Yes, Taiwan is an Island Worth Dying On
make a gaffe Commander's Intent and move on
Sometimes at gaffe is just the truth spoken out of turn. Yesterday, President Biden said something that isn’t that surprising to those who have been pondering this for a while;
Of course, there are those who will come out to “clarify” etc., but we nearing the point where we need to pause a bit and talk clearly to each other as adults; we need to be ready for the war to come because if we don’t, come it surely will.
We need to move past the comfortable strategic ambiguity of the past and move forward based on the clear intent by the Commander in Chief. We should take the Commander in Chief at this word, the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are going to. They will act accordingly and so should we.
The coming conflict with the PRC may not be unavoidable, but the need to prepare for one is. If we take the challenge seriously and prepare for it, then the challenge may never come. If we pretend the challenge is not growing, then the challenge will move on to action as the opportunity to change centuries of failure will be ripe for the taking.
We’ve run “The Long Game” series here since 2004. I picked up where smarter people started a decade earlier and more. In 2022 when you look around, there are a lot more of “us” now and it is time that we set those remaining on the fence on notice.
The utility of “Strategic Ambiguity” no longer serves its purpose in support of American national security requirements. If you look at the internal second and third order effects of it, we are past the point that it is counterproductive. It gives those charged with funding our military an excuse not to be ready while at the same time making the risk calculation for the PRC less with each passing year of inaction on our part.
Taiwan cannot be allowed to fall under the control of the Communist Party of China. There are a whole host of reasons. My top-5 I will outline below.
1. The Map;
With Taiwan, you control Japanese access to half the planet, and you extend your military influence east through the Philippine Sea. The PRC would hold the north gate to the South China Sea and on to the Singapore Strait. She will have Taiwan as a shield for her coastal cities that drive her economy and build her navy. I know if I were in the PRC leadership, taking Taiwan would always be at the top of my list. The key is waiting for the moment to be ripe where risk is low and gain is high. That math is what will drive peace or war. We can drive that math to our direction if we have the will that matches our desire for peace.
2. Justice: If “The West” and her auxiliaries stand for anything, it should be for representative governance and individual liberty. There is a wide half-standard deviation from the mean in this regard, but one thing is clear; the PRC and the future she desires is outside that spectrum. Taiwan is well within that center. The Taiwanese people do not desire to be Hong Kong on a larger scale. Well meaning, freedom valuing nations should support her. As a species, what kind of future do we want to our planet? Do we want the messy chaos of an imperfect framework of freedom that the West hobbled together after the defeat of fascism and the Soviet Union last century – or the autocratic and Orwellian surveillance state the PRC is perfecting?
3. Stand Against Aggressive War: the international community in Ukraine is setting a precedence that we will not stand by quietly and reward aggressive war by Russia. Yes, no one is committing forces, but especially since the first month of the war, the Ukrainians have shamed nations in to at least providing her the tools to defend herself. Talk is not enough. If you mean to prevent war, you must be prepared for it. Ukraine before the war made poor decisions with regards to her preparedness. Someone advised her that she was either unable to fight Russia or would never have to. The Smartest People in the Room™ were wrong on both counts. +/- these are the same people who have dulled our senses with comforting talk that “Strategic Ambiguity” should continue to be the way forward in Taiwan. They were wrong in Ukraine, and we should call them on their wrongness in Taiwan.
4. Economics: the world’s economy and Western militaries are mindlessly dependent on Taiwan. This country of just over 23 million souls – not much more than my home state of Florida - is the single point of failure for the microchips that power our modern world. Industry and governments in the West were greedy and stupid to let this be the case, but here we are. We should no more let the PRC control this – or destroy it in a war – than we should have her take over the oil fields of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
5. West of Wake: with the loss of Taiwan, the ability of Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other nations in the western Pacific – who are either auxiliaries to the West or trying to become such – will be in what position in face of a stronger and emboldened China? In their history – thousands of years older than the USA’s history – tells them. They’ve seen it before, they don’t want to see it again. Their future, and that of the entire hemisphere will drift away from the promise of individual liberty, rule of law, and optimism for the future.
There are my top-5 reasons why those with a clear head about the PRC should welcome the President’s comments. Accept and promote them.
Regular readers know I am not a fan of American as global hegemon or policeman. I’ve had no change in that regard … but I try to listen to history’s lessons and do my best to look a half dozen plays down the board – and Taiwan’s independence is one of those things where I’m willing to say, “Yes, here we make a stand.”
We either rise to PRC’s challenge at Taiwan’s shore, or shrug at what was the American Century.
This is no time to shrug. Other nations closer to China are moving past their recent delusions and see that war is coming. I believe Japan is one, Australia another. Vietnam needs no convincing.
So, what do we do? We wake everyone else up in the West who can think.
Internationally, we should speak clearly to our European allies that, yes, we are doing most of the heavy lifting in providing aid to Ukraine now, but this is it. You need to rebuild your defenses. We will always be your friend. We will always be by your side – but that is it – by your side. Even if Russia is soundly defeated in Ukraine, she will be back. You have a larger economy and population than the USA does. Build your armies up, we will not station ours there. We will come to exercise now and then. We will have combined logistics and training facilities there. We will contribute to NATO staff and even combined units … but we will not garrison your frontiers. Over to you.
Domestically we have hard conversations that need to take place. Personal and financial interests will be injured, habits disrupted, and egos bruised. The pushback will be hard.
Yes, we need to spend more, but more importantly we need to spend smartly. We need to break the ossified adhesions of decades of Beltway nomenklaturaesque habits and spend our money like we know what the challenge is and where our comparative advantage lies; we are a maritime and aerospace power. That point needs to be its own post later – perhaps a summary of a draft I’ve had since the summer of 2020 that I keep to myself. Enough of the Joint self-deluding posturing that hobbles clear speaking.
Again, look at the map;
In a war west of Wake, we can accept risk at peace keeping a smaller standing Army. Efficiencies can be gained by having most of our ground forces in National Guard and Reserve formations that can be activated as needed. We need the surge capability in sealift and airlift there as well. All three things need to be done in conjunction while we expand the forces that tare hardest to generate in number: maritime and aerospace power. These must be a priority and front loaded.
We can take that risk ashore; we cannot take it at sea or in the air. We are not going to deploy hundreds of thousands of ground forces on the Asian mainland on a hair trigger. If we do, we are fools. What will need to do it to ensure we control the seas and air for the nations we are supporting in Asia so their ground forces can defend their land. If we do not dominate the air and seas, then I don’t care how large our standing army is, it isn’t getting there.
That is the reality. That reality is what must drive requirements for both the USA and Taiwan.
Time is late. Taiwan needs to spend a lot more on defense. Right now she is spending 2.1%. We need to have a come to Jesus meeting with her to let her know that, really, she is going to quickly spend 4% on defense and this is what she is going to buy with it. We will back her play in the open now, but we will not be more concerned with her freedom than she is. The Taiwanese porcupine must have more and longer quills. We should also start having American forces train with Taiwan in Taiwan a lot more. Underline our point. No one calls a bluff if a bluff does not exist.
The “Long Game” is now the short game inside our POM cycle. Navalists in Congress and other places with access to levers of power need to have a polite conversation with airpower advocates that they need to join us on this path or suffer with the army in the budget battles to come.
The argument for maritime and aerospace spending is the easiest sell due to the reality of the situation – we just need leaders to make the argument.
No more “Joint Force” talking points. Navalists need to keep their list of Navy leaders who keep going back to this verbal tic and work to keep them out of positions of power. They don’t know what time it is and they are too senior to retrain.
Make enemies as our friend Blake Herzinger has. Speak the truth and tell those who can’t take it to simply cope-and-seethe.
Hard fact – Taiwan is our fight to have. Our Nationalist Chinese allies in WWII would not have been able to hold Taiwan without the cover of our imperfect umbrella over more than seven decades. Over that time, Taiwan has developed in fits and starts in to a prosperous, free, and uniquely different society than that on the mainland.
To abandon her now, knowing her fate, will not just do immeasurable damage to our national security, it would be an amoral act of cowardice by a decayed and intellectually bankrupt empire.
We are not alone. If we show strength, others will too.
Australia is holding firmer against the PRC than they have in decades. This is good.
India is looking for friends to counter the PRC to her north. This is a growing fertile field at a tender inflection point but trending the West’s way.
New Zealand is problematic. Sad, but true. I’m not sure what to do with her compromised elite. We’ll call them a wash until they wake up and rediscover what they stand for.
As we started covering a year ago, we have problems from the Pacific island nations from the Philippines to the Solomons to Kiribati etc. We are behind the 8-ball in our own back yard, and we did this to ourselves through our own sense of entitlement and arrogance. It is also not too little a portion of our Department of State being distracted away from their core job by an equally distracted bureaucracy who often act as if they really wish they picked a different career field.
There is nothing new that needs to be done here. Nothing “transformational” requiring “new” ideas, concepts, or approaches. This is all Vince Lombardi fundamental great power competition – something humans have been practicing since the Stone Age.
Embrace Biden’s gaffe as Commander’s Intent and move forward. It is a blessing, really.