PacNet #65 – To change Taiwan’s conscription system, change the culture

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Taiwanese polls indicated that, should the People’s Republic of China attack Taiwan, 74% of Taiwanese citizens were willing to defend the island. However, the question is not if they will fight, but how prepared they are.

In Taiwan, all men are conscripted into the military, but the period of service has been shortened in recent decades, from the original two years to one year (as of 2008) and now—since 2018—to just four months.

Yet, with the Ukraine invasion and the Chinese military drills following Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, the reality of war is inching closer. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in late March that Taiwan is considering extending the compulsory military service.

If Taiwan is truly committed to defending itself against the People’s Liberation Army, discussions should not only consider duration, but must also reform the activities associated with conscription.

A shared pessimism, a fractured relationship

To learn more, I spoke to young Taiwanese men on their experiences in the military and the glaring problems in Taiwan’s defense. The interviewees included men who served the four months of military service, but also those who completed the 12-day replacement service—an alternative option for men who have physical or mental health issues, dependent families, and low-income households. Replacement soldier service is fairly common: in 2021, 17% of men from Kaohsiung City enlisted in the replacement service instead of the standing military reserve service.

Within this cohort, there is a shared sense of pessimism. “If we had to be on the frontlines, we definitely did not have enough preparation. People just didn’t take it seriously,” one said—a sentiment that all the men seemed to share about their compatriots.

Where did this “unseriousness” toward conscription arise and how does Taiwanese society reinforce it? There are some fixable but neglected problems reflected by my interviewees: broken practice equipment, 50-year-old guns, and prolonged periods of sitting around, doing nothing. Society as a whole also does not prioritize military readiness. One of the men reflected: “The way people talk about the military just doesn’t feel that serious. People liken it to summer camp, or something to do between summers in college. If you took it seriously, it’s almost funny.”

For young Taiwanese men in the military, there is a jarring cognitive dissonance between their political and military stance. The men in the military “are vocally against Beijing, Xi Jinping, and the People’s Liberation Army.” In 2020, the Pew Research Center observed that Taiwanese between ages 18-29 are less likely to support closer economic or political ties with China when compared to their older counterparts. However, anti-PRC sentiment does not motivate these men, and wider society, to make sacrifices to defend their republic, nor does it translate into increased alertness toward PRC threats or investment into defenses.

“[China’s invasion] is never a topic of discussion [in the military],” one interviewee said. Another lamented, “Of course, everyone knows that the threat from China has always existed, but they think that it’s only in the news. They don’t know that it’s coming.”

For one thing, the bias toward optimism clouds understanding of war. Taiwan clings to the hope that the PRC will not invade, or that even if it does, the United States would break its strategic ambiguity and come to Taiwan’s rescue. Based on a survey from Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 51% of respondents disagreed with the statement “do you think China will invade Taiwan at any time?” while 39% of respondents agreed.

Secondly, we see the stigma against occupational soldiers in the popular idiom “a good man does not become a soldier, and a good piece of metal does not hit a nail.” This stigma is a byproduct of the third reason: the fractured relationship between the military and the Taiwanese public.

This dates all the way back to 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland and began its military occupation as the de facto government of Taiwan. The subsequent 228 Incident and the martial law period, dubbed the White Terror, traumatized Taiwanese people as the KMT military imprisoned, tortured, and executed local elites, intelligentsia, and civilians.

Modern-day Taiwan looks very different from the repressive, authoritarian regime that ruled the archipelago until a few decades ago. Taiwan’s road to democracy and investment in transitional justice has reformed many once-authoritarian institutions, making Taiwan a leading democracy in Asia. However, political repression at the hands of the military still taints Taiwanese society’s view of the military generations later.

A military/civilian solution 

The invasion of Ukraine shocked Taiwan, and the world. Analysts, policymakers, and netizens often ask, “Is Taiwan next?” A more productive question would be: What can we do to make Taiwan prohibitively costly to invade?

Healing the fractured relationship between the military and the civilians is a harder task than any one policy can tackle. Taiwanese people should recognize and respect the military. More importantly, the military should earn its respect within Taiwanese society. There are two tangible ways the military and civilians can work together to achieve a defensive Taiwanese military for the Taiwanese people.

Not only should citizen soldiers have a longer and more intense conscription service, Taiwanese culture should shift to recognize the threat of invasion. Critics should not interpret efforts to change the duration and quality of Taiwan’s military as an attempt to transform the liberal democratic country into a military regime. Instead, it is a way to signal to Beijing that the risks of invading Taiwan will outweigh the gains. Taiwanese men should walk away from their service feeling more confident in their country’s defense system after going through the rigorous boot camp.

Even more importantly, Taiwanese civilians should feel like their military will protect them. Besides improving conscription services, the Taiwanese military should also consider establishing short-term, low-commitment courses for civilians. A growing number of private companies have already taken the initiative in teaching civilians the basics of surviving war and weapon use. The military can use this opportunity to build a stronger bond with the public and also lead and supervise disseminated information for a territorial defense force, much like Ukraine’s “weekend warriors” prior to the 2022 invasion.

Taiwan’s future is not set. However, China’s military capacities are growing, making Taiwan’s need for deterrence ever-pressing and imperative. Taiwan must develop and fortify its defense units, starting from civilians and conscription soldiers. This means more than buying new weapons, building asymmetric capabilities, or lengthening the period of conscription. Taiwan needs a whole-of-society approach to preparedness, and must internalize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech a day before Russia’s invasion: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Claire Tiunn (Chang) (claire@pacforum.org) is a research intern at Pacific Forum and a politics and Russian and Eastern European studies double major at Pomona College.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

 

PacNet #64 – The Biden-Xi summit: Not revolutionary, but still necessary

US President Joe Biden’s Nov. 14 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia was never supposed to be a historic breakthrough between the world’s two greatest powers. Too many core issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to trade and technology, currently separate the two powers for the exchange to produce major achievements.

US and Chinese officials know this, of course. Neither side works for a dramatic improvement in ties, but rather they search for an opportunity to inject some stability into a relationship in desperate need of it. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said as much when he previewed the sit-down, emphasizing that Biden and Xi will have the chance to be frank and firm about where they disagree, clear up misunderstandings that may exist, and explore how US-China relations can be managed responsibility.

This is what Biden and Xi did during their over three-hour confab. The official US and Chinese readouts of the exchange were notably similar on one key point: the need, if not urgency, to ensure the strategic competition between the two powerhouses does not veer toward a conflict neither country wants. That the session adjourned with a number of working groups established, as well as the resumption of climate talks and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s second face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, about a week later, provided a cautiously hopeful signal that positive momentum remained a possibility.

US-China relations in the era of Biden

If Xi and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee thought President Biden would be more amenable to China’s rise than his predecessor, they were quickly disabused of that notion. To Donald Trump, China fleeced the United States economically and attempted to exceed it militarily. Yet to Biden, China is a multidimensional problem and the metaphorical tip of an authoritarian spear working to replace the US-dominated order with one run from Beijing. The Biden administration’s policy documents are careful to mention collaboration with China when interests converge, but as the US National Security Strategy states, “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” The phrase “world’s leading power” is instructive; in Washington’s view, China is not merely content with superiority in its neighborhood but covets the status of global hegemon.

The administration’s assessment of the China challenge, combined with China’s expansive claims in the East and South China Seas, its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, and active military modernization drive (among other issues) all contribute to US-China ties devolving to their lowest point since the two established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. Interactions between officials early in the Biden administration did not help. While Biden and Xi did not waste any time communicating—their first call occurred on Feb. 10, 2001, about three weeks after Biden’s inauguration—their subordinates spent meetings reciting well-worn talking points. Talks in Alaska in March 2021 degenerated into heated lectures, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken lauding the rules-based order and State Councilor Yang Jiechi chiding the United States for meddling in China’s internal affairs. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was repeatedly prevented from getting through to Gen. Xu Qiliang, vice chair of the Central Military Commission. The United States and China spent 2021 sanctioning one another’s officials and issuing travel restrictions on one another’s diplomats.

The bilateral relationship’s downward trajectory reached new lows in August, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan—the first visit to the self-ruled island by a speaker in a quarter-century—prompted the Chinese government to adopt stern military and diplomatic measures that raised tension in the region. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) greeted Pelosi’s travel with cruise missile tests, numerous incursions across the median-line by fighter aircraft, and what can only be described as a dress rehearsal for a hypothetical Taiwan blockade. Diplomatically, China severed contacts with the United States on multiple fronts, suspending talks on climate, defense, crime, counternarcotics, and risk reduction.

Don’t bet on a big improvement 

At its core, the Biden-Xi summit belatedly attempted to bring US-China relations back to where they were prior to August. Relations weren’t stellar before Pelosi landed in Taipei, but the two powers were at least engaging across multiple issue sets. Dialogue between Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan and the Xi-Biden meeting was lackluster. Opportunities for US Ambassador Nicholas Burns to get an audience with key Chinese policymakers is limited, and Qin Gang, China’s ambassador in Washington, reportedly faces his own restrictions on access to US officials. A single phone call in July has been the extent of the contact between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and PLA Chief of the Joint Staff Gen. Li Zuocheng. It took Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over a year before he spoke with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense—and only after Austin gave up on reaching Gen Xu Qiliang, the PLA’s highest-ranking officer.

To the strongest hawks in Washington and Beijing, this spotty dialogue isn’t all that worrying and may even have been something to cheer. However, it is one thing for the United States and China to possess starkly different foreign policy strategies, objectives, and perceptions of how the world should operate (one would expect such differences). It is another thing entirely for those differences to fester unmanaged. In situations where competitors or adversaries have strong, conflicting paradigms, clear, durable, and consistent communication—particularly at the senior levels—is an absolute prerequisite to mitigating conflict. Biden and Xi rightly concluded that the lack of communication channels made responsible competition—a goal both leaders profess—virtually impossible.

The question naturally arises: will more communication necessarily result in more rapprochement? The answer varies by issue. For instance, it’s difficult to envision a scenario whereby the United States and China arrive at a general understanding about Taiwan; Xi is as committed to reunifying the island with the mainland as Biden is to ensuring Taiwan can make a PLA invasion contingency prohibitively costly. Biden’s suggestion that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if the PLA launched a military operation, followed with subsequent clarifications by his advisers that US policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed, just adds to the confusion in Chinese policy circles about whether Washington is still abiding by the “one China” policy. The “one China” policy, which states in part that Washington recognizes the PRC as the sole government of China and acknowledges (but does not recognize) the PRC’s claims to Taiwan and opposes any unilateral moves toward Taiwanese independence, has governed U.S.-Taiwan relations for more than four decades. PLA military exercises around Taiwan and periodic US freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait likely give more ammunition to hardliners in both capitals pining for a full decoupling.

A ceasefire in the technology and trade wars is also unlikely in the short-term. Tariffs remain in effect, with neither side willing to make the first move toward lifting them. Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration uses Commerce Department rules to stop advanced semiconductors and chip-making machinery from reaching China, which Beijing detests as a deliberate US attempt to kneecap Chinese technological development. The United States rejects those complaints wholesale, arguing that US technology should in no way bolster the CCP’s internal surveillance and military modernization.

Even if those big agenda items remain unresolved, two superpowers who hold more than 40% of the world’s GDP and account for more than half of the world’s military spending don’t have anything to gain by completely isolating each other. If Biden’s meeting with Xi puts a stop to a deeper deterioration in relations, it will have been worth the effort.

Daniel R. DePetris (dan.depetris@defp.org) is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013 by REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool//File Photo

PacNet #63 – AUKUS: Stepping boldly into space

Our information-based societies are inseparable from space technology, and space is an increasingly “contested, congested, and competitive” domain. With over 5,000 operational satellites in orbit and tens of thousands more to launch over the coming decades, reliance on space will only increase, as will its importance as a domain for strategic competition. Space-based assets provide services essential for telecommunications, weather and climate monitoring, agricultural management, the finance sector, natural disaster response and recovery, and more.

In recent years, governments and the commercial sector have awoken to the risk of space assets as a single point of failure, given that the degradation of access to space or the destruction of space-based assets would catastrophically affect civil, commercial, and national security sectors.

However, establishing a resilient and robust space industry ecosystem is an enormous, complex task requiring a significant degree of international collaboration on sensitive technologies—making AUKUS a prime medium for elevating such cooperation. The United States increasingly recognizes the need to support and scale international allies and their space capabilities as to deepen interoperable architectures and build resilient space systems.

Previously the sole preserve of a few governments, the space industry is now heavily dependent on commercial operators. SpaceX operates approximately one-half of all satellites in orbit, followed by OneWeb Satellites and Planet Labs. The proliferation of satellites and access to space is largely due to improvements led by the commercial launch sector over the past decade. In 2020, the global space industry’s value reached an estimated $424 billion, expanding 70% since 2010.

With space increasingly recognized as a strategically pivotal domain of critical technology, its future will mirror that of cyber: trending towards bifurcation in trade and research as globalization retreats. This will spur intensification of space competition, presenting risks for civil, commercial, and national security uses.

Though the United States remains the pre-eminent global space power, Russia and China have been designated as the greatest threats to America and its allies in space, as outlined in a recent Defense Intelligence Agency report. Their significant investment and focus on space follows a common objective to out-perform the United States and its allies and to exploit reliance on space-based systems. Russia and China’s combined operational space fleets have grown by approximately 70% between 2019 and 2021.

The Chinese government has a strategic approach that considers US dependence on space “its Achilles’ heel,” and is rapidly expanding its capabilities to exploit this. The Rosetta Stone for interpreting China’s ambitions for space is its approach to Antarctica and the South China Sea, where it previously professed a commitment to non-escalatory behavior while continuing to incrementally expand its presence and assert its claims. Ye Peijian, the chief commander of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, compares the moon and Mars to the Senkaku and Spratly Islands, adding that China must protect its “space rights and interests.”

Investment in new and emerging capabilities continues to grow in counterspace technologies.

The capabilities of Russia and China, in particular, are rapidly evolving. The most totemic counterspace weapon is a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), of which 16 tests have been conducted by four counties—the United States, China, Russia, and India. Yet it is investment in energy weapons beyond direct-ascent ASAT technologies by all major space players will define the future of counterspace technologies. These energy weapons include high-powered lasers and microwave weapons. Attacks from these weapons will be difficult to attribute as damage can be temporary or reversible. In the immediate term, however, use of cyber-attacks and radio frequency jammers targeting space infrastructure remains the most urgent military threat to space systems.

In-orbit collision is another risk that is difficult to mitigate. There is potential for a cascading series of orbital impacts—the Kessler effect—that could wreak havoc on all orbiting space assets and potentially render space inaccessible. Space weather can add to potential collision risks by rendering satellites uncontrollable. While the threat of radiation can be minimized, there is a limit to what can be done to protect from powerful geomagnetic storms that can either destroy or significantly harm the functionality of space-based assets.

Opportunity for AUKUS

The technology-centric trilateral AUKUS agreement could elevate space cooperation and build mutually beneficial space capabilities. One can already see space-related momentum in agreements on complementary technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and hypersonics. For the United Kingdom, space cooperation and improving interoperability via AUKUS would support its recent designation of space as part of its Critical National Infrastructure. The 2022 UK Defense Space Strategy underscored Britain’s desire to be “at the heart of Allied space efforts.” The United States would profit from shared uplift in capabilities of the United Kingdom and Australia, which could for example become capable of reconstituting mutually beneficial space-based assets in the event of a crisis. This includes global navigation satellite systems that provide vital position, navigation, and timing services used for all forms of transportation, the finance industry, agriculture, emergency management and more. Additionally, via AUKUS, these partners can investigate opportunities to improve and streamline space “innovation cycles and co-development processes” for building mutually reinforcing capabilities in times of crises. These could include common satellite technologies.

Through AUKUS, they may take steps to boost space resilience against military or natural crises by ensuring that the countries maintain minimum viable capabilities across key elements of the space industry supply chain. This could include focusing on elements required to reconstitute vital space-based assets, as well as systems for disaggregating and complementing existing capabilities. This process should include AUKUS governments working together to incorporate new and emerging technology firms into the space industry supply chain.

The completion of the Australia-US Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) negotiations would help deepen cooperation. Using the recently completed UK-US TSA as a model, this agreement would enable US companies to operate from Australian spaceports and help pave the way to exporting space launch technology to Australia. It would ensure that US spaceflight technology is properly protected when operating in either the United Kingdom or Australia via a legally binding framework. The lack of a TSA between Australia and the United States is a significant barrier to further commercial activity across civil, commercial, and national security space sectors. Under the AUKUS banner, a TSA could be singled out for fast-tracking and would see both Australia and the United Kingdom able to more deeply engage world-leading US companies and their technologies.

Promoting the development of spaceports and mutual access via the AUKUS framework will improve both access to space and resilience building. Australia is well-positioned for launch activities by leveraging its geographic advantages and regional accessibility. All three countries will need access to capable launch vehicles. The Australian Department of Defense’s new Space Strategy notes that “Defence anticipates it will need access to a responsive and assured space launch capability in the future.” The UK Defence Space Strategy, also released this year, underscores the importance of launch. Both Australia and the United Kingdom continue to support development and operation of a number of spaceports, as well as a number of companies seeking to develop launch vehicles.

The United States and United Kingdom maintain globally leading satellite manufacturing capabilities. However, all three countries should ensure the ability to support higher rates of commercialization in the burgeoning small satellite manufacturing industry, particularly as rapidly emerging capabilities and advanced technologies can quickly change the satellite-manufacturing ecosystem. For Australia, targeted investment in the ability to manufacture small satellite constellations would meet local demand while servicing an expanding segment of the global space industry. As noted earlier, commercial firms are the largest operators of satellites, but planned satellite constellations and fillings booming into the tens of thousands will increasingly strain launch infrastructure and supply chains. Recognizing this, the Australian government has moved to fund the creation of space-focused collaborative manufacturing hubs.

These recommendations, however, represent only some of the many potential areas for greater cooperation through AUKUS. For example, as we become further dependent on space technologies, significant investment in ground segment would be integral to bolstering resilience. Similarly, emerging capabilities in optical communications can change the space industry landscape.

The AUKUS partnership can minimize the impact of a crisis, from conflict to natural disaster, on space infrastructure. By expanding complementary low-earth orbit small satellite constellations; streamlining mutual access to launch facilities; and bolstering each other’s domestic space manufacturing capabilities, the AUKUS partners could strengthen the resilience of their space-dependent societies. Better coordination of trilateral investment in new and emerging space-related technologies can support these initiatives.

Philip Citowicki (citowicki@gmail.com) is a Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum and an Australian foreign policy commentator.

This is an abridged publication from Triple Constellation: AUKUS in Space by Philip Citowicki for the Australian National University National Security College.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #62 – Myanmar’s emerging national identity could change everything

The Myanmar military is, paradoxically, achieving one of its longest-standing objectives: a tangible national identity. The success of this goal, however, will require the failure of the regime’s more pressing objective: remain in power.

To maintain control, the Myanmar military has demonstrated a willingness to inflict brutality. Many observers assess the regime’s increasing use of air strikes and explicit targeting of civilians as desperation due to depleted and demoralized ground forces. However, these actions also follow the military’s long-standing “four cuts” doctrine: cut off access to food, money, potential recruits, and information within areas opposing central government rule.

Critically, the four cuts doctrine is now directly applied against the majority ethnic Bamar population areas previously relied upon for recruitment and material support which, more than desperation, may signal the Myanmar military’s quasi-religious belief in its own centrality. Even if the regime is desperate, Commander-In-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his coalition are likely willing to sacrifice everything to maintain privilege and power.

The resulting civil war has mobilized citizens across class, ethnic, religious, and geographic divides toward the common goal of ending the regime. The current opposition to the military is the strongest unifying force in Myanmar’s recent history.

A broader opposition

The Civil Disobedience Movement, which started as a general strike against the coup, drew workers across the country and from diverse sectors of the economy. Even when met with lethal force, peaceful opposition has far outlived comparable past attempts. Simultaneously, violent opposition has expanded beyond the long-established claims of Myanmar’s powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and into traditional military strongholds.

Majority ethnic Bamar areas, notably Magway and Sagaing, are now sites of intense combat against loosely organized, often poorly equipped People’s Defense Forces (PDF), as well as the regime’s indiscriminate raids, killings, and the burnings of civilian homes.

Yet the Myanmar military’s operational and strategic challenges have only intensified. Last month saw the effective end of a tenuous ceasefire with the Arakan Army, the powerful EAO seeking autonomous rule in Rakhine State. The Myanmar military also, after months of clashes, struggles to make operational gains against the Karen National Union—which has resisted central government rule since 1948—in Karen State.

The growing cooperation of some EAOs with the National Unity Government (NUG)— primarily members of the prior civilian government—and NUG-backed PDFs signals potential for much greater operational capacity on the part of the opposition.

Most tellingly, the Myanmar military appears to be losing people faster than it can replace them. The military’s response, no matter how brutal, is likely insufficient to reestablish previous military dominance.

However, the alternative to a central government victory against the opposition is not necessarily one where a popular, or less brutal, regime comes to power. The Myanmar military is in the process of becoming one among many armed factions grappling for territory and resources.

Nevertheless, the continued survival of opposition across Myanmar’s ethnic and geographic boundaries represents the clearest opportunity yet for the emergence of a shared national identity. This identity, should it survive, may prove a critical unifying force giving the nation and its people a more stable and prosperous future.

For most of Myanmar’s turbulent post-colonial history, its ethnic minorities have suffered the brunt of successive military regime attempts at consolidating power. This has often been easy to dismiss for those in the Bamar-dominated heartland now suffering what those in Myanmar’s ethnic states have for decades experienced. These minorities remain suspicious of how the NUG-led opposition might act in power. Growing cooperation suggests this suspicion is gradually relieving, but much mistrust remains.

The damage caused by the double disasters of COVID-19 and the 2021 coup left millions in poverty, and rampant economic mismanagement in the wake of the coup has destroyed the financial system, making access to critical commodities, including medicines, scarce. Yet, perhaps because they have little left to lose, the opposition continues.

Regional realism

It’s easy to assume the current opposition won’t succeed, especially considering the stances of regional powers such as China, India, and Thailand, which continue to either enable or outright support the military regime. That should come as no surprise: those who continue to support the regime look first to their own interests, backing the side perceived as most likely to win.

But it’s more complicated than it seems.

As the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with 45% of its population under 25 and expansive natural resources including hydroelectric potential and fossil fuel reserves, Myanmar could become a major regional power, potentially threatening Thailand’s central economic position in mainland Southeast Asia. Thailand continues to endure ongoing political turmoil that appears to share much in common with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime in terms of maintaining power at the expense of political and economic transformation. Keeping Myanmar undeveloped and a source of cheap labor and commodities is therefore a tolerable status quo.

A more unified Myanmar may also prove less amenable to the economic and security interests of India and China when these do not align with the popular will.

The expansive sanctions and efforts at humanitarian aid delivery by the United States and others notwithstanding, international efforts stop short of official recognizing the NUG. Doing so would surely pose significant diplomatic risk, ending whatever engagement is possible with the current regime and upsetting key partners—especially Thailand.

The national identity taking shape in opposition to the regime demands consideration through both realist and idealistic lenses. From a humanitarian perspective, the growing toll of nearly 30,000 homes burned, thousands of civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced is unconscionable. The crisis drains the credibility of ASEAN, while transnational threats of narcotics and arms trafficking are sure to intensify and undermine regional security.

A “wait and see” approach will keep Myanmar’s future opaque. The damage from this civil war will not be reversed anytime soon, yet the opportunity for outside powers to support a national identity, which could lead to stability and prosperity, is unprecedented. Doing so will require backing the opposition against the current regime in recognition of a better future. Growing unity suggests that this is not only possible, but increasingly expected.

Wayland Blue (wjblue@uscd.edu) is a graduate student in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego focusing on development and security issues in Southeast Asia. He previously worked as the director of research and evaluation for Shade Tree Foundation, a Thailand-based NGO delivering aid and education to Myanmar migrant and refugee families.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Southeast Asia Globe.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar) by Ninjastrikers

PacNet #61 – The new National Security Strategy in the context of an unstated “cold war”

The Biden administration released America’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) on Oct. 12. For those who read such documents regularly, there were few surprises. Values were mentioned in the context of the United States’ position in the world and vis-a-vis perceived adversaries, such as Russia, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China, while the administration’s lines of effort were laid out in a typical ends, ways, and means format. There were also sections on each region of the world, where the strategies laid out a bit more context.

If one compares the Biden NSS with three other NSS—1994 under President Bill Clinton, 2002 under President George W. Bush, 2017 under President Donald Trump—released early in the president’s term, one can see the evolution of US national strategy over time. By doing a word count of key terms in all four documents—such as “alliance,” “Asia,” “China,” “Russia,” “Europe,” “democracy,” “freedom,” “free trade,” and “terrorism”—it is possible to discern an administration’s priorities by how many mentions a key term gets in each document. Seen across time, it’s interesting to note the variation in use of these terms and indicative of differences and commonalities between different administrations.

For all the differences between the two parties in the US system and the yawning gulf of the culture wars, the four NSS analyzed are fairly similar. Not because they are mundane documents written by bureaucrats—they are usually led by the White House of each administration who work hard to put the president’s stamp on US security posture. Rather, they are similar because the two parties—despite their domestic differences—share a common worldview and a similar conception of the US role within that world.

The four strategies all stress the importance of values and the democratic system to its foreign policy. US policymakers continue to stress the role of US values in achieving its paramount position and making the world a better place, though different strategies vary in how the administration expresses those values. Democratic administrations seem to mention “democracy” more than “freedom,” while the reverse is true for Republican administrations. There are also differences in whether the US is determined to export or defend those values.

The major tension point for the Biden administration is knowing there is going to be a drawn-out ideological struggle with the PRC and Russia, while wanting to avoid the term “cold war” due to its long-term implications. Despite a clear rejection of the concept, the NSS nevertheless heavily from US values language from the 1950s by dividing values into two forms—freedoms of liberalism (voting, political freedoms, free media) and freedoms from coercion and oppression. This approach was prominent in President Truman’s 1947 speech to Congress and makes sense because it widens the US appeal to global partners. While the first form would be attractive to fellow democratic liberal states in Europe, the second is more attractive to small and medium-sized non-democratic states whose sovereignty may be threatened by Moscow or Beijing. If one is to fight a long ideological competition with a powerful authoritarian power, then one must frame that power by its coercive practices while having a broad base of support.

The 2022 NSS asserts that its goal is, at the systemic level, to create an order that is free, open, and prosperous—language echoing that found in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and language developed with allies such as Japan over the past decade to frame Chinese actions in the South China Sea, its Belt and Road Initiative, and Russian efforts to destabilize and dominate Europe.

While previous strategies connect values with the overall international system, the Biden version follows that laid out in the Trump NSS by noting that China is also projecting its (authoritarian) values as it seeks to re-order the system.

Consequently, it lays out an architecture for out-competing the PRC across all domains, and this is the administration’s priority. Despite this, “Russia” still gains 71 mentions compared to “China” and “the PRC,” which had 54 between them. The most likely explanation is Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, which dominates the section on Europe.

Speaking of Europe, one might expect to see the word “Europe” mentioned more than “Asia” or “Indo-Pacific” in earlier strategies but fade out as the PRC’s rise became a more pressing issue for US strategists, and this is borne out by analysis. Dropping from a high of 48 in the 1994 strategy, “Europe” is only mentioned 35 times in the 2022 NSS, while “Asia” and the “Indo-Pacific” are mentioned 43 times.

It notes that the lines between domestic and foreign policy are blurring in the age of social media, insecure supply chains, and data-related technologies. These, like 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum, and other emerging and critical technologies have grown in importance as Xi Jinping has accelerated the Digital China strategy. “Technology” was mentioned six times in 1994, nine times in 2002, 25 times in 2017, and 41 times in the 2022 NSS. This is a truly impressive marker of the importance of tech to the new era of competition.

The NSS also stresses the importance of allies, fairly common to most American strategic documents. However, the Biden administration’s strategy mentions “alliances” 17 times, only matched by the Bush administration’s, which was waging a global “war on terror” in 2002.

For those who track US trade policy, it will come as no surprise to see that “free trade” has also almost disappeared from the document, garnering only two mentions, a divergence between the United States and its allies. This reflects the United States’ continuing domestic debate over free trade agreements, sparked during the 2016 presidential election, which remains divisive among US policy elites.

Overall, the 2022 NSS is in line with those that came before it, but one can see the evolution towards a United States that must compete long-term with the PRC and Russia in the ideological, technological, military, and economic domains, and one that a United States that needs its allies to succeed. One can also see a glimpse of the values language used by former President Truman—which became the Truman Doctrine and laid the foundations for the generational competition with the Soviet Union. For those in the region who might view the United States as more obsessive about values—freedom and democracy—the document goes out of its way to create a non-liberal definition of freedom—one of freedom from coercion, a sort of support for sovereignty that underpinned US support for Turkey (a non-democracy in 1947). Surely, this is a definition that any regional state should support. If the United States can work with its partners and allies to make clear this is behind the term “free and open” with elements of open maritime access, the United States will begin to soften the resistance from regional friends and partners who do not share our democratic and liberal values. On the other hand, the lack of an economic framework is a key concern, given China’s pivotal role in the global economy and trade system—a very different challenge to that posed by a Cold War-era USSR.

A pragmatic strategy that lays the foundations for a decades-long competition but one that still needs to resolve key issues.

John Hemmings (john@pacforum.org) is Senior Director of the Indo-Pacific Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Pacific Forum.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #60 – The Myth of Taiwan as a Pacific Nation

“The US has begun to reimagine itself as a Pacific nation. Taiwan would be wise to explore the merits of following suit. This could unlock benefits that entail from a shared identity.”

– Michael Walsh and John Hemmings, Taipei Times, Oct. 7, 2022

The Taiwan government must find a way to deter and derail the existential threat posed by the People’s Republic of China. To achieve these outcomes, Taipei will need to maintain a strong and enduring partnership with the United States. At present, this strategic bond is reinforced by a number of shared identities. As pointed out by Walsh and Hemmings, the myth of being a Pacific nation is not one of them. Per their suggestion, Taipei should explore the merits of reimagining itself as a Pacific nation too.

The United States has long toyed with the idea of being a Pacific nation. President Barack Obama inflected a major shift toward that identity when he declared, “the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” Framing his assertion as a “fundamental truth,” President Obama set into motion the reimagination of America as a Pacific nation through a combination of rhetoric and narrative. On the backs of Asian immigration and fallen soldiers, the Obama Administration constructed a persuasive story about how a “complex and intricate mix of history, ideas, and interests” had transformed into a Pacific nation long ago. In this way, a mental image was formed that eventually rooted in the collective consciousness of American thought leaders. Now, many American policymakers accept the claim that America is a Pacific nation as a statement of fact. It has started to become a Thorsonian myth.

Throughout the world, few places have struggled with the concept of collective identity like Taiwan. For decades, the question of what demonym to use for the people of Taiwan has been at the forefront of national debates and the cause of international concern. After a multi-decade struggle for the preservation of autonomy from the People’s Republic of China, attitudes have somewhat shifted on the idea of being Taiwanese. Many still cling onto the identity of being Chinese. There remains no consensus on what should be the Taiwanese identity. A strong affinity has been forged around several other identities, however. These include the ideas of being a democratic state and East Asian state. While being a democratic state is an identify shared with the United States, being an East Asian state is not. If there was another regional identity jointly held by both partners, then this gap would lose much of its significance. It is therefore somewhat surprising that Taipei has not explored further whether becoming a Pacific nation could bridge that divide.

If the Taiwan government took a closer look at the merits, then Taiwan policymakers would find that it is not difficult to craft a persuasive story about Taiwan being a Pacific nation.

Their first glance should be geography. As Walter Lippman once said “the world that we have to deal with politically…is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined.” That is why “cognitive frameworks” drawn from “geographic considerations” have such a profound role to play in domestic and foreign affairs. Fortunately, Taiwan is gifted with the “blessing of geography.” Composed of a set of islands in the Western Pacific that are situated at approximately the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, Taiwan lies proximate to what is commonly referred to as the Pacific Islands Region. Taipei is a full ~1,000 miles closer to Koror than Los Angeles is to Honolulu. If American policymakers can draw a mental map around Pacific nations that is inclusive of the United States, then surely Taiwan can do the same.

Their second glance should history, culture, and language. The connections between Taiwan and the Pacific nations extend far beyond geographic happenstance. The historical ties between the Taiwanese aborigines and other Pacific Islanders are well documented. Although the history of the Austronesian and Lapita cultures remains the subject of debate, there is evidence that the Neolithic period expansion of Austronesian-speaking peoples can be traced back to an Austronesian homeland in Taiwan. Either way, the Austronesian family of languages continues to provide a linguistic bridge between the indigenous communities of Taiwan and their Pacific Islander cousins.

Taipei has been taking steps to protect that connection. In 2017, the Indigenous Languages Development Act was promulgated to “achieve historical justice, further preserve and promote the indigenous languages, and guarantee that the languages are used and passed down.” But language is only part of the story. The revival of Taiwanese indigenous culture has become a touchstone topic among the majority Han Taiwanese population. This has created additional space to emphasize Taiwan’s Austronesian roots on the national stage. Although often overlooked, Taiwan’s experiences with colonization and conflict provide another common ground with the Pacific nations. At various times, the territory of Taiwan has been possessed by the Netherlands, Spain, and Japan. This mirrors the colonial experiences of many Pacific Island countries. Moreover, Taipei was heavily bombed by foreign militaries during WWII, although that story is not widely acknowledged in contemporary discourses. These experiences provide a shared platform on which to construct the story of Taiwan as a Pacific nation.

The third glance should be common security and political interests. Taiwan and the Pacific nations share traditional security concerns. In close partnership with the United States, Taiwan seeks to deter invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has not renounced the use of force in its pursuit to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland. While Pacific Island countries may not fear imminent invasion by the PLA, they wish to avoid getting caught in the middle of US-China competition.

The outbreak of open hostilities between these superpowers would endanger not only the core interests of Taiwan, but those of Pacific Island Countries as well. Consider the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) states. Under the terms of those agreements, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense. Such conflict would involve the distributed network of military bases currently under construction across the COFA states. It could also draw in other military bases located in other Pacific Island Countries. Then, there is the issue of the citizens of Pacific Island Countries who are part of the United States Armed Forces. In any US-China conflict, these Pacific Islander servicemen and servicewomen would be expected to join the fight. Pacific Island Countries therefore share a compelling interest in deterring major power combat.

While traditional security interests often get top billing, Taiwan and Pacific nations also share a myriad of non-traditional security concerns. This includes the existential threat posed by climate change. Pacific Islands Countries have made clear that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.” They are not alone. Taiwan is facing significant problems posed by climate change impacts. In 2021, Taiwan experienced its most severe drought period in 56 years. This was due to the unusual lack of typhoons passing over the main island. These typhoons play a critical role in recharging reservoirs and the economic outcomes of their absence were significant. The drought negatively impacted Taiwan’s production of semiconductor chips among other painful impacts including lost agricultural yields and water rationing for households and businesses.

Of course, not all natural disasters arise from climate change and not all non-traditional security concerns involve natural disasters. On a perennial basis, Taiwan faces the risk posed by earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis. It also has to contend with threats posed by infectious diseases, drug trafficking, organized crime, transnational migration, supply chain insecurity, or cyber threats. Many Pacific Island Countries face similar concerns as evidenced by the natural disasters that recently struck Tonga and the cyberattack that recently disrupted internet services in the Marshall Islands.

Beyond security concerns, Taiwan and many Pacific nations also share a desire to preserve the rules-based international order and a preference for democratic political systems. At the Indo-Pacific Leaders Dialogue, President Tsai Ing-wen declared that Taiwan shares a commitment “to upholding the rules-based international order,” “employing transparency and accountability as the basis for cooperation,” and promoting the “values of democracy and freedom” with Australia. Similarly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently affirmed that “United States, Taiwan, and Palau share a strong commitment to democracy, to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to advancing the peace and prosperity of the region.” In the Blue Pacific Strategy, the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum not only warned that the “established rules-based order for peace and security as set out in the Boe Declaration faces increasing pressure, and the Pacific region is not immune.” They also proclaimed that “the Blue Pacific Continent remains committed to principles of democracy.” While the declarations of countries and actions of their leaders sometimes pull in different directions, there is significant common ground to be found between Taiwan and Pacific nations on these political matters.

When Washington took a closer look at the merits of reimagining the United States as a Pacific nation, American policymakers found that it was possible to craft a story through a “complex and intricate mix of history, ideas, and interests.” While there are significant differences in the history, ideas, and interests of Taiwan and the United States, Taiwan policymakers could use a similar narrative framework to craft their own story about Taiwan as a Pacific nation. Such an approach begs several follow-on questions. The most immediate are: who needs to be persuaded? How difficult would it be to conduct outreach? What are the potential benefits, costs, and risks? Taipei should start exploring these questions to better understand the merits of reimagining Taiwan as a Pacific nation. And it should make that a priority.

Michael Walsh (mw1305@georgetown.edu) is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Wen-Chi Yang (wyang@nccu.edu.tw) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University.

Adam Morrow (adam@pacforum.org) is the Director of the Young Leaders Program at Pacific Forum.

The views expressed are their own.

Note: The authors would like to acknowledge the inspiration for this article: Satu Limaye, “The US as a Pacific Nation.” Education About Asia. Volume 17, No. 3 (Winter 2012): 4-7.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: President Tsai visits Tuvalu (2017/11/01) by The Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

PacNet #59 – How the new National Security Strategy transforms US China policy

The United States has transformed its policy toward China.

This shift is not plain from the language of the National Security Strategy, released this week, even though that document identifies China as a country with “the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”

Rather, the change becomes visible with the study of speeches by top administration officials, recent presidential executive orders and other actions by the US government.

Previously, the US, along with allies and partners, focused on preventing China from acquiring technology that would improve its military capabilities. The ambition is now much grander: The goal is to constrain the development of China’s high-tech economy, to thwart its rise as a challenger to US (and Western) technological supremacy.

It is a risky strategy and may instead accelerate developments it seeks to thwart.

During the Cold War and the period after, the US approach was one-dimensional—it sought to deny adversaries access to technologies that could better their military capabilities. The policy defined threats narrowly and focused on acquisition through trade.

That perspective reflected the limitations of America’s rival, the Soviet Union, which was unable to muster a challenge beyond that posed by its armed forces.

Today’s primary concern, China, poses a more formidable threat. It is not only a potential military adversary but it can compete with the United States (and the West) economically, in soft power, diplomacy and development aid, and in the contest to develop the most advanced technologies.

It is that latter capacity that is most alarming since leadership in the high-tech arena will determine which country leads the 21st-century economy.

Also worrying is the use of those technologies to construct surveillance systems capable of empowering autocrats or undermining human rights. The technologies strengthen regimes that reject democratic ideals and promote opposing ideologies.

China’s economic success allows it to evade traditional means of controlling tech transfer. China has lots of money, which it can use to invest in or buy companies, or as venture capital to set them up.

The desire by others to crack China’s huge domestic market gives the Beijing government leverage to demand tech transfer as a term of engagement. And the skills of its scientists embed them in the international collaborations that set the frontiers of technology.

US administrations have been tightening the screws for some time. One marker was the adoption, as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, of the Export Control Reform Act and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act. They expanded and strengthened regulations of strategic trade and foreign investment in the US.

The “entities list” that the Commerce Department uses to restrict destinations of goods and technologies has grown steadily longer as more Chinese companies are added. Companies that make technologies that can be used for surveillance or repression are being added, too.

Recent decisions have made clear that the US is going further to block China’s ability to compete.

In early October, the Biden administration announced new rules to limit Chinese access to advanced computer chips and chip-making equipment. Enforcing the foreign direct product rule (FDPR) means that any company that sells advanced chips to Chinese firms or organizations working on artificial intelligence and supercomputing will require a US government license if the company uses US technology to make the chips.

Almost all significant semiconductor companies do. A Boston Consulting Group analysis concluded that there are at least 23 types of chipmaking equipment for which US companies control more than 65% of global supply, making this restriction a powerful chokepoint in the semiconductor supply chain.

That status prompted Gregory Allen of CSIS, the Washington-based think tank, to conclude that the rule signals “a new US policy of actively strangling large segments of the Chinese technology industry—strangling with an intent to kill.”

A second landmark is an executive order issued by President Biden last month that provides direction to the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to “ensure that it remains responsive to evolving national security risk.”

This executive order, the first issued since CFIUS was established in 1975, identifies five risk factors that the committee must weigh as it evaluates a transaction: 1) supply chain resilience, 2) US technological leadership, 3) aggregate investment trends, 4) cybersecurity and 5) US persons’ sensitive data.

The second factor is the key. CFIUS must now consider a transaction’s effect on US technological leadership in sectors vital to national security—a category that currently includes microelectronics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, advanced clean energy, climate adaptation technologies and parts of the agricultural industrial base with implications for food security.

“Leadership” is a broad signifier, and the sectors themselves aren’t part of “national security” as traditionally defined. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hammered this point home in a speech last month. First, he noted that “Preserving our edge in science and technology is not a ‘domestic issue’ or ‘national security issue.’ It’s both.”

This merging of economic security and national security has become routine and is a pillar of the national security strategy issued this week.

More intriguing is the claim that “we have to revisit the longstanding premise of maintaining ‘relative’ advantages over competitors in certain key technologies. We previously maintained a ‘sliding scale’ approach that said we need to stay only a couple of generations ahead.”

But, Sullivan went on to say, “That is not the strategic environment we are in today. Given the foundational nature of certain technologies, such as advanced logic and memory chips, we must maintain as large of a lead as possible.”

The US is now alert to deals “that could undermine America’s national security by blunting our technological edge.” This is the context that informs the statement in the National Security Strategy that the United States will “prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC.” It signals the move away from “traditional national security concerns” that focused on military capabilities toward strategic competition more generally.

To be clear, that does not represent a complete decoupling with China. That is neither possible nor desirable. It is, however, a call to decouple at the high end, on the frontiers of new technologies where potential impacts of advances and breakthroughs are greatest.

It is risky, nevertheless. It assumes that the United States can identify technologies that are key to leadership. It assumes that the United States won’t be disadvantaged by losing access to Chinese skills and successes. (The impact of cutting off Chinese researchers could be greater than feared: if governments in Europe or Asia do not align with the United States, then their projects will be off limits to American scientists.) It also denies, to the United States, insights into what the Chinese are doing.

This policy will confirm to Chinese that their longstanding complaint that the United States seeks to block their rise is correct. Chinese officials criticized the new rules as “sci-tech hegemony” that aims “to hobble and suppress the development of emerging markets and developing countries.”  It will animate the drive to promote indigenous development and production in China. It will harden divisions between China and the United States.

The policy has no chance of success if the United States goes alone. It must have allies and partners in this effort. This has been a pillar of Biden administration policy and the National Security Strategy hammers home this simple truth.

It is not clear how far allies share this outlook, however. The European Union Strategic Outlook toward China, issued in 2019, called that country a “strategic rival,” but there are disputes among members—and even within countries—when distinguishing between “competition” and “rivalry.”

So far, however, the US and chief allies in Asia and Europe appear to be working together. It isn’t clear if that solidarity will be maintained as the new US policy becomes sharper and better defined.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019). This article is drawn from a forthcoming book on the new national security economy. 

An earlier version of this article was published in Asia Times.

For more from this author, see his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #58 – The strategic importance of the Pacific Islands to Taiwan

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been heightened concerns that a Taiwan contingency involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could play out in the not-too-distant future. This year’s Department of Defense Annual Report on China to the US Congress asserts that PRC leadership views unification as pivotal to its policy of “Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” and its piecemeal pressure tactics against Taipei has led US President Joe Biden to openly state that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

The PRC’s ambitions seem to pose a direct threat to Taiwan’s autonomy, and subsequently to regional peace in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

There are those who think that the US government’s ability to deter or defend against an invasion of Taiwan is at risk due to the changing balance of power between the two superpowers. As Hudson Institute senior fellow Bryan Clark wrote in a recent report, Defending Guam, the US armed forces “can no longer plan to defeat the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] in a fire-powered duel over Taiwan.”

Instead, the US government needs to find creative ways to undermine “PLA confidence” and exploit “decision-making advantages to gain an edge,” he said.

Among other things, this requires establishing a widely distributed, multilayered network of civilian and military infrastructure across Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

The United States is working hard to deter the existential threat posed to Taiwan by the PRC while making the necessary preparations to successfully defend Taiwan if those efforts fail. Should the United States not be able to deter such an attack, then the US armed forces and the US intelligence community must be able to effectively and efficiently prevent missile strikes and cyberattacks from taking out critical infrastructure targets essential to the defense of Taiwan over an extended period.

To thwart these sorts of attacks, the United States may need to rely on civilian and military infrastructure located in and around the Freely Associated States of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia.

A key part of that military infrastructure currently is the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) in the Marshall Islands. Its radar, optical, and telemetry sensors are not just useful for conducting missile tests and space exploration missions, they are also expected to play a critical role in supporting missile launches, space reconnaissance, and surveillance operations during a defense of Taiwan.

Without the RTS, the US armed forces and US intelligence community probably would find it far more difficult to protect allied and partner forward-deployed forces and space-based assets from hypersonic and ballistic missile attacks, among other advanced threats during the defense of Taiwan. That is why it is essential to protect the submarine cable and artificial satellite systems that connect the RTS to allied and partner military and intelligence facilities around the world, including the US Army Cyber Command, US Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and Joint Region Marianas.

For decades, the United States has maintained special relationships of free association with the Freely Associated States by way of the Compact of Free Association (COFA). These international agreements not only recognize the Freely Associated States as sovereign states with the authority to conduct their own foreign affairs, they also simultaneously grant the authority for their defense and security to the United States.

Under these terms, the United States has the freedom to make use of civilian and military infrastructure required to protect its national security interests across a wide range of scenarios, including the defense of Taiwan.

The COFA must be renewed soon, and the Freely Associated States governments have indicated they are not satisfied with the proposed terms that have been put forward by their US counterparts.

This spilled into the public domain when the Marshall Islands government called off a scheduled COFA negotiating meeting. Then all the Freely Associated States ambassadors released a letter expressing concern about their ability to reach a successful outcome based on what has been proposed by the Biden administration.

As one might imagine, these moves raised several eyebrows during the US Pacific Island Country Summit. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, it seems that the negotiations might be going off track.

Meanwhile, the US pivot toward Pacific regionalism has introduced a new dynamic into the negotiations. These developments should concern Taipei, as the collapse of negotiations would weaken the deterrent effect of the Taiwan-US security partnership.

As all these diplomatic maneuvers play out, the government of Taiwan does not appear to be doing enough to convey to domestic and foreign audiences the importance of the successful negotiation of these international agreements. That needs to change.

First, Taiwan needs to work collaboratively with the United States and other partners to address the development needs and climate-change concerns of the Freely Associated States. Second, Taiwanese diplomats and policymakers need to work closely with their US counterparts on the shared assumption of the critical role that the territories of the Freely Associated States would play in the defense of Taiwan. Third, Taiwanese diplomats and policymakers need to ensure that their Freely Associated State counterparts understand the potential negative consequences that the termination of the COFA could have on regional stability, and by extension their own national interests.

At the same time, the Taipei government needs to start thinking far more systematically about its own national security. The United States already has the National Security Strategy and Pacific Partnership Strategy. Taipei needs to make similar strategic planning investments.

The United States has begun to renew its identity itself as a Pacific nation. Taiwan would be wise to explore the merits of following suit. This could unlock benefits that entail from a shared identity.

Either way, Taipei needs to think long and hard about why the Freely Associated States matter to Taiwan. For too long, the central government’s focus has been on diplomatic recognition. That still matters, but increasingly less so.

We have entered an era of renewed major power competition with a struggle for world order on the side. In this world, there needs to be a shift in focus toward defense and security.

Michael Walsh (mw1305@georgetown.edu) is Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. He served as chair of the Asia-Pacific Security Affairs Subcommittee on the Biden Defense Working Group during the 2020 presidential campaign.

John Hemmings (john@pacforum.org) is senior director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the Pacific Forum.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times. The views expressed are their own.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #57 – What Indo-Pacific countries should do about Taiwan

In retaliating against US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August trip to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China deployed military maneuvers to encircle the island and, for the first time in nearly 26 years, conduct missile launches into Taiwan’s coastal waters. Beijing’s recent military exercises, even after their scheduled end, continue to focus on “anti-submarine and sea assault operations,” most likely making them a dress rehearsal for a full-scale invasion.

This time, and unlike in past crises (namely 1996), it does not appear as though there is an off-ramp, a peaceful path to reconciliation between Beijing and the United States. Preparation, and not just for Washington and Taipei, is thus of the essence.

1996, and now

China’s recent military exercises remind of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, when Lee Teng-hui, then president of the Republic of China, visited Cornell University in the state of New York.  Though US officials insisted that Lee’s visit was a private and unofficial trip for a class reunion at his alma mater, it nonetheless caused dissatisfaction in CCP headquarters, leading to military exercises intended to intimidate Taiwan. Nevertheless, both the United States and PRC considered resolving the crisis to be in their long-term interests. Furthermore, the balance of power largely favored the United States; China did not have the capability to impose its will.

To resolve the crisis, the Clinton administration reaffirmed Washington’s “one China policy,” while Chinese President Jiang Zemin underlined gradual peaceful reunification, while not renouncing the possibility of using force to achieve this goal. Both sides also agreed to engage in bilateral interactions through regular high-level dialogues. Jiang and Clinton subsequently paid state visits to Washington and China in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

This time, the crisis has received international attention due to intensifying threats from Beijing, which now seeks to displace the United States as the leader of both the regional and international orders. The balance of power across the Taiwan Strait increasingly tilts toward China, whose growth in military power is the “largest and fastest” in history—completely outclassing its smaller neighbor in aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, fighter aircraft, etc. Furthermore, Xi Jinping pledges to “smash” any attempts at official independence from Taiwan.

Unlike after the 1996 crisis, there is no sign of rapprochement between Washington and Beijing—US and Chinese representatives did not hold dialogues at August’s ASEAN ministerial meeting. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Beijing’s military exercises surrounding Taiwan and said the PRC “should not use the visit as a pretext for war, escalation, for provocative actions.” On Aug. 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi justified Beijing’s actions by saying they aimed at sending a warning to the “Taiwan independence” forces and denounced the US for “using Taiwan to contain China.” One day before Wang’s speech, the PRC halted bilateral cooperation with the United States on military dialogues, maritime safety, anti-drug efforts, transnational crime, illegal immigration, and climate change.

Taiwan matters for the Indo-Pacific

In the 1990s, although China’s population was about 60 times that of Taiwan’s, Beijing’s defense budget was only double Taipei’s. Today, the PRC spends more than 20 times that of Taiwan on defense spending. The PRC, a growing totalitarian power driven by irredentism and civilizational superiority, may intensify its efforts to subdue Taiwan with multiple strikes on political, military, and economic fronts. Such a cataclysmic conflict in the region will be detrimental to both the regional and international order.

The clock is ticking, not only for the United States but the Indo-Pacific as a whole. Regional countries should not dismiss this scenario, as a Chinese takeover of the island would have a chilling effect throughout Southeast Asia, specifically for countries with maritime disputes with the PRC. At some point in future disputes, it has been speculated that the PRC may “seek a relatively controlled conflict” to settle maritime disputes in its favor rather than invade Southeast Asian countries, as a manufactured crisis could awe regional smaller states into acceding to China’s interests. If the PRC is willing to launch an invasion to retake Taiwan, there can be little doubting of their intentions to settle maritime disputes forcefully.

In the meantime, the ongoing trade war, diplomatic spats, and tit-for-tat actions—such as imposing visa restrictions on officials and suspending flights due to altercations over air services—will continue to drive the Sino-US relationship, with spillover effects for Indo-Pacific countries. These nations do not want the PRC to have unfettered access to the Pacific as a result of Taiwan’s fall. Middle powers such as Japan and Australia have taken action at the regional level to prevent this development. Some Southeast Asian countries, namely Vietnam and Singapore, have also sought closer cooperation with the United States, yet stop short of directly condemning China’s behavior.

If more regional countries, particularly middle powers, fail to strengthen deterrence, including by seeking tighter ties with the United States (including on the military level), condemning Beijing’s provocations, and sending joint congressional delegations to the Island, the consequences for Taiwan and the region could be dire.

Huynh Tam Sang (sangtamhuynh@gmail.com), an international relations lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Vietnam National University), is a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Lee Teng-hui’s 1996 visit was to Washington, rather than Cornell University in New York.)

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #56 – Employing “smart power” to counter PRC efforts in Oceania

Recent developments indicate a cozying-up of Solomon Islands’ leaders to Beijing. This has set off alarm bells in Canberra, Wellington, and Washington, DC. World powers have largely ignored the Solomons and other Pacific Island nations for many years, as they have focused their attention on Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Korea, and (more recently) Ukraine. This is one reason the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) advances have been received favorably by some.

This development calls for a “smart power” approach. Building on the traditional contrast between “hard” (coercive military and economic) power and “soft” (the shaping of preferences via policy, culture, and values), Harvard Professor Joseph Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have described the importance of “smart power,” recognizing that hard power alone cannot solve complex challenges. PRC foreign policy, especially the Belt and Road Initiative, has a patina of soft power, but faces growing resistance due to belatedly recognized adverse conditions of crippling debt, preferential use of Chinese labor, and cultural friction.

Strategically, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should not ignore the PRC’s penetration of the South Pacific. Despite Beijing’s denials, its opaque agreement with the Solomon Islands government raises concerns that one outcome could be a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy base in the Solomon Islands, threatening all three Western nations.

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should pay greater attention to Pacific Island nations. The recent visit of the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy is a start, but sustained attention is required. A broad-based smart power initiative is needed that would include more economic aid and cultural and people-to-people interactions that the populations of countries can see, with impacts they can feel. The United States, New Zealand, and Australia, plus Japan have great capacities for “soft power” in the Pacific. Japan, among other countries, have already made some investments, in addition to proposing others to address the forthcoming challenges of climate change.

There are other smart power efforts that would benefit Oceanic nations and counter the expansionist PRC efforts.

The USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed US Navy hospital ship based in San Diego, has sailed throughout the Pacific offering medical care, including surgeries, to many island populations. A 2022 cruise is underway related to the Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief international exercise. The benefits and goodwill resulting from USNS Mercy medical assistance missions is long-lasting. Nevertheless, the United States only has two such hospital ships; the other, the USNS Comfort, is based in Baltimore and sails in Latin America and Africa.

Why not have more? In the Pacific a fleet of three hospital ships could contribute greatly to US foreign policy objectives. The purchase or leasing and conversion of civilian cruise ships would be relatively quick and less expensive than building new hospital ships. Such a fleet of hospital ships could be a combined international effort involving Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, not only providing medical care but also helping to train indigenous medical personnel and thus leaving a long-lasting impact.

The US Navy also has a tremendous soft power capability with the Seabees—its construction battalions. With the threat of rising sea levels many Indo-Pacific villages and island infrastructures face relocation challenges. The employment of Seabees for high priority remedial construction projects, especially if combined with use of local labor and training, would meet needs that many island nations cannot satisfy themselves.
Off-duty Navy personnel have often volunteered their labor to local US communities. For example, the off-duty Gold Crew of the USS Maryland (SSBN 738) spent a week helping to restore the village hall in Galesville, Maryland. Such efforts earned the Navy great kudos from the local community. Such efforts could be organized in the Indo-Pacific.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide, particularly in the Pacific, notes the US Coast Guard in its 2020 strategic outlook. The Nature Conservancy estimates that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The PRC is the Number 1 IUU fishing offender. The US possesses a new “smart power” beyond those described by Professor Nye. That is “intelligence power” —the ability to collect and analyze data to broadly surveil the oceans and understand where IUU fishing is occurring. Much of this intelligence is now commercially collected and therefore unclassified. This intelligence needs to be shared comprehensively with Indo-Pacific nations to assist their law enforcement efforts.

These initiatives should be but one of many “smart power” outreach efforts from the US that ought to include expanded Peace Corps efforts, USAID-funded climate change mitigation efforts, sponsored cultural visits, and broad-based human capital training of public servants and others. These efforts need to start now. Otherwise, we will witness continued aggressive PRC penetration of the Pacific.

Peter C. Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a member of the executive committee of the International Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), a former senior US government official, and professor.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Solomon Islands by the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the International Labour Organization (ILO)