Soldiers take aim with their weapons during an annual drill at a military base in the eastern city of Hualien on January 30, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mandy Cheng

The US aims to fast-track arms sales to Taiwan and strengthen joint military training amidst invasion fears from China as tensions rise over the future of the self-governing island.

On Tuesday (May 3), US Senator Marco Rubio introduced the Taiwan Peace Through Strength Act, which aims to increase Taiwan’s defensive capabilities against a Chinese invasion by fast-tracking weapons transfers, increasing joint planning and training and increasing coordination between the US and Taiwanese militaries.

“An invasion of Taiwan could happen within this decade. We must do all we can to deter an attack on Taiwan, or we risk losing the Indo-Pacific region to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. 

The Taiwan Peace Through Strength Act requires the US Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct an annual review of US war plans to defend Taiwan, develop a list of specific capabilities that Taiwan is approved to acquire based on that assessment, and requests the US Department of State to pre-clear those identified capabilities for expedited transfer to Taiwan.

It also compels defense contractors to place Taiwan’s weapons purchases orders ahead of other countries in the production line regardless of the order in which the contracts were signed and aims to amend the Taiwan Relations Act to replace perceived outdated language regarding “arms of a defensive character” with new language that sets an enhanced standard for arms sales to deter conflict with China.

The bill also recommends the establishment of a comprehensive joint training program, a high-level joint military planning mechanism, a ban on US defense contractors operating in China and the authorization of military financing worth US$2 billion a year for Taiwan.

China views Taiwan as a renegade province, a reminder of its “Century of Humiliation” under Western powers and Japan, and a remnant of the unfinished Chinese Civil War. In speeches, President Xi Jinping has said Taiwan must be “reunited” with the mainland by force if necessary.

However, the US views Taiwan as a strategic breakwater against China’s plans to reach out into the Pacific, a barrier against China from challenging America’s longstanding dominance in the region that it has held since the end of World War II.

Taiwanese soldiers on an armored vehicle in Taiplei during the National Day Celebration, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

While the US has made repeated reassurances that it shall assist Taiwan in the event of an invasion, it has refrained from formally recognizing Taiwanese sovereignty, a move that would incur the wrath of China and possibly prompt an armed conflict over the self-governing island.

Given China’s overwhelming military superiority against Taiwan, a successful defense of Taiwan may be contingent on three variables – US intervention, Taiwan’s asymmetric strategy, and maintaining the tenuous strategic military balance between China and the US.

US intervention is a critical factor in the successful defense of Taiwan. However, the US carrier battle group concept may already be obsolete due to the introduction of hypersonic weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).

China’s advances in ASBMs have reached the point wherein it can effectively clear its coast of US warships to 1,500 kilometers or more, possibly raising the risks to US aircraft carriers to unacceptable levels. In addition, China may have taken cues from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and consider use its growing nuclear arsenal to deter US intervention and provide strategic cover for an invasion of Taiwan.

Considering the risk-averse nature of China’s leadership, unclear prospects of US intervention and the overmatch between China and Taiwan, Taipei has adopted an asymmetric warfare strategy operationalized through a “porcupine doctrine.”

That doctrine involves centering Taiwan’s defenses on weapons that are small, numerous, smart, stealthy, fast, mobile, low-cost, survivable, effective, easy to develop, maintain and preserve, and difficult to detect and counter.

Such systems include anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, naval mines, drones, surface-to-air missiles, fast attack craft, and anti-tank guided missiles. Taiwan has also increased its missile production by aiming to build 34 new manufacturing facilities this year, in an attempt to increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on US security reassurances and weapons.

This strategy, however, has its critics. The opposition Kuomintang Party has pointed out that Taiwan is heavily reliant of sea lanes of communications (SLOC) for survival, and even a “Fortress Taiwan” with its asymmetric warfare strategy can be blockaded into submission and forced to surrender through attrition warfare.

By implication, this would require weapons for “non-porcupine” missions such as sea control and SLOC protection through frigates and submarines. Although Taiwan has a well-developed technology sector and large shipbuilding industry, it has limited naval shipbuilding capabilities, no experience in building submarines and faces well-documented tactical, operational, and political problems in its submarine program.

Despite those weaknesses, Taiwan has carried on with its efforts to raise the costs of a Chinese invasion, prolong its resistance and attain self-sufficiency with the ultimate aim of forcing China to scale down its military objectives or even abandon the prospect of invasion in favor of other means of coercion such as economic and information warfare.

A Chinese amphibious invasion drill. Image: Facebook

The larger strategic military balance between the US and China may be another factor in determining the defense of Taiwan. The US has maintained strategic ambiguity over its position in Taiwan to mollify China and coax Taiwan to harden its own defenses, thereby lessening the need for US intervention.

However, the strategic military balance between the US and China is also a factor in maintaining this delicate balance. While China’s mainland-based ASBMs may pose a threat to US carrier groups and can provide strategic cover against US intervention, the US is in the process of developing its B-21 Raider, a new stealth bomber intended to penetrate heavily defended airspace to attack key targets such as ASBM batteries.

The introduction of this new bomber can potentially reduce the threat China’s ASBM batteries pose to US carrier battle groups, giving strategic maneuver room for US intervention in Taiwan.

The B-21 Raider may thus restore the deterrent factor in the US’ longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity, thereby maintaining a tense but still peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait.