With an acting U.S. Secretary of Defense abruptly appointed and a U.S. presidential election being contested, our adversaries may well be calculating opportunities to gain influence. In this gray zone competition environment, tensions with China are heightening. From repressive policies in Hong Kong to the successful establishment of the Spratly Islands within their domain, China is flexing its muscles, demonstrating its overmatch with Taiwan in its long-term quest for the island.
“The PRC has developed its conventional missile forces unrestrained by any international agreements. The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” Department of Defense: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: Annual Report to Congress; September 1, 2020.
Taiwan was founded in 1947 by Kuomintang Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek opposing Mao’s developing Communist China. In 1979, under President Nixon, the United States made the unprecedented decision of shifting official recognition from Taipei to Beijing in order to gain leverage against the Soviet Union in the ongoing Cold War. The Three Communiques consecutively established the nations’ mutual respect of sovereignty and territory, formally recognized the PRC as the sole governing body of China, and strengthened their economic, cultural, educational, scientific, and technological ties. The U.S. then created the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which ended the mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan but promised continued support to the island through unofficial relations. It specifically provided a provision for the U.S. to support Taiwan through “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
That commitment and support remains to this day, with the U.S. most recently approving a $600 million armed drone sale and a $2.37 billion sale of harpoon anti-ship missile coastal defense systems to Taiwan on October 26th. These sales bring the total approved arms sales in 2020 to $4.2 billion, and the total since 1979 to over $88.5 billion. The only other nation to serve as a major military ally of Taiwan is Singapore. Since 1975, Taiwan and Singapore have partnered up in “Project Starlight” which sees joint training exercises and houses a “Starlight Command” base in Taipei. While Taiwan’s military allies were once greater in number, the PRC has made efforts to convince long-term partners to break their relations with Taipei, most recently in Central America and the Pacific Island States.
The U.S. demonstrates its commitment to Taiwan with operations as well. On October 14th, the USS Barry, a baseline 9 BMD capable guided-missile destroyer, and its strike group intentionally sailed through international waters of the Formosa Strait that splits China from Taiwan by less than one-hundred miles, demonstrating the United States’ commitment to Taiwan as an ally and partner. This marked the sixth time this year that the United States navigated through these international waters in leadership by action to maintain a ‘Free & Open’ Indo-Pacific.
Maritime routes critical to regional and international economic trade pass through the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. China’s continuous A2/AD build-up across this terrain plays a major role in its ability to deny U.S. Allied access in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, with a particular focus on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan. Taiwan, the first island of the first island chain, is a major factor in all Chinese strategic planning. Taiwan follows the Spratly islands, as it sets the precedent for the first and second island chains for expansion of its A2/AD for China. The United States continues to secure access to Taiwan and throughout the South China Sea, as well as demonstrate its commitment to disrupting Chinese A2/AD areas through open sea ship passage. In July, two U.S. carrier battle groups (the Nimitz and Reagan strike groups) exercised in the window of the Chinese A2/AD capabilities in the South China Sea.
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