- - Monday, December 21, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

While a welcome symbol of support, the $1.83 billion arms sales package to Taiwan announced by the Obama administration on Dec. 16, 2015 delays consideration of next-generation capabilities Taiwan will require to continue to deter Chinese attack. This fails to reflect the growing importance of Taiwan to U.S. strategy in Asia.

For the first time since the 1950s, China is approaching a serious level of preparation for an invasion of Taiwan. It has outfitted its Army and Marine amphibious forces with a third generation of amphibious armor and can now mobilize potentially hundreds of usefully sized civilian barges and ferries that greatly expand military transport. Taiwanese analysts estimate that with combined military and civil lift China can transport 8 to 12 divisions to Taiwan, approaching the size of Taiwan’s 130,000-man army.

If acquired, a second generation of short-range ballistic missiles which China has developed could quickly increase total missiles aimed at Taiwan from about 1,200 to over 3,000. Any invasion attempt would be fraught with enormous risks for China but the fact remains that it is preparing for this purpose.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that the president should sell “defensive arms” to Taiwan. This latest arms package includes about 500 new anti-tank and man-carried anti-aircraft missiles useful to counter invasion forces. It also includes two used anti-submarine frigates, Phalanx ship defense systems, and 36 amphibious armored personnel carriers for Taiwan’s Marines. But this is the first arms package in four years and does not include high priority items for Taipei, such as assistance with its new indigenous submarine program or long-sought new fighter aircraft to replace its aging French Mirage-2000 fighters.

Consideration of these and other next-generation weapons will likely have to wait until the next U.S. administration in 2017. By then it will be necessary to consider a much larger arms package that should include submarine systems technology, assistance for a new indigenous fighter, and the beginning of new “asymmetric” capabilities. U.S. defense companies are now developing new longer range and precision guided artillery shells that could turn Taiwan’s 600 155 millimeter artillery systems into potent anti-ship weapons. By the early 2020s the United States may be able to offer new electromagnetic “railguns” that could perform anti-missile, anti-aircraft, anti-ship and land attack missions.

Washington should also strive to increase training opportunities for Taiwanese officers and servicemen. Taiwan Navy and Air Force personnel should be included in U.S. exercises to increase familiarity and build toward more effective tactical cooperation during emergencies.

This would better reflect Taiwan’s value to U.S. strategy in Asia. By simply surviving Taiwan demonstrates to China’s citizens that they too can have political and economic freedoms and need not tolerate the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship.

As a democracy, Taiwan has demonstrated its willingness to join the United States and other democracies seeking to uphold a rule-based international order in the face of China’s aggression and illegal activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea. This was demonstrated by President Ma Ying Jeou’s August 2012 East China Sea Peace Initiative, and his similar May 2015 peace initiative for the South China Sea. These led Japan and the Philippines to sign landmark fishing agreements with Taiwan, defying Beijing’s diplomatic isolation of Taipei.

In addition, Taiwan’s strategic position and island assets warrant a greater effort by Washington to link Taipei to larger security networks. Taiwan is adjacent to Japan’s Sakashima Island Chain, which would be threatened if China were to take over the Senkaku/Daiyoutai Islands controlled by Japan. Taiwan has also recently upgraded Taiping Island, its island in the South China Sea Spratly Group, threatened by China’s new island bases.

Perhaps one way to start, building on its recent fishing agreements, would be to encourage greater regional maritime safety cooperation with Taiwan’s Coast Guard, starting with visits by U.S. Coast Guard ships to Taiwan. Taiping Island can host helicopters and rescue ships to assist nearby islands or ships in distress.

Beijing has reacted with usual vitriol and threats after the latest U.S. arms sales package; it fears anything that would strengthen Taiwan’s democracy. In response Washington must continuously upgrade Taiwan’s defenses as it increases its own military strength in Asia, a strategy consistent with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, is a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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