Strategic Vision vol. 10, no. 50 (September, 2021)
End of Afghanistan mission enables increased American support for Taiwan
The recent fall of Kabul to Taliban forces marked a dramatic end to 20 years of the US presence in Afghanistan. Images of the event have evoked comparisons to the fall of Saigon 46 years ago. Naturally, this event has spurred questions about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies. Predictably, Chinese state-run media outlets like the Global Times, an English-language outlet affiliated with the People’s Daily, have used this crisis as an opportunity to wage psychological warfare against the citizens of Taiwan and undermine confidence over US support to the island. An August 16, 2021, editorial called Afghanistan a “lesson for Taiwan’s DPP,” referring to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Another Global Times piece, published the same day, argued that US military operations abroad are short-lived failures fueled by bureaucratic opportunism. It asserts that if Taiwan relies on the United States, then it will also be abandoned. In response, leaders in Washington were quick to affirm US support to Taiwan’s defense. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US commitment to Taiwan was as strong as ever and that Afghanistan and Taiwan were two fundamentally different questions in a different context. Going further, President Biden stressed that the United States had always honored its formal security agreements to defend its allies, and that it would do the same for Taiwan. Although a senior Biden administration official later said that the president appeared to have
misspoken, clarifying that the United States does not have a formal defense agreement with the Republic of China (ROC), the response dispelled doubts over supposed declining US support to Taiwan.
While American leaders were quick to affirm US support to Taiwan, it is important to take a deeper look at why Taiwan is vital to US national interests in Asia. It is also necessary to look at the military differences between Afghanistan and Taiwan to understand why the US supports Taiwan. Finally, the fall of Afghanistan, and the end of US military and economic investments in Afghanistan, will actually benefit Taiwan’s security in the long run.
Taiwan is central to America’s position in East Asia because it serves as the geographic linchpin which blunts the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from projecting military power far into the Pacific. If the PRC were to take Taiwan by force, it would irrevocably alter the balance of power in the region in China’s favor. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be able to utilize Taiwan’s captured naval bases and airfields to greatly extend the range of its naval and airpower. This would greatly undermine America’s ability to project power into the Western Pacific, and to defend it allies in the region.
If the PRC controlled Taiwan, it would also control the vital sea lines of communication which Japan— America’s most powerful and important ally in East Asia—depends on for energy resources and trade. Faced with such a difficult situation, Tokyo would likely decide to accommodate Beijing, and downgrade its relationship with Washington. South Korea, a country which is already struggling to balance its relationships with the United States and China, would also be more vulnerable to PRC pressure, and would undoubtedly decrease its reliance on the United States and pivot to the PRC.
Tokyo has made it clear that Taiwan is critical for Japan’s security. In April, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued a joint statement underscoring “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” For the first time, Japan’s annual defense White Paper asserted that Taiwan is important to domestic and international security, and that, “it is necessary that [Japan] pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.” In June, State Minister of Defense for Japan Yasuhide Nakayama warned that Sino-Russian collaboration could pose a threat, and advised protecting Taiwan “as a democratic country.” The following month, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said his country “would have to defend Taiwan” along with the United States, should the island be invaded by the PLA.
Australia, a close US ally and member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, would also face overwhelming PRC pressure to abandon its relationship with the United States, and accept PRC hegemony. Australia has already felt China’s wrath in the form of economic coercion and diplomatic ire. With Taiwan under PRC control, the PLA would be able to project military power far into the Pacific. Faced with Chinese military supremacy in the region, as well as Chinese economic and diplomatic power, Canberra would be under immense pressure to drastically downgrade its close relationship with Washington and acquiesce to PRC supremacy.
Southeast Asian countries, which lack the military power of countries like Japan and Australia, would be under even greater pressure to give up their security relationship with the United States. Some Southeast Asian countries have already reduced their military relations with the United States and moved closer into China’s orbit. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines—a long-time US ally in the region—reduced its military interactions with the United States and even threatened to scrap the 70-year-old mutual defense treaty between the two nations. Voices within the Philippines, such as former Secretary of National Defense and former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, are even beginning to doubt whether the US would defend the Philippines in the event that China invaded the island. Similarly, Cambodia has demolished US-built military facilities at its military bases, and scrapped its annual military exercise with the United States.
Psychological and moral blow
With its growing strength, the PRC has been putting pressure on countries in the region to downgrade their relations with the United States and recognize Chinese interests. As shown above, several countries in the region have already ceded to these demands. The loss of Taiwan would be a huge psychological and moral blow to the United States and its democratic allies, and it would dramatically increase the PRC’s regional power. Ultimately, the United States would lose its power and influence in Asia, and China would be the undisputed hegemon in the region.
The United States has increased its emphasis on the defense of Taiwan over time as China has become stronger militarily. In 2001, the administration of then-President George W. Bush initiated the development of a military operation plan to defend Taiwan. CONPLAN 5077—an operations plan in concept only which had existed since the Reagan administration—was developed into a full OPLAN, or operational plan. In 2002, the US Pacific Command (now known as the Indo-Pacific Command) began working on a new strategic concept for the defense of Taiwan. In 2004, the new operation plan, known as OPLAN 5077-04, was complete. With this new plan, the defense of Taiwan was raised to a new level of importance. According to one source, the plan called for US military assets worldwide to be used in the defense of Taiwan. Air, naval, ground amphibious, and missile defense forces would be used to defend Taiwan, including maritime intercept operations in the Taiwan strait, attacks on military targets on the Chinese mainland, information warfare and other non-kinetic operations—even the potential use of America’s nuclear assets.
The United States has affirmed the value of Taiwan by increasing the island’s security with increased arms sales, and bipartisan political support in congress. The Trump administration approved a wide range of arms sales to the ROC, including F-16 fighters, M-1A2 main battle tanks, advanced unmanned aerial systems, MK-48 heavy torpedoes, and a wide range of defensive missiles. The US Congress has passed a number of acts to provide more support to Taiwan, including the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020, which advocates regular sales and transfer of defense articles to Taiwan. Other acts have supported Taiwan’s participation in international bodies, and paved the way for regular interaction between high-level US and ROC military officers and defense officials.
While some commentators have made direct comparisons between Afghanistan and Taiwan, the two situations couldn’t be more militarily different. The challenge facing the United States in Afghanistan was essentially that it was a nation building project, not simply a military operation. After the destruction of Al Qaida forces in the country, US leaders had hoped to create a stable government and economy in Afghanistan. However, deep tribal and ethnic cleavages, low levels of education and human development, high levels of corruption, as well as a rudimentary economy with little infrastructure were obstacle that ultimately proved too difficult to overcome. Moreover, the US military and its coalition partners were battling an invisible enemy. Taliban forces were often able to strike at coalition forces and then blend back into society. Overwhelming firepower is of little use when the enemy is hiding behind civilians. Throughout the US presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban was also able to thwart US efforts to build relations with local communities. Ultimately, the Taliban had deep roots in Afghan society which could never be removed.
The defense of Taiwan presents a sharp contrast to the challenges in Afghanistan. As an island lying 130 kilometers from the Chinese coast at the nearest point, Taiwan is highly defensible. Large-scale amphibious operations are among the most difficult and complex military operations, and would present a gargantuan task for the PLA. An offensive against Taiwan would take time to prepare, and would give ROC and US intelligence collection assets ample opportunity to uncover PLA military preparations. This would take the element of surprise away from the PLA and give ROC and US forces time to prepare further defenses. In order to gain control over Taiwan, the PLA would have to land a large contingent of ground forces on the island over a short period of time. According to Lin Yu-fang, the head of
security studies at the National Policy Foundation, a KMT think tank, Taiwan’s anti-landing capability is rather strong, and most important of all, the willpower of its military is much stronger than that of Afghanistan. PLA amphibious forces would suffer huge attrition in the Taiwan Strait due to the ROC arsenal of anti-ship missiles, sea mines, coastal artillery, attacks from air cavalry units using Apache and Cobra attack helicopters, and other shore-based defense forces. In the future, Taiwan’s home-grown attack submarines will also present a deadly threat to PLA naval assets. If the massive firepower and destructive capability of the US military is added to the equation, there is little chance that PLA forces could succeed in landing a large enough force on the island to effectively take control.
In the long run, the US exit from Afghanistan will be beneficial for Taiwan, and other US foreign policy priorities. The United States has spent billions of dollars, and deployed hundreds of thousands of military and civilian personnel to Afghanistan. This money and resources can now be shifted to help respond to near-peer military threats such as the PRC and Russia. The US military can now decrease its emphasis and resources on counter-insurgency missions, and do what it really wants to do, which is prepare for high-end warfare scenarios such as a PRC attack on Taiwan. Policymakers in Washington will have one less distraction to worry about, and will have more time to focus on Chinese and Russian challenges to US interests.
Taiwan can also create opportunities to strengthen its defense relations with key democratic allies. As China’s power grows, particularly its military power, there is an increasing demand for expertise on China and the PLA. The ROC military is in a unique position to meet this demand, and to help Indo-Pacific democracies build their expertise on the PLA threat. The ROC National Defense University should expand its education programs and provide professional seminars and training on key PLA-related topics to foreign military officers and defense personnel. It could also create several permanent liaison positions in the Ministry of National Defense for foreign military officers and defense officials from countries such as the United States and Japan. These actions would strengthen human and institutional connections, and improve interoperability between Taiwan and its allies.
Aaron Jensen is the executive editor of Strategic Vision and a PhD candidate at National Chengchi University. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com