The Weakness in the U.S.’ Understanding of Taiwan

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (November 2021)  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

OPINION – Taiwan today, appears to be the newest test for a potential American military intervention.

“The CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] ultimate objective isn’t invasion, but instead a process between China and Taiwan authorities to negotiate the formal, long-term political relationship across the [Taiwan] Strait. Military, economic, information, and diplomatic coercion and inducements would all be in play, and the red line for threatened military force would shift from preventing permanent separation to a refusal by Taipei to begin the political process.”

Speaking was John Culver, a retired, 35-year Central Intelligence Agency analyst during a Brookings Institute interview on March 30. From 2015 to 2018, Culver served on the National Intelligence Council as national intelligence officer for East Asia.

Here’s what’s wrong.

One lesson from Vietnam 50 years ago, and more recently from Afghanistan, should be that U.S. policymakers need to listen to experts.

What follows was my attempt to do so, having not closely followed Taiwan issues beyond reading with concern, the recent calls for a U.S. military buildup in the region to deter an inevitable Chinese attack on that island nation.

Asked about whether he believed Taiwan now plays a high priority in China’s domestic politics, Culver replied, “One of my core assumptions is that things said by the CCP about Taiwan are generally not directed solely or principally at the Taiwan public, but instead at China’s own domestic population, or at the U.S. government and a few other foreign governments — principally Tokyo and Canberra.”

Culver added that since the current Taiwan leadership “has not taken highly provocative or precipitous actions,” he doesn’t expect “the role of Taiwan in China’s politics to change due solely — or even mostly — to the 20th Party Congress in 2022, unless provoked by Taiwan’s own election cycle, which would be gearing up for the January 2024 polls.”

In a broad historical sense, Culver said, “Taiwan is an issue that the CCP sees as a threat to its legitimacy, not an opportunity to be seized. That has meant that CCP policy toward Taiwan is largely about what it wants to avoid, not what it wants to achieve — reactionary, not exploitative.”

Culver went on, “But that is changing. Especially since Xi in 2019, and more recently, has framed ‘reunification’ as a requirement for achieving the ‘China Dream’ tied to the CCP’s longstanding goals for 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. We should worry that Xi may decide to take risks that his more constrained predecessors since Mao Zedong would not.”

Again, speaking historically, Culver noted, “Deadlines for unification typically have been driven more by internal CCP leadership dynamics and legacy-making than ordering a firm set of multi-domain operations to commence to produce something the CCP can call ‘unification’ by a certain date.”

He predicted, “Perhaps [by] 2030 or 2035, the PLA [the Chinese People’s Liberation Army] probably will have the organizational and warfighting capacity for a Taiwan operation that it has always lacked.”

But even then, according to Culver, “China’s proposals initially could be fairly lenient…but a key condition would be the end of a U.S.-Taiwan security framework without Beijing’s explicit approval.”


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As for the current situation, Culver said he disagrees with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander Adm. Philip Davidson, who just six days earlier had told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “Taiwan is clearly one of their [the CCP’s] ambitions. … And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

Culver said, intentionally or not, Davidson and others assume “that as soon as the PLA is ‘ready,’ China will launch an invasion, or that the CCP will launch an opportunistic war to shore up domestic legitimacy. None of this is true,” he said, “in terms of China’s goals, its view of the usefulness of military force, or how the CCP’s legitimacy has been trending or is likely to trend over the decade.”

He worried, however, that the factors that have held together the status quo since the 1979 U.S.-China diplomatic recognition “have eroded and are likely to continue to erode.”

In his list of destabilizing factors Culver put, “The emergence of full-blown U.S.-China strategic rivalry, which increases Taiwan’s attraction to both major U.S. political parties as a litmus test of ‘standing up to China.’”

Taiwan was central again at a Brookings webinar last Tuesday, titled, “The Role of Domestic Politics in U.S.-Taiwan Relations.”

There, Culver’s worry came to life.

“There is this discourse that Taiwan is some kind of a weapon system that the U.S. can use in this new cold war that we’re going to have with China, or maybe it’s a new hot war, depending upon who you’re listening to.”

Speaking was Dr. Shelley Rigger, the Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, who is widely recognized as one of America’s leading experts on Taiwan, having published numerous books, monographs, and articles on Taiwan’s political developments.

Dr. Rigger was explaining, “the kind of hawkish — we need to take China down, and Taiwan’s going to be one of our assets for doing that,” approach, which she was hearing from the pundit, media class in the U.S.

Appearing with Dr. Rigger were two other experts on Taiwan — Richard C. Bush, who, at Brookings, is a senior fellow and former director of its Center for East Asia Policy having earlier been for five years the chairman and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan. The other expert was Shirley Lin, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for East Asia Policy Studies, and author of the 2016 book, “Taiwan’s China Dilemma: Contested Identities and Multiple Interests in Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Economic Policy,” and one of the first Asian partners at Goldman Sachs.

Since all three praised the annual National Day speech that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen gave in Taipei just nine days ago, I looked at her text to see where she focused her attention.

Although President Tsai had titled his speech, “Forging a stronger consensus: Standing united to protect Taiwan,” her main early thrust was on the need for all Taiwanese political parties to work together to meet the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. Next, was economic growth and the need to increase foreign trade.

It was late in her talk that President Tsai mentioned “the routinization of Chinese military activity in Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone [that] has seriously affected both our national security and aviation safety.” But she followed quickly by calling for “maintaining the status quo…We hope for an easing of cross-strait relations and will not act rashly, but there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure.”

She said, “We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

Taiwan’s defense budget, however, faces competition.

Taiwan has for years, kept its defense budget below two percent of gross national product (GNP) because it competes with the domestic needs of the general population.

As Richard Bush put it last week at Brookings, “The population is aging, the birthrate is low, so the increasing number of people who by law, deserve pensions is going to go up. Moreover, you will continue to have demands for funding to build infrastructure and otherwise keep Taiwan economically competitive. The problem that Taiwan faces is that it’s operating with a basically fixed-sized budget pie, and so, the fight for resources can be intense. The percentage of the government budget that goes to defense has remained about 11 or 12 percent over a decade, even though the threat to Taiwan has increased. It’s bizarre.”

Taiwan’s defense budget for its calendar year 2022, was originally set at a record $16.89 billion, but last week, the government proposed added spending over the next five years, of another $8.69 billion or roughly $1.7 billion-a-year. That would put defense spending at about 2.3 percent of GDP. The U.S. spends over 3.3 percent of GDP on defense.

Former CIA analyst Culver said, “Polling indicates that most Taiwanese don’t feel very threatened — there’s little domestic pressure to massively increase military spending or return to lengthy universal conscription. Most Taiwan people aren’t worried about imminent attack, because 40 years since U.S. de-recognition of the Republic of China, [the former non-communist mainland regime then in Taiwan] have passed without war, but also because some think that Taiwan could not prevail without massive U.S. military intervention, so there’s little point in building up Taiwan’s own military.”


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Culver’s view was that “U.S. policy for Taiwan should follow the Tsai administration’s example of basing its legitimacy on the vibrant quality of its democracy and economic freedom,” adding, “There are an array of steps the United States can take with regard to Taiwan on trade, multinational democratic forums, health policy, and even security affairs…We need to think more clearly about how we can adapt our actions to best support Taiwan as it faces these challenges and I think expanding our economic relationship radically is a good way to do that.”

Trade with Taiwan was also brought up last week by Brooking’s Taiwan economic specialist Shirley Linn who said, “The most important and practical way for the U.S. to help Taiwan is to sign bilateral economic agreements and help others sign bilateral agreements with Taiwan.”

Their mention of trade echoed something in President Tsai’s National Day speech: “We resumed talks with the United States under our bilateral [1994] Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).”

I did not know that U.S. trade talks with Taiwan under TIFA had been suspended since 2016, because of a variety of regulatory and concessionary disagreements going back to 2007, including Taiwan’s ban on additives used in U.S. agricultural products.

During all that time, Lin said, “Taiwan’s trade and investment with China actually has increased. Twenty-five percent of Taiwan’s total trade is with China, which is a historic high, and still, the majority of Taiwan’s cumulative investment in the world is in China. Compare this with Taiwan’s trade with the U.S. The U.S. had been Taiwan’s leading trade partner until 2003, and now the U.S. is only 13 percent of Taiwan’s total trade, and only 14 percent of Taiwan’s cumulative foreign direct investment outbound.”

So, unless the U.S. leads and provides incentives to deepen its Taiwan economic relationship, and gets other countries to join, China is eventually going to be a much more convenient partner for Taiwan.

As Lin put it, “If Taiwan does not become more internationalized and more integrated with the West, it’s going to be — unavoidably going to be — in the long term, part of China…because it is the most viable solution to Taiwan’s economic and other problems.”

That is Beijing’s long-term, economic game which can lead to an involuntary but peaceful unification.

Meanwhile, the U.S., as usual, is focused on the short-term game — military involvement.

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Fine Print

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (November 2021)  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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