Taiwan Air Force staffers walk pass an upgraded US-made F-16 V fighter during a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on November 18, 2021.

Taiwan Air Force staffers walk pass an upgraded US-made F-16 V fighter during a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on November 18, 2021. Sam Yeh / AFP

Americans Want to Defend Taiwan. The Pentagon’s Budget Should, Too

Lawmakers should take advantage and give Americans the defense budget we need to stay ahead of China.

In recent polling, a greater share of the American public than ever supports using the U.S. military to defend Taiwan from China’s aggression. More Americans than ever believe Taiwan should become a treaty ally of the United States. But more than ever, Americans also believe the U.S. military is incapable of matching up to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

This rising tide of public support for Taiwan presents an opportunity for lawmakers to close the gap between the U.S. military budget and arsenal that we have to what is needed to balance and compete with that of China. 

Despite the formal pleasantries of the recent video summit between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, China, Taiwan, and the United States are near as much of a war footing as they have been in recent memory. Defending Taiwan, however, is not a familiar issue to most Americans or U.S. leaders.  

President Biden certainly raised eyebrows in the United States, Taiwan, and on mainland China when he responded during a CNN townhall in October that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan. In fact, the Taiwan Relations Act does not commit the United States to come to the aid of Taiwan should China try to reclaim the island forcefully. Although the comment was later walked back by the White House, Biden did voice the current sentiment held by the American public. 

According to the 2021 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, released in August, most respondents favor making Taiwan a formal treaty ally, support its inclusion in international organizations such as the United Nations, and support its recognition as an independent nation. For the first time since the Council first asked the question in 1982, the majority of respondents, 52 percent, support the use of troops to defend Taiwan from the China. By comparison, public support for the use of U.S. troops to defend a member of NATO is only seven points higher at 59 percent. Since 2014, support for using troops to defend NATO members has risen 25 percent, but support for defending Taiwan has risen 100 percent. 

The survey also shows that less than half of Americans, an all-time low number of respondents, feel that the U.S. military is superior to China's People's Liberation Army. While that may not be an accurate assessment of U.S military power, it is an accurate assessment of what Americans believe at the moment. When we analyze the survey results with respect to China and Taiwan in aggregate, they illustrate the public's desire: a military capable of competing with China, especially in support of Taiwan.

Biden’s fiscal year 2022 defense budget included requests for additional F-35 fighters, investments in the B-21 strategic bomber and Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine programs, and advanced capability enablers such as artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, even with a slightly increased value compared to last year, the FY22 budget topline does not support a favorable balance of power for the U.S. military against China's People's Liberation Army. Just this month alone, the Pentagon has reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army/Navy had amassed the largest fleet in the world, cited the acceleration of Chinese nuclear warfare development in its annual report to Congress on military developments involving China, and called a recent test firing of a Chinese hypersonic missile a near-Sputnik moment.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro this month called for an annual budget increase of between three and five percent for his service branch to keep pace with China. However, when accounting for inflation, the current rate of growth is stagnant at best

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., is among those who have sounded the alarm and questioned the Pentagon’s seriousness about the growing China threat. She lamented the Navy's and Air Force's "divest to invest" strategies in which they will decommission older platforms to free up dollars for investment in newer equipment, albeit in fewer quantities. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she laid out the detrimental effect this strategy will have on Air Force readiness: a "bare minimum" bomber force, a 40 percent decrease in ammunition procurement, and a 22 percent decrease in combat aircraft procurement. And she criticized the Navy’s plans to shelve 15 ships while only procuring two surface ships and two submarines, a drop in carrier-based fighter aircraft acquisition while speeding up aircraft retirements, and a general lack of focus on the Indo-Pacific. 

A Fall 2020 simulated wargame exposed more concerns. In it, the Air Force successfully repelled a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. However, its success hinged on a critical assumption: that the Air Force had overcome fiscal and technological challenges to possess the mix of manned aircraft, drones, and networks needed to stop the Chinese military. This mix included systems that do not fit within the Department of Defense's budget. Fortunately, the results of the wargame will inform the Air Force's Fiscal Year 2023 budget request.

Lawmakers, pundits, and officials inside and out of the military have warned Americans about the growing threat from China. Now, the public has joined the discourse. They want a U.S. military that will be able to deter and defeat China's People's Liberation Army; the Defense Department needs the budget required to do it.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Chet Lee is the 2021-2022 Navy Federal executive fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Lester Crown Center. He is a commander in the U.S. Navy.