Afghanistan Withdrawal and Taiwan's Mass Production of Medium-Range Missiles
By Su Chi
United Daily News, September 12, 2021
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, coupled with Taiwan's decision to mass produce medium-range missiles, is the worst strategic combination for Taiwan.
It means that President Tsai Ing-wen picked the critical juncture when the morale, budget, strategy, and combat power of the United States are at the lowest point, to stoke Beijing's sense of urgency towards Taiwan, thus heightening further the tension in the cross-strait relations.
In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that it would do what it did after its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, i.e., recuperating and not participating in another far-flung war for a few years. The White House said this move was intended to shift its strategic focus to "competition” with China. Yet Mainland China is multiple times stronger than the Taliban. Experts estimate that the death toll resulting from the sinking of only one aircraft carrier, approximately 4,000, would far exceed the total number of deaths in Afghanistan during the last 20 years, that is, about 2,500 deaths. Therefore, the United States will be much more cautious in its use of force in foreign lands in the near future.
President Joseph Biden knows it better than anyone else. When he appointed General Llyod Austin, who had served as the commander in the Middle East, as the first African-American defense secretary, he cited four reasons. Three are related to domestic concerns: relying on his earlier experience in successful withdrawal from Iraq to “quarterback an enormous logistics operation to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines widely and equitably,” “(he will) ensure the well-being and resilience of our service members and their families...knows the incredible cost of war and the commingled pride and pain that live in the hearts of those families that pay it,” “(he will) make sure that every member of armed forces is treated with dignity and respect, including Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, women, and LGBTQ service members.” A few days ago, Biden said in his remarks on Afghanistan withdrawal, "If you are 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace." He also said that "Eighteen veterans on average who die by suicide every single day in America, not in a far-off place, but right here in America." How can the host of the White House, who is so attached to domestic priorities, be a devoted lover for Taiwan - so devoted that he’d send American GIs to die for Taiwan?
As for the budget, President Biden presented his first defense budget to Congress in May. Its annual growth rate was the lowest among all Departments. After deducting inflation, it was the only one with negative growth. Obviously, "anti-China" is not as prioritized as "anti-pandemic" and "saving the economy" within his administration.
Let us then take a look at U.S. strategy and combat power. The level of anxiety in American political circles vis-a-vis Beijing is at an all-time high. Part of the reason is certainly the rapid rise of mainland China’s military power. The other part is that the U.S. military power happens to be at a critical stage of transition. Geographically, the United States has long enjoyed a strong sense of security. As a result, it has had only offensive, not defensive, strategies throughout its history. Now that Chinese missiles can accurately strike U.S. military bases and aircraft carriers, the United States must begin to adjust toward "both offense and defense." This is a colossal undertaking and it will take a very long time.
The Pentagon is currently presiding over a heated debate, trying to work out a new version of the "National Security Strategy" due perhaps early next year. Taiwan is definitely one of the focal points: If and when the PRC strikes Taiwan, how would the United States respond?
Judging from information in the public domain, there are roughly two schools of thought: "advance" and "retreat". Those inclined toward "retreat" believe that the rise of mainland China is unstoppable; the struggle between the United States and China is detrimental to both sides and they should seek compromise and co-existence; the Taiwan issue is best resolved through negotiation or simply abandoned. The school of "retreat" seems to be outside the mainstream at the moment, but the pandemic, economy, budget, or any unexpected Islamic terrorist attack may still change the weight on the scale. The Afghanistan withdrawal may also stimulate deeper thinking about the balance between domestic needs and external interests.
The school of "advance" has the upper hand for the time being. They believe that if the United States fields a military force sufficient to intimidate China, Beijing will not dare to rashly attack Taiwan. Among the “advance” advocates, the moderates hope to bottle up China’s military power within the first island chain (including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines). For the hard-liners, emphasis is placed on developing naval and air combat capabilities that can directly strike the Chinese mainland.
Several “advance” options have been proffered. The consensus among them seems to be to counteract Beijing in Beijing’s way, that is, to build and deploy a set of distributed, mobile, accurate, and sufficiently numerous land-based medium-range missiles. In fact, when the U.S. announced its intention to withdraw from the US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, the idea was already made public.
The trouble is there are two serious soft spots. One is that the location for deployment is hard to find. The other is that the time of completion may be too late to meet the needs. Location near the Chinese mainland would naturally be most conducive to launching strikes, and the cost of missiles would also be low. Unfortunately, not many countries near the Mainland are willing to help with the deployment. As for the completion time, one think tank openly estimates it to be”5 to 10 years.” In other words, until the next 5-10 years, Taiwan will be most vulnerable because the United States cannot help even if it desires to.
Taiwan's decision to mass produce medium-range missiles now has to be assessed against this background. It is motivated most certainly not to "counterattack the Mainland,”as in the Cold War years, but to partially fill in the aforementioned gap in American combat power as means of self-help. However, its soft belly is also too soft for any comfort. A retired U.S. admiral once described it as useless as "piercing a dragon with a needle." Strategically it may in fact invite retaliation on a much larger scale. Should Beijing feel the urgent need to take Taiwan ahead of schedule, Taiwan’s missiles may not be in place or numerous enough to save itself. Neither would the U.S. be ready for rescue when it itself is at a time of shortage.
Just when the United States is suffering from low morale, deflated defense budget, undecided defense strategy, and incomplete combat power, President Tsai made her momentous decision to mass produce the medium-range missiles. She really owes the Taiwan people a clear explanation.
The author, chairman of the Taipei Forum, formerly served as secretary-general of the National Security Council, Republic of China (Taiwan), from 2008 to 2010.