Soldiers pose for press during a military exercise in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15, 2020.

Soldiers pose for press during a military exercise in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on Jan. 15, 2020. AP / Chiang Ying-ying

The Defense Reforms Taiwan Needs

Taipei must stop buying the wrong weapons, restart work on its new strategy, and overhaul its reserve force.

The U.S-Taiwan relationship is evolving. It is becoming routine for the U.S. Navy to send ships through the Taiwan Strait. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will soon meet President Tsai Ing-wen, in Taipei, the first such cabinet-level visit in at least six years. This past June, an Army special forces group trained alongside a Taiwanese counterpart—and then posted footage of the exercise on Facebook. There are even efforts to codify America’s commitment to Taiwan, including Rep. Ted Yoho’s recently proposed Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which itself comes on the heels of the Taiwan Defense Act, introduced in both the House and the Senate.

These moves represent a necessary and overdue reassessment of America’s longstanding posture of strategic ambiguity toward the island. After all, Xi Jinping is not mincing words. His military’s frequent violations of Taiwanese waters and airspace serve as a stark reminder that China is willing to use violence to compel unification. 

At the same time, this shift could well result in the United States offering Taiwan greater security commitments. Because any such promises will mean risking American lives to preserve Taiwan’s freedom, the policy debate surrounding the future of U.S.-Taiwan relations cannot revolve exclusively around what the United States can and should do for Taiwan. Rather, it must include a robust conversation about what the United States should reasonably expect Taiwan to do to provide for its own defense.

As things stand, it is clear that Taiwan can do more.

To be sure, Taiwan is already undertaking some important reforms. For example, President Tsai second inaugural address made it clear that she wants to pursue the sorts of asymmetric capabilities that the Department of Defense has long pushed Taipei to acquire. Taiwan’s defense budgets are also growing under her watch. 

Nevertheless, the United States should push Taiwan to take at least three additional steps to show American voters—and Chinese war planners—that it is serious about defending itself against invasion. 

First, Taiwan must stop spending its scarce defense dollars on expensive conventional weapons. Last year, Taiwan spent more than $2 billion on 108 M1AT Abrams main battle tanks. It maintains a fleet of amphibious assault ships and is trying to acquire even more. Meanwhile, it is still trying to build eight so-called Indigenous Diesel Submarines (IDS). 

These sorts of high-profile capabilities might look good on paper, but they are prohibitively expensive. IDS, for example, could wind up costing at least $5 billion, an amount that represents roughly half of its annual defense budget. 

Worse yet, Taiwan can only afford to buy and maintain small inventories of such weapons. As a result, its entire defensive posture is vulnerable in a prolonged, high-intensity war. Nor are these sorts of weapons well suited for Taiwan’s defensive needs. Consider Abrams main battle tanks, which are too big for many of Taiwan’s roads and are hard to hide from enemy drones and aircraft. It is telling that the U.S. Marine Corps is getting rid of tanks even as Taiwan is buying more of them.

Second, Taiwan needs to devote serious resources and political capital into making the innovative Overall Defense Concept a reality. The brainchild of former Chief of the General Staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-min, the ODC seeks to re-orient the island’s defenses towards a genuinely asymmetric air- and sea-denial posture. Although the Tsai administration unveiled ODC to great fanfare in 2018, support for the force structure and doctrinal reforms needed to actually implement the concept have recently stalled. 

Third, Taiwan must overhaul its massive, but increasingly hollow, reserve force. In theory, it can call upon 2.5 million part-time soldiers. In reality, Taiwanese reservists are poorly trained (most spend a mere five days training every other year) and ill-equipped (the army might not even have enough rifles for all of them).

High-ranking U.S. officials, including Ambassador James Moriarty, have long pushed Taiwan to change how it thinks about this potentially game-changing force. Unfortunately, despite its rhetorical support for reserve reform, the Tsai administration’s efforts have thus far been limited to bureaucratic reshuffling and unrealistic calls to turn the reserves into a mirror image of the active duty force. 

Budget limits and legal restrictions on how often the government can mobilize reservists for training make this approach a fool’s errand. The Tsai administration should instead consider a more transformational vision: reconstitute most of its reserve units as a territorial defense force. Preparing Taiwan’s reservists to defend their homes and communities would be cheaper than trying to turn an unwieldy reserve force into a second ground army; and more effective, since it means reservists will fight on ground they know to protect the people they care most about. 

A territorial defense force also means Taiwan can credibly threaten to wage a protracted insurgency against an invasion force. Countries like Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, which also face an existential threat from a powerful neighbor, have already organized territorial defense forces of their own. And preliminary research suggests that such volunteer forces do deter aggression.

At the end of the day, domestic politics are probably having an outsized impact on some of Taiwan’s current defense policies. And Taiwan should of course be free to make its own choices. But the United States should be clear that it will not underwrite Taiwan’s security regardless of the choices Taipei makes, and American policymakers need to be explicit about the defense reforms they expect to see. For its part, the United States must also stop sending mixed messages by continuing to sell Taiwan costly weapons that are ill-suited for its defensive needs. Profit margins for American defense firms should not be allowed to shape the trajectory of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Taiwan is a friend and partner worth having. But true friendships are built on honesty. For the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship to blossom into something more will require a frank conversation about the defense reforms that the island really needs.