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‘Deadly serious’: U.S. quietly urging Taiwan to follow Ukraine playbook for countering China

U.S. officials are pushing their Taiwanese counterparts with new urgency to look to Ukraine’s success in fending off Russian forces as a blueprint for countering a Chinese attack, former and current U.S. officials tell POLITICO.

But there is little doubt that China is also learning from Russia’s botched invasion as it looks to reunify Taiwan with the mainland — with or without force. Experts say Beijing is likely adjusting its plans for the island to reflect and improve on Russia’s failures.

“There is no question that the perceived reality of the possibility [of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan] is greater than it was three months ago,” said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. But “it’s not a trivial challenge for the Chinese, even as strong as they’ve become.”

Discussions about reshaping Taiwan’s military are intensifying as President Joe Biden heads out this week on his first trip as president to Asia. He will make stops in South Korea and Japan, where he will meet with the leaders of the other nations in the Quad security pact: Japan, India and Australia.

While Biden is not visiting Taiwan — the most likely flashpoint of a conflict — the China problem looms over the trip. The U.S. and its Pacific allies have been alarmed by Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow since the invasion, and U.S. officials believe the conflict has influenced China’s calculations about how and when to attempt to take control of Taiwan.

“Clearly the Chinese leadership is trying to look carefully about the lessons they should draw from Ukraine about their own ambitions in Taiwan,” CIA Director Bill Burns said this month. “I don’t think for a minute it’s eroded [President Xi Jinping’s] determination over time to gain control over Taiwan, but I think it’s something that’s affecting their calculation about how and when they go about doing that.”

While the United States does not formally have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the two governments maintain tight security ties under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Washington has long supported Taipei’s self-defense capability with arms sales and a close military relationship — the two forces train together and Taiwanese cadets study at elite U.S. military academies.

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine was a wakeup call for the Taiwanese people. Recent opinion polls show a significant increase in citizens who believe a Chinese invasion is likely, compared with surveys taken before the invasion. There is also more support for strengthening Taiwan’s self-defense, Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s official representative to the United States, told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday.

“We in no way want to see that same type of pain and suffering replicated in Taiwan,” she said. “The government as well as the public has to invest our efforts in our self-defense or preparedness. And I think there is a general acknowledgement that this is a priority right now.”

At the same time, the U.S. effort to reshape Taiwan’s military has taken on new urgency since the Russian invasion, officials and experts said. U.S. officials are pointing to Ukraine’s success with Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as its spirited corps of civilian volunteers, as proof that the strategy they have long endorsed works.

“The Ukraine situation validated some long-standing steps we’ve been taking in Taiwan,” said one DoD official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

Top U.S. military officials have said in recent weeks that Taipei is learning critical lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that the island could apply to a Chinese attack. Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, noted in a recent hearing the importance of small unit tactics, a noncommissioned officer corps, and effective training “with the right weapons systems.”

“I think they’re learning some very interesting lessons from the Ukrainian conflict, like how important leadership is,” Berrier said.

The Pentagon and State Department declined to comment for this article.

‘Asymmetric’ weapons

Since 2010, Taipei has spent more than $23 billion on U.S. weapons, primarily large, conventional arms such as F-16 fighter jets and M109A6 self-propelled howitzers. But in recent years Washington has been urging Taipei to buy different types of weapons geared for so-called asymmetric warfare — smaller, more mobile ones that are difficult for a larger foe to target and counter.

On the heels of Russia’s invasion, the State Department in a March letter rebuffed Taipei’s request to purchase MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, designed for hunting submarines — a move experts said U.S. officials would not have made before the Ukraine invasion.

Similarly, the U.S. Army in a separate March letter urged Taiwan to buy an upgraded version of the howitzer Taipei had requested years ago. Meanwhile, officials plan to refuse any request for the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye early warning and battle management aircraft, former and current officials said.

Instead of these weapons, the U.S. believes Taiwan should invest in more mobile, cost-effective systems such as Stingers and Javelins, as well as sea mines and coastal anti-ship missiles.

“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,” Friedberg said. “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.”

These moves appear to reflect a shift in policy by the Biden administration. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick and her colleagues briefed the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council in March that the administration would no longer support arms sales for Taiwan “outside their definition of ‘asymmetric’ defense,” according to a Tuesday press release from the council.

The council noted in the release that the administration “appears to have canceled” the Seahawks , Hawkeyes and M109 mobile artillery “for not meeting their ‘asymmetric’ criteria.”

The council pushed back on the new policy, noting in a Monday letter to Resnick that “far from accelerating Taiwan’s deterrent capabilities, we fear that the envisaged “asymmetric” focus for Taiwan security assistance will result in policy confusion and a substantial slowing of overall arms sales.”

In particular, the council expressed concern that the asymmetric policy focuses too much on a “D-day scenario,” leaving China free to continue its “gray-zone” operations — those short of all-out war, for instance flight intercepts and disinformation.

USTBC President Rupert Hammond-Chambers also pointed to America’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether and how the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion, according to the release.

If the Biden administration “intends to dictate specific arms sales to Taiwan,” Hammond-Chambers urged some “clarity on when and where the U.S. would be willing to step in and fill the new gaps.”

Culture shift

Taiwan’s military may need a culture shift, as well as new weapons. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an April hearing that an important lesson Taiwan could draw from Ukraine is “a nation in arms.”

“If your opponent tries to invade you, and every military age man [and] woman is armed, and they have a little bit of training, that can be a very effective use,” Milley said.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials are urging Taipei to modernize its reserve institution and lay the groundwork for mobilizing the population in the event of an invasion, officials said.

Taiwan late last year established an All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency, which is responsible for the mustering of reservists during wartime as well as disaster relief. The agency is drafting an “all-out defense handbook” that will increase the public’s knowledge of military response efforts for wartime and peacetime emergencies, officials said at the time.

But Taiwan’s military is not well integrated with its civilian population, a disconnect that has roots in Taiwan’s long history of martial law. Many citizens still have physical and mental scars from Taiwan’s period of “White Terror,” when those believed to be anti-government were rounded up and imprisoned — thousands were executed.

Over the past few decades, Taiwan has gradually reduced its military service requirement from two years to just four months, said Bonnie Glaser, an East Asia analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She noted that “it is not considered to be really serious” and that some Taiwanese refer to it as “summer camp.” The problem is compounded by the fact that the active-duty military is not keen to work with the reserve force, which is seen as insufficiently trained, she added.

Taiwan’s defense ministry is assessing whether the four-month requirement is adequate, particularly as there appears to be a high degree of public support for extending the mandatory training, Hsiao said. But the change won’t happen overnight.

Taiwan’s reserve force, meanwhile, is large but limited in capability, Glaser said.

“These people get called up for something like two days a year, so it’s not a serious reserve force,” she said.

Taiwan officials have had extensive communications with their American counterparts on ways to revamp the reserves system, Hsiao said. Officials recently began more intensive reserve training, she said, the timing of which coincided with the beginning of the Ukraine conflict.

The Pentagon is also urging Taiwan to increase cooperation between the military and civilian institutions, particularly with regard to protecting critical infrastructure, officials said. The department has also encouraged the Taiwanese military to consider introducing a civilian territorial defense force, but has not gotten much traction, Glaser said.

“Part of the problem in Taiwan is there really isn’t much enthusiasm among the civilians to work with the military or the military to work with civilians,” she said.

“That said, I think the Pentagon would really like Taiwan to draw some lessons from Ukraine, as everyone has seen that putting up resistance can be one of the most decisive factors in wartime.”

A ‘problematic’ analogy?

But some analysts believe using Ukraine as a model for Taiwan is the wrong approach. Randall Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official in the Trump administration, noted that Ukraine may have thwarted a swift Russian victory — but at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and millions of people displaced.

“If you tell Taiwan, ‘this is the plan for you,’ that’s not very comforting,” Schriver said.

The Ukraine analogy is also “problematic” because of Taiwan’s geography — the Chinese must cross 100 miles of ocean to get to the island, whereas Russia and Ukraine share a 1,200-mile land border, Schriver noted. Any Chinese invasion would be visible from miles away and vulnerable to standoff weapons. On the other side, resupply — an issue crucial to Ukraine’s defense — would be much more difficult in the case of Taiwan, a weakness Beijing may seek to exploit with an air and sea blockade.

The diplomatic situation also poses a challenge: Many countries, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan’s independence from China, while Ukraine is internationally recognized as a sovereign nation, he added.

“There is no guarantee that the international community rallies around Taiwan the way it did Ukraine because of the non-diplomatic status,” he said.

Some analysts worry that, while a mobilized and trained civilian defense force might be useful, the goal should be deterring an attack in the first place. Dan Blumenthal, senior fellow and director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that Taiwan needs tools now to deal with near daily Chinese air incursions and other types of military intimidation around the island. Some factions in Taipei believe aircraft such as F-16s, MH-60Rs and E-2Ds are key to solving this problem.

“Taiwan’s political and military leadership need a number of things to deter, including being able to counter the daily coercive and intimidating threats that they face,” Blumenthal said. “They can’t just sit back and wait for an invasion.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin himself advised lawmakers in April not to make “direct comparisons” between Ukraine and Taiwan.

“These are two completely different scenarios, two different theaters,” Austin said during an April 5 hearing.

The economic toolbox

There’s also increased thinking in U.S. government and analytical circles about the non-military dimensions of a Chinese attack on Taiwan — including using sanctions to deter Beijing, or at least punish it.

Last summer, well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute attended an informal meeting of about 15 former U.S. government officials, analysts and congressional staffers interested in Taiwan policy and sanctions and export control measures.

The goal of the Washington gathering was to brainstorm ways to sharpen the economic tools the United States and allies could use to prevent a Chinese attack. The idea was to “basically do the homework now so we have it ready to go later,” Sayers said.

Congress may need to pass legislation — similar to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targeted Iran, North Korea and Russia — spelling out the sanctions China would face if it were to initiate a conflict, Sayers said. “Congress can play a bad cop role and initiate that,” he said.

That could prove one of the trickiest efforts of all. The United States is far more economically entangled with China than it was with Russia, although there have been efforts in recent years to reduce that dependency.

But at the same time, the Russian invasion raised questions about the efficacy of sanctions, Friedberg said, noting that the threat of sanctions “didn’t deter the Russians from doing what they did in Ukraine.”

“There is a question of whether we’d be willing to do the same thing with China, because the cost to us would be much greater,” he said.

Nahal Toosi and Phelim Kine contributed to this report.

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