US defense leaders have warned that comparing Ukraine and Taiwan is a mistake, but in practice, Washington is pressuring Taipei to adopt an asymmetric warfare policy modeled on its support for Ukraine since Russia’s special operation began there in February.
The US has rebuffed several recent requests from Taiwan to buy weapons it doesn’t see as likely to help it rebuff a Chinese invasion, according to Taiwanese business leaders.
The decisive shift in policy happened at a March meeting between Mira Resnick, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and members of the US-Taiwan Business Council (USTBC).
“They stated that the Biden Administration will no longer support arms sales programs for Taiwan outside their definition of ‘asymmetric’ defense,” the USTBC said in a Tuesday news release. “Additionally, they were looking for suggestions on ways to improve the process to expedite the delivery of already purchased weapons to Taiwan.”
Some of the refused weapons include MH-60R Seahawk submarine hunter helicopters, E-2D Hawkeye advanced early warning aircraft, and M109 Paladin self-propelled artillery pieces.
Instead, the US reportedly wants the Taiwanese military to focus on small, more mobile systems, such as shoulder-launched Stinger anti-air missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as low-cost weapons like naval mines and standoff weapons like coastal-fired anti-ship missiles. It has also pushed Taipei to increase its reserve training, increase cooperation between the reserves and the military, and build a civilian defense force capable of mobilizing the population quickly.
“We are leaning on them in a way that we’ve not done in the past, in a way in fact that we’ve gone out of our way not to do,” Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, told Politico. “The decision [to] turn down the Taiwanese request for the MH-60 helicopters, what that says to me is that OK, we are really deadly serious about this.”
Days before the State Department’s USTBC briefing in March, Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Pentagon’s advice to Taiwan was to be more like Ukraine, where Western-supplied man-portable systems have been pumped into the country to offset Russia’s advanced air and armor forces.
“I think the situation we’re seeing in Ukraine right now is a very worthwhile case study for them about why Taiwan needs to do all it can to build asymmetric capabilities, to get its population ready, so that it can be as prickly as possible should China choose to violate its sovereignty,” Karlin told lawmakers.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, similarly suggested earlier this month that both the US and China could learn “some very interesting lessons from the Ukrainian conflict.”
However, Karlin’s boss, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has cautioned against making such “direct comparisons,” telling lawmakers in April that Russia’s special operation in Ukraine and a prospective Chinese invasion of Taiwan “are two completely different scenarios, two different theaters.”
Beijing has made similar interjections, noting that while Ukraine is internationally recognized as a sovereign nation, almost every country on the planet agrees that Taiwan is a part of China – including the United States, incidentally.
The government in Taiwan is all that remains of the Republic of China, a government that once ruled all of China after the last emperor abdicated the throne in 1912. However, that government lost control over the mainland in the civil war, and in 1949, the victorious communist forces established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. In the decades since, all but a handful of small, US-dominated nations have switched their recognition of the legitimate Chinese government from Taipei to Beijing.
Despite making the switch in 1979, the US has continued to informally support Taiwan, and in strategy documents published early in the Trump administration, the autonomous island was identified as a key thorn in the side of China, which the US now regards as its primary adversary. In parallel, a new independence-minded government came to power in Taiwan in 2016, bringing Washington and Taipei even closer.
Beijing asserts that reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is a historic inevitability, but has been ambiguous about whether that would be accomplished via force. Similarly, the US has practiced a “strategic ambiguity” as to whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. For USTBC President Rupert Hammond-Chambers, that ambiguity, combined with its recent insistence on Taiwan shifting toward asymmetric warfare preparation, could “create new vulnerabilities and do tremendous damage to the island’s self-assurance and its practical defense.”
“If the Biden Administration intends to dictate specific arms sales to Taiwan, USTBC recommends consideration of a change in US policy from strict strategic ambiguity to at least some clarity on when and where the US would be willing to step in and fill the news gaps created by the new policy,” Hammond-Chambers added. “This would permit Taiwan to focus on a narrower defensive ability, with the clear expectation that the US would fill any resulting gaps if necessary.”
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