A fully armed US-made F16 fighter jet takes off from the highway near Changhua, central Taiwan. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

Taiwan’s beleaguered military might be excused for thinking that the more China intimidates Taiwan, the more the Americans will generously offer . . . advice.

If only US arms sales were as forthcoming as the torrent of guidance from Washington officials, former officials and think-tankers who shuttle through Taipei these days to prescribe steps the Tsai administration must take to defend Taiwan.

Taiwan’s military leaders are too polite to say what they think, which is: “Thank you for the advice . . . but won’t you train with us?”

Taiwan’s armed forces have experienced 40 years of near-isolation since Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

The Obama administration approved only one arms sale in eight years and its predecessors hadn’t done much better. The defense relationship has suffered also from strict American-imposed limits on military to military interaction – typified by Taiwan and US service members wearing civilian clothes when visiting each other’s countries and, until recently, a ban on visits to Taiwan by active-duty US generals and admirals.

There remains a plus side. Taiwan military personnel do attend US service schools. The militaries frequently consult and discuss. American trainers visit Taiwan. Exercise observation teams travel in both directions. And the Taiwan Air Force F16 pilot training scheme at Luke AFB in Arizona was recently renewed.

But the Americans won’t actually do joint exercises or operations with Taiwan’s military. And that’s the only way Taiwan’s armed forces will improve. One also wonders how Taiwan and US forces can defend Taiwan if they never actually practice together.

Against the odds, and despite the Galapagos effect of long-ago-frozen evolutionary changes, Taiwan’s armed forces are still highly professional. But they could be much better.

The fact is, being ostracized is demoralizing – and contributes to flagging public confidence in the military. It’s not surprising that many people in Taiwan, including some in the government, doubt US reliability. That leads to a high level of fatalism among many Taiwanese.

An even more serious problem is the accompanying encouragement to the People’s Republic of China to calculate that, if it ratchets up the pressure and strengthens its forces, the Americans – even if they are willing – will be unable to intervene when the time comes.

So the flood of talk about solid ties and support from the Americans on the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act is met with some numbness in Taiwan.

If it appears Beijing has a veto on US behavior towards Taiwan, that has in fact been the case for decades. The mainland is aided and abetted in that by the US State Department, US administrations (of both parties) and the business lobby. The Pentagon hasn’t fought hard to change things, either.

Yet, support for Taiwan is one of the very few things on which both US parties agree. And this goes back years. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was enacted in 1979 out of fear that a president might someday sell out Taiwan.

Recent US National Defense authorization acts specifically call for joint exercises with Taiwan. Still, little has happened.

Meanwhile, US forces conduct military exercises in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and Georgia – even at the risk of provoking Vladimir Putin, who has a powerful nuclear-armed military, has already seized Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine and is looking to take back territory that was once part of the Soviet Union.

But when it comes to Taiwan there’s a curious timidity in Washington.

If the US-Taiwan military relationship is to move beyond the pro-forma, the US must go first and draw Taiwan’s military out of isolation – show that it’s backing up a smaller friend facing a powerful bully. Do this, and Taiwan just might believe the Americans are serious.

Here is a suggestion:

Establish a “Central Pacific Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) Force” – using US and Taiwan amphibious forces to plan, train, and exercise and – when disasters occur – respond to them. Base the outfit in Taiwan and attach US officers – say, from the US Navy’s 7th Fleet and the Marine Corps’ 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which are well versed in disaster response.

A particular advantage of using amphibious forces is that they combine the air, sea and ground capabilities needed for effective disaster relief. Coincidentally, these are the same skills used for regular military operations – except for the shooting.

Do some of this joint training and Taiwan military skills will rapidly improve – as will American and Taiwanese military interoperability.

Where to train? Besides Taiwan, Guam is a perfect training location, and there are other places elsewhere in the South Pacific where Taiwan still has diplomatic allies.

A natural outcome of this effort will be Taiwan and American military personal interspersed in each other’s amphibious units and headquarters, as well as ships and aircraft using their partners’ ports and airfields.

Expect political and psychological knock-on effects in Taiwan, Washington and Beijing, and regionally. People will see Americans are serious. And friends like Australia, Japan, the French and the British might join in. And perhaps a few “undecided” nations will come down off the fence. Meanwhile, adversaries might reckon they’ve underestimated the Americans, once again.

A Central Pacific HA/DR Force also would address longstanding carping in Washington that “Taiwan won’t fight.” It’s never had a fair chance to show what it can do. Why not give it one?

This all should have been done a decade or two ago. It’s scandalous that it has taken so long. In fact, one sometimes suspects the reason why the US hasn’t exercised with Taiwan forces is because the US State Department, Department of Defense and successive US administrations have wanted Taiwan to “go away quietly.”

The Trump administration seems different, but still has to produce when it comes to Taiwan.

If the free people on Taiwan one day give up after concluding the Americans are all talk, it will be a disaster for the United States and the region, and globally. And it will be noted, centuries from now, as the date American influence collapsed in Asia.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.  He is a retired US Marine colonel and was the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. In that role he was instrumental in developing Japan’s nascent amphibious capability. 

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