Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – A thirteen-member delegation co-led by Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow James Ellis and Senior Fellow Larry Diamond reported its insights from a trip to Taiwan in August.
The trip, initially planned two years ago, had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately took place just weeks following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own news-making visit. The Hoover-led delegation participated in thirty meetings over a five-day period. These included public and private sessions with President Tsai Ing-wen and high-ranking members of her cabinet, as well as engagements with opposition party leaders and business executives from the semiconductor industry.
Admiral Ellis relayed his three takeaways from the trip.
First he explained that despite some perceptions, Taipei has not taken a passive stance against aggression posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its ambition to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. President Tsai has publicly declared four commitments that have shaped her administration’s policy of cross-strait relations: 1) peace (denunciation of force by the parties on both sides of the strait); 2) parity (for China and Taiwan to not deny each other’s existence); 3) democracy (that the future of Taiwan needs to be decided by the Taiwanese people); and 4) dialogue (the willingness to talk without preconditions).
Second, Ellis held that Beijing has executed a fundamental shift in its policy vis-à-vis Taiwan, from maintaining the status quo of deterring Taiwanese independence to actively attempting to reunify the island on the Chinese Communist Party’s timeline and, if necessary, by force.
Third, Ellis was deeply impressed by President Tsai’s leadership. He explained that Tsai is seeking a commitment from the United States in support of her country’s defense. Ellis doesn’t believe, however, that a strong response from the United States entails a shift in its position of defending Taiwan from “strategic ambiguity” to that of “strategic clarity.” The US doesn’t have to publicly declare its stance on this issue to supply economic assistance to Taiwan, participate in joint military exercises, or help its officials gain access to institutions of international governance.
“Words are important,” Ellis said, “but actions speak louder than words.”
Diamond said that the major motive for the delegation’s trip was the deepening concern among the delegation of the danger that China posed to Taiwan. The military balance of power has greatly shifted in favor of Beijing in terms of equipment and weaponry, as well as readiness, strategy, and each respective society’s willingness to fight. He described four great shocks that shaped public opinion in Taiwan in advance of the delegation’s visit.
One is the Chinese Communist Party’s absolute destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy and partial democracy that accompanied its emergence from British rule. Taiwan’s mistrust of Chinese Communist Party authorities is even more pronounced since the party had betrayed its purported commitment to Hong Kong’s status under the doctrine of “one country, two systems.”
Second is the growing pace of the People’s Liberation Army’s incursion into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zones and territorial waters. These acts of aggression, Diamond explained, has had the intent of wearing down the operational performance and morale of Taiwan’s military.
Third, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided the Taiwanese people with greater perspective on the type of challenge they may face from China.
Finally, Diamond asserted that the Taiwanese were encouraged by Speaker Pelosi’s visit in August. However, that public show of support from a top-ranking US official invited further intimidation from Beijing in the form of targeted naval drills by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and missile tests in waters just east of Taiwan.
Diamond is encouraged by Taiwan’s growing resolve, as the Tsai administration has increased military spending to above 2 percent of its GDP and is expanding military training and mobilization of its civilian male population. Diamond, echoing a report written last year by Ellis and his Hoover colleague James Timbie for the Texas Security Review, said that Taiwan needed to adopt a “porcupine strategy” supported by US-supplied small and mobile weapons systems that can deter, and if necessary repel, a PLA invasion. He also advocated that the US provide licenses to Taiwanese manufacturers so that they can produce weapons at scale.
Borrowing words from Theodore Roosevelt, Diamond said Taiwan must, “Speak softly and carry a big stick. And we need to get a much bigger stick in the hands of the people of Taiwan and to deploy it ourselves to the region.”
Another member of the delegation, award-winning journalist and renowned China expert Orville Schell, affirmed that the Pelosi trip and the intimidation that followed began to wake up Taiwan to the dire nature of the existential threat it faces. However, Schell maintained that the status quo, which has been upheld by a policy of engagement with China embraced by nine US presidential administrations beginning with that of Richard Nixon, has begun to unravel over the past five years.
“That, I am afraid, sadly is gone,” said Schell. “And it is gone because of the increasingly belligerent posture that Xi Jinping has taken toward all of the pieces of errant Chinese real estate that [China] considers its own and [the nation’s] rejuvenation requires him to regain.”
Schell agreed with Ellis and Diamond that the United States should help Taiwan build effective deterrence and “should be made as indigestible to the PRC as possible.”
Oriana Skylar Mastro, Center Fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, partially disagreed with other members of the delegation. Although Mastro is encouraged by Taiwan’s recent efforts to bolster its defenses, she explained that the Tsai government’s emphasis on preparations for urban warfare suggest that it has conceded that it cannot deter the PLA from establishing a beachhead.
Moreover, she stressed that there are limits to a deterrence strategy against a great power like China. Even if a PLA invasion is prevented and its forces suffer losses, Beijing has vast amounts of resources and manpower to return to the drawing board to plan future aggression.
Mastro said that the dilemma Taiwan faces is not new; however it is more acute than ever, and it will likely never go away. She is skeptical about Taiwan’s ability to effectively train and mobilize its civilian population. In addition, she described that since Taiwan isn’t officially an ally of the United States, there lacks an integrated command structure that would enable the two countries to coordinate an optimal response to China’s aggression. Mastro worries also that if the United States should demonstrate a firm commitment to intervene on behalf of Taiwan, it could encourage Beijing to launch a first strike against US bases in the region, which would make it difficult for American forces to fight.
“There is no easy way forward,” Mastro explained. “But more so than in any previous trips I’ve been on, we seem to be on the same page as our colleagues in Taiwan.”
Visiting Fellow Matt Turpin affirmed the position of the other delegation members on the importance of US assistance in helping Taiwan strengthen its forces. He added that a key component to achieving a sufficient level of deterrence is making Taiwan appear to Beijing that it has a broad base of global support.
“Therefore, the cost of [China’s] initiating a conflict is far higher than what they would be able to do if Taiwan were isolated,” Turpin said.
Turpin also explained that prior to the trip, he hadn’t heard much from Taiwan semiconductor companies about diversifying their markets away from mainland China.
“It suggested to me that there is a change that is happening across the Taiwanese business community, and that is sinking in to the Taiwanese public. But we have not yet seen the full implications of this,” Turpin concluded.