HONG KONG – In her first term, President Tsai Ing-wen secured more than $10 billion in high-profile U.S. weapons to defend Taiwan against China. Over the next four years, it may be more important to acquire less glamorous but nimbler weapons to prevent Beijing from considering an invasion.
Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party views Taiwan as an independent nation, spent her first four years in office successfully securing high-tech arms commitments from U.S. President Donald Trump, including more advanced F-16s and battle tanks. Now she will need to show whether she can use that base to build a more credible deterrent against any attack by an increasingly powerful China.
The challenge is real. Taiwan has long been vulnerable to the ever-present threat of a military incursion from the mainland — which considers it a province — amid fears it could be absorbed by Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed his desire for unification and continued to dramatically outspend Taiwan on defense. The investment has also eroded America’s ability to intervene in any conflict.
That has raised the stakes — and the urgency — for Tsai after her landslide election victory Saturday over China-friendly challenger Han Kuo-yo. The win cleared a path for Tsai to continue deepening defense ties with the U.S. to offset both China’s military gains and its campaign to lure away Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies.
Her bigger challenge may be transforming Taiwan’s defense into a strong enough deterrent to repel an initial Chinese invasion, upgrading indigenous anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles and other weapons.
“Many of the things Taiwan needs at this point are not things that require the U.S. to sell them,” said Scott Harold, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. That includes “a continuing commitment to the sorts of survivable, low-profile and networked defenses that can survive an initial Chinese attack and be resilient and lethal for weeks or months.”
Western defense analysts have advocated a “porcupine strategy” for Taiwan making it too painful for China to invade. That would mean focusing military investments on elements of the armed forces capable of surviving an initial precision bombardment from Chinese forces, hardening key facilities and concentrating on a standing army equipped with short-range, defensive weapons.
“We have to let Xi Jinping and the Chinese government understand: If they choose some military way to invade Taiwan, the cost will be so high that they can’t afford it,” Wang Ting-yu, a DPP lawmaker heads Taiwan’s national defense committee, told Bloomberg Television. “The United States wants to help us? Thank you. But we understand, the responsibility is on our shoulders.”
Taiwan is set to receive a raft of U.S. weapons systems in Tsai’s second term, including $8 billion of more than 60 F-16 warplanes from Lockheed Martin Corp. and around $2 billion of M1A2T Abrams tanks from General Dynamics Corp. Tsai has also ordered the construction of attack submarines built domestically by CSBC Corp., Taiwan.
The high-profile U.S. sales, which Beijing views as a violation of American commitments to withdraw from Taiwan, symbolize Taipei’s dependence on U.S. security assurances. The potential for an intervention by the U.S. — and possibly Japan and European nations — has been a significant factor preventing from China from military action.
The U.S. was quick to congratulate Tsai on her election win, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo calling Taiwan a “model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world.” Pompeo praised what he said was “her commitment to maintaining cross-strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure.”
Despite those considerations, Tsai must grapple with the strength of a rival that spends an estimated $250 billion on defense annually, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — about 25 times what Taiwan spends. China’s coast bristles with increasingly long-range and sophisticated missiles that would be capable of wiping out most of the island’s runways and fighter jets at the start of any conflict.
Still, a Chinese invasion would be far from simple. A landing force capable of subduing an island of 23 million people would be spotted well in advance, and Taipei has been building up defenses on potential landing beaches for decades. The Taiwan Strait is also known for its rough waters.
Those considerations lead security experts to advocate that Taiwan focus on “asymmetric” weapons — including nimble mobile missile systems that could shoot down Chinese jets and relocate quickly before being annihilated by missiles — rather than expensive, vulnerable warplanes and tanks.
That would include weapons like Stinger missiles, on which Taiwan has spent more than $220 million, as well as enhanced training for reservists and investments in command, control and communications networks.
That also would include a need to protect VIPs in a clash — a situation highlighted by the loss of Taiwan’s top uniformed military officer, Gen. Shen Yi-ming, when his American-made Black Hawk helicopter crashed early this month.
“Her administration will continue to seek to enhance Taiwan’s military capabilities through both U.S. weaponry and development of indigenous defense systems,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
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