In parts 1 and 2 of the series, the history behind the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 was examined, along with the recent trend of its effectiveness being eroded; as the executive branch in recent administrations has essentially taken control over many aspects of the TRA away from Congress. The series also covered the confusing and often contradictory interpretation of the TRA within various levels of government in the United States, and methods of improvement were suggested.
In part 3 of the series, the primary issue to be covered: The need for the United States government to potentially "redefine" what it considers "weapons of a defensive nature" for Taiwan.
What are Weapons of a Defensive Nature?
One of the cornerstones of the Taiwan Relations Act is the carefully worded articles that deal with American arms sales to Taiwan.
- (A) "In Furtherance of the policy set forth in section 2 of this Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."
- (B) "The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgement of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law. Such determination of Taiwan's defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and Congress."
The authors of the TRA likely chose the term "defense articles and defense services" for three primary reasons:
- To imply that arms sales to Taiwan were solely for the purpose of Taiwan's defense capabilities, which would allow for a greater global acceptance of such sales
- To deter Chinese aggression towards Taiwan; and equalize the force capabilities between the two actors in order to foster an atmosphere that would make peaceful negotiations the only viable option
- To lessen the diplomatic blowback from Beijing when such arms sales took place; with the additional objective of having the arms sales to Taiwan be of a benign nature
The state of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in 1979 was high in its numbers of personnel; but had yet to undergo a full modernization in its military platforms or doctrine. Therefore, it was well within the abilities of the United States to supply Taiwan with military hardware that would eliminate the PLA's quantitative advantages, as such equipment would ensure a distinct qualitative advantage for the ROC armed forces. Additionally, even without a potential American military intervention in the case of hostilities between China and Taiwan, the PLA lacked the training, logistics, and platforms to make a successful military incursion into Taiwan at the time of the creation of the TRA, and defensive weapons sold to Taiwan by the United States was done under the idea that it would continue to maintain this reality for years to come.
As late at 2000, the Rand Corporation published a report that concluded the PLA did not yet have the capabilities to launch a successful military campaign with the goal of annexing Taiwan with a high probability rate. However, in a follow-up study published in 2009, the same group concluded that the PLA's improvement in its ballistic/cruise missile platforms (specifically accuracy and payload), as well as its modernized fighter aircraft, greatly improved the chances of a successful operation against Taiwan in a number of simulated scenarios, with many of the scenarios including the engagement of the United States on varying levels of support with the Taiwanese military forces.
Within the span of only three decades, the PLA has transformed from a military that was guided by its sheer force of numbers to one that has significantly modernized its missile capabilities, fighter and naval platforms, training, and doctrine. Behind this modernization there has consistently been a core objective of acquiring the military means to annex Taiwan into the PRC by force if necessary. The PRC has modernized its approach to dealing with a potential conflict with Taiwan (and perhaps American involvement) by enhancing its platforms to deal simultaneously with two adversaries, while using two different strategies. While a military campaign against Taiwan would likely involve a "shock and awe" style campaign against Taiwan, it would also enact an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) in the scenario that the United States chose to intercede in a China-Taiwan military escalation. It appears that while the PLA has chosen to modernize its approach, Taiwan has been limited in its options due to the long-standing position of the United States to sell only "weapons of a defensive nature" to Taiwan for its defense needs. A revision of this policy looks to be overdue.
While platforms such as anti-aircraft and missile batteries can be safely placed in a defensive weaponry category, others can be open to interpretation. Fighter aircraft, naval vessels, and even ballistic missiles could be used for offensive and defensive purposes. The PRC has even deemed its nuclear arsenal defensive in nature. For decades Taiwan held the qualitative advantage over the PLA, due to its advanced defensive-minded purchases from the United States, yet China's heavy investment into its military modernization has produced Taipei's worst nightmare: A modernized foe with numbers. Taiwan's ability to rely solely on strictly defined defensive weapons has become outdated in a number of varied scenarios in which its current defense capabilities would likely be over matched by PLA weaponry.
- While Taiwan has recently acquired newly updated PAC-3 surface to air missiles to defend against incoming ballistic missiles, the total estimated amount to be available by 2015 (400) will be dwarfed in comparison to the number of ballistic-cruise missiles (1,400 and increasing at a rate of 100 per year) available to the PLA's 2nd Artillery Corps within striking range of Taiwan.
- Until recently, it was perceived among experts that Taiwan would likely gain air superiority over the PLAAF in a full-scale engagement scenario. However, the modernization of the PLAAF aircraft, combined with available land-based missiles that could potentially destroy most (if not all) of Taiwan's aircraft runways at the outset of a conflict, have greatly lowered the probability of Taiwan controlling the air in such a conflict. Additionally, the upcoming retirement its F-5 aircraft, along with a decade-long project to upgrade its F-16 & IDF fighters will leave its air force in a dangerous state.
What Can be Done?
As previously stated, nearly any type of weapons platform could be utilized in an offensive or defensive engagement. When the United States sold Taiwan its fleet of F-16s in the early 1990s, the jets were equipped with a smaller engine thrust than other models. The lower thrust lowers the overall range of the jets, thus limiting the area in which it can cover. This was done primarily to lower the anger that would be coming from Beijing following the transaction. It was also done to adhere to the defensive nature doctrine of the TRA. While such limitations to Taiwan's capabilities were understandable in years prior, PLA capabilities and numbers have evolved to the stage that a strictly-defensive doctrine is no longer feasible for Taiwan to maintain.
In any likely scenario involving a PRC-Taiwan military engagement, Taiwan would not be the party that initiates hostilities, and any response from it would be considered defensive in nature. Therefore, platforms sold to or developed by Taiwan would in all likelihood be used as a defensive utility. If Taiwan were to have F-16's with enhanced engine thrust, for example, they could also be used to deliver munitions against targets on China proper (missile sites, fuel depots, communication sites); a prospect that would surely give pause to decision-makers in Beijing before deciding on military actions. If decision makers within the United States have a genuine desire to see a Taiwanese military that is capable of defending itself (and in turn Taiwan must make a genuine monetary commitment as well), the definition of defensive military platforms must be expanded.
Michal Thim's piece on Taiwan's counter-strike capabilities shows that Taiwan's offensive capabilities have not been ignored by decision makers in Taipei. Its Hsuing Feng missile family has been developed with surface to surface and sea to surface capabilities, and will likely continue to be expanded in the near-term. Even if the United States chooses to refrain from direct sales of what it considers platforms of an offensive nature, it could choose to transfer via technology such platforms to Taiwan, that would allow it to develop such programs "in-house", lowering the likely stern responses from Beijing.
While the PLA has greatly enhanced its military arsenal in recent decades, Taiwan has options. As Beijing has adopted the A2AD philosophy against a potential American entrance into a Taiwan conflict scenario, Taiwan could do likewise. While a robust defensive deterrent is still vital for Taiwan's military, the ability to "punch back" should also be available, and would give Beijing pause before commencing military action towards Taiwan. Overall, such restraint would allow for peace to be maintained across the Taiwan Strait: A scenario that be a catalyst for further discussions between the two countries.