S., primarily by touting its democratic values and its important role in promoting American interests in East Asia. Such an effort — which might include well-thought out initiatives like ensuring Tsai a place on widely viewed Sunday television interview programs, and working behind the scenes to promote the selection of pro-Taiwanese officials in the American defense and security communities — would go a long way toward raising Taiwan’s unacceptably low profile in the U.S. and increasing the possibility of American military intervention in the event of a Chinese attack.

To be sure, China is already doing much to help Taiwan’s public relations cause in Washington by opting for such provocative policies both at home and abroad. But Taiwan must get involved in this effort too, or risk being undone by the still robust China lobby in the U.S., which includes many shameless advocates of curtailing security ties with Taiwan entirely. Tsai should see that this happens.


Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

5 Responses to “Planning for the Unthinkable”

August 14, 2015 at 11:14 am, Jim Seymour said:

If the Afghans could get rid of the Soviets, the Taiwanese could get rid of the Chinese. But it wouldn’t be pretty, and US role would be only covert.


August 14, 2015 at 11:53 am, K Ma said:

What you say makes a lot of sense.Demonstrations are all very fine but Taiwan citizens don’t realise how fragile their de facto independence is.


August 15, 2015 at 12:17 pm, kmx said:

“A newly inaugurated President”? Well, we still have 5 months to know weather it will be realized. It’s too early to use this term


August 17, 2015 at 3:18 am, Maverick Liwei said:




August 18, 2015 at 7:47 am, Charles Capastine said:

As far as I know, this article has been translated into Traditional Chinese and caught some attentions in the Taiwanese society. One of my friends from Taipei forwarded this linkage to me, and asked me if I could give her my point of view, since she need some voice from the western countries. At less for her, this analysis is quite correct and useful, although there is some clamor from my Chinese friends as well. I think the Taiwanese youth will take the message seriously, as many of them are now concerning the voluntary military service. When we come to patriotism, no one should ever look down on the Taiwanese people.


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