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US needs to take more concrete steps to defend Taiwan

US should loosen MTCR restrictions on Taiwan's missiles to help level the playing field

Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 drive past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking...

Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 drive past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking...

Titles significant, but not critical

It is well past time the United States takes more concrete steps to support the defense of Taiwan. Too much time has been devoted to continuing debates over largely symbolic issues, however important they might be in their substantive implications. They nonetheless are peripheral to the key issue of supporting Taiwan’s continuing existence as a free, sovereign, and democratic country which requires a strong defense.

Debates have proliferated over whether Taiwan should change its flag, alter its name as the “Republic of China,” end the very real confusion caused by “China Airlines,” and even whether the Kuomintang should be called the “Taiwan Kuomintang.” Similarly, the U.S. government is reportedly considering whether to allow Taiwan’s representative office in the U.S. to include the word “Taiwan” in its name.

I am not indifferent to such issues. I was the first AIT Director to raise the U.S. flag over the American Institute in Taiwan, and to put elements of the U.S. flag in the AIT logo, which had previously been no more than the letters “AIT,” reportedly in imitation of the U.S. company AIG.

My view on all symbolic changes to Taiwan, however, is that such decisions must largely be the responsibility of the Taiwanese government because Taiwan will bear the brunt of any PRC reactions. President Tsai Ing-Wen has been wise to take a cautious approach to such decisions.

The debate over strategic ambiguity

A similar but more important debate has continued in the U.S. among foreign policy analysts and commentators about whether the U.S. should end its so-called policy of “strategic ambiguity” over defending Taiwan. While cogent arguments have been offered on both sides of the debate, and although I personally would welcome a more forthright statement of the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan, this is again an issue that should be discussed with Taiwan. But as I shall argue, actions speak louder than words.

In an interview aired on August 19, President Biden was asked about PRC comments that Afghanistan demonstrated that the U.S. could not be relied on to come to Taiwan’s defense. Biden responded that the U.S. had “made a sacred commitment...that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan.”

After media had tried to parse President Biden’s well-intentioned but rather jumbled mix of different U.S. commitments, Taiwan’s Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) said the Taiwan government had “noted Biden’s comments, and thanked his administration for “continuing to take practical actions” to show its “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan in areas such as arms sales. Chang added that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has emphasized that Taiwan’s “only choice is to demonstrate its resolve in matters of self-defense.”

Actions speak louder than words

In fact, the August 4 U.S. arms sale to Taiwan of self-propelled howitzers and kits to give the shells GPS guidance systems (package valued at US$750 million) the first arms sale to Taiwan under President Biden is the kind of concrete U.S. support Taiwan needs. More should follow, however, consistent with the Bloomberg estimate that the U.S. has approved more than US$23 billion in arms sales to Taiwan since 2010.

Also important has been President Biden’s continuation of the Trump administration policy of U.S. Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait and naval exercises in the South China Sea. According to the Congressional Research Service report on U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas, updated as of October 6, in 2021, there have been 8 South China Sea freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and 13 Taiwan Strait transits. These figures actually exceed the number of FONOPs and transits during any year of the Trump Administration. This clearly needs to continue.

But more needs to be done

Nonetheless, PRC threats to Taiwan, other Asian countries, and the U.S. are growing. So too must U.S. support for Taiwan. The Financial Times reported on October 16 that China had successfully tested in August a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile “far more advanced than U.S. officials realized.” Hypersonic missiles can travel at speeds five times the speed of sound via low-trajectory and low-visibility routes and therefore are even more difficult to track and target. Beyond the speed and the trajectory, what also concerns Washington is that the glide vehicle is presumably maneuverable, making it even easier to evade traditional missile defenses as it races toward its target.

Although the PRC Foreign Ministry subsequently denied the report, it was based on five unnamed sources, and defense experts all observed that such a weapon would be consistent with the overall increasing capability of PRC weapon systems. In an analysis published on October 8, 2021, Taiwanese defense expert Holmes Liao wrote that the U.S., Russia, and the PRC are all “racing to field hypersonic weapons” but that China has already “seized the opportunity to gain the edge in the contest.”

Unfortunately, the playing field for missile development is not even. Established in 1987, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was intended to stop or at least restrict the proliferation of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems, and the associated technology for such weapons. The main goal was to limit missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, and this was defined as any system capable of traveling 300 kilometers and carrying a 500-kilogram warhead.

The problem is that many countries of proliferation concern including China, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are not MTCR members. China has already reportedly shared conventional missile technologies with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Because most countries and international organizations fail to recognize that Taiwan is in fact a state, Taiwan cannot formally participate in the MTCR. Nonetheless, the U.S. has used its leverage to ensure that Taiwan does not exceed MTCR limits.

It is therefore a sad irony that while such Chinese weapon systems are not subject to existing arms control treaties, Taiwan’s own missile development is hamstrung by the MTCR. Neither Taiwan nor the PRC is a member of the MTCR, but whereas Taiwan is expected to abide by MTCR commitments, the PRC does as it likes.

It is doubly unfortunate because a principal motivation for Taiwan’s desire to exceed MTCR limits is its need to launch more communication satellites. As David An, writing for the Global Taiwan Institute, pointed out on July 8, 2019, insistence on MTCR guidelines for Taiwan limits the opportunities for Taiwan-US cooperation in space,” an area in which Taiwan’s superb engineers have much to offer.

Israel is also chafing at the MTCR restrictions, especially since it is also not an MTCR member. The MTCR guidelines in particular prevent Israel from selling surveillance drones. As Israeli journalist Arie Egozi wrote on September 27, 2021, “While Israel is not a member of the MTCR, it has broadly followed the guidelines as a political favor to the U.S.….However, Israeli firms have seen increased competition from cheap, homegrown systems coming out of China and Turkey, and industry worries it cannot compete on the global stage while dumbing down it own capabilities….As one industry source put it, ‘We cannot play by these rules anymore, when everybody else goes wild.’”

Moreover, the U.S. has made exceptions in the past. In October 2012, the U.S. and South Korea reached an agreement allowing Seoul to extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 800 kilometers and 500 kilograms, thereby making them capable of targeting all of North Korea. Washington also made an exception earlier in 1998 for Ukraine permitting it to retain Scud missiles.

In such cases, the U.S. has decided that defense needs trumped non-proliferation principles. Furthermore, the U.S. has already broken its MTCR commitment by selling long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Taiwan and other countries. Given the military imbalance confronting Taiwan, the U.S. in its own self-interest would do better to relax its pressure on Taiwan not to develop long-range precision strike weapons and civilian space launch vehicles.

Taiwan’s defense requires an urgent reconsideration of MTCR guidelines

As the U.S. and East Asia confront an increasingly hostile, aggressive, and powerful PRC military threat, it is past time to reconsider the application of MTCR guidelines to the defense of Taiwan. As members of the Project 2049 Institute argued in an analysis of “The Role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Taiwan’s Defense”: “The across-the-board strong presumption of denial for UAV sales under MTCR is becoming obsolete.”

We need to bear in mind the original purpose of the non-proliferation regime was “to limit the risk of NBC [nuclear, biological, and chemical] weapons, especially among hostile actors.” Taiwan, a fellow democracy and like-minded friend of the U.S., can help in achieving this goal “as a critical partner in the future of UAVs.”

As Holmes Liao earlier this month argued, “PRC concerns over U.S. hypersonic weapons’ development and missile deployments, along with revisions to the MTCR that enable allies and partners like Taiwan, Japan, and Australia to build long-range land-based offensive capabilities, could combine to alter Beijing’s strategic calculus on arms control....U.S. deployment of hypersonic weapons on either one of the Western Pacific island chains could induce Beijing to perceive a change in the strategic balance to its disadvantage, and compel it to participate in arms control negotiations with the U.S., Russia, and potentially other nuclear weapons states.”

William A. Stanton is currently a Chair Professor at National ChengChi University, where he teaches at the International College of Innovation. He previously served (2019 -2021) as a Vice President of National Yang Ming University and then as a Senior Vice President of National Yang-Ming Chiao-Tung University. From August 2017 to July 2019, Professor Stanton taught at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. He previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Stanton served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).