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Taiwan is moving too slowly to prepare for war.
Japan can help

Lai administration must be persuaded to accelerate push into asymmetrical defense

Yuster Yu and Michael A. Hunzeker

Taiwan navy ships take part in a combat readiness drill on Jan. 31: The island's military is unprepared to hold out against protracted attack. © Reuters

" Yuster Yu is CEO of Taiwan Cyber Security Foundry and previously served as president of the Institute for Information Industries in Taipei. Michael A. Hunzeker is an associate professor with George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and associate director of the school's Center for Security

Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te is well aware of the threat that China poses to his self-ruled island’s security. Yet the government he has served for the past four years has failed to do enough to prepare militarily for the possibility of protracted war in the Taiwan Strait.


Taiwan’s military remains unready to hold out against attack long enough for its security partners to forcefully intervene on its behalf. Consequently, such partners, particularly Japan, should use the occasion of Lai’s ascension to the presidency next week to nudge the new administration to pursue overdue defense reforms and embrace an asymmetric military posture with all possible haste.


By most traditional metrics, Taiwan would seem to be moving in the right direction. Its defense budget is growing. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has extended conscription. The government is buying billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons from the U.S. Taipei is also trying to produce everything from submarines to drones on its own.


The problem is that these sorts of indicators can be misleading. When it comes to military effectiveness, harder-to-measure factors like culture, leadership, morale, doctrine, training and logistics matter more. History is littered with militaries that were equipped with the best weapons but went on to lose wars.


When it comes to intangible factors, Taiwan’s military is lagging dangerously behind.


As seen with the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the risks of protracted conflict and surprise attack are real. Yet, Taiwanese military doctrine assumes that Taipei will have plenty of advance warning of a Chinese assault and that any war will be short and sharp.


Taiwan’s armed forces do not have enough personnel, munitions or parts. The training that troops receive lacks rigor and realism. Large-scale exercises are highly scripted. And morale within the ranks is dangerously low.

Another challenge comes from the refusal of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense to adopt an asymmetric force posture despite years of lobbying by U.S. defense experts.

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te, right, announces on April 25 in Taipei that Wellington Koo will be appointed as defense minister. © Reuters

Their concern has been that the cross-strait military balance has already shifted in China’s favor and that China’s so-called anti-access/area denial capabilities will force the U.S. military to fight its way into the region to come to Taiwan’s aid. This supports the notion that Taiwan must be ready to fight on its own for weeks if not months.


An asymmetric force posture would involve using large numbers of cheap, mobile and lethal weapons like anti-ship and anti-tank missiles, naval mines and drones as part of a coherent strategy for decentralized defense in depth at sea, in the air, on the ground, and in the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.


Taiwanese progress toward adopting an asymmetric posture has so far been squelched by a combination of bureaucracy and politics. As a result, the island’s military plans continue to depend on deploying small numbers of expensive American-made jets and ships, most of which would likely not survive the first waves of a Chinese attack.


Japanese defense experts should appreciate that Taiwan is not prepared for war and that the island has a lot to do to get ready for protracted combat against an invader. A quick Taiwanese defeat would be an unmitigated disaster, robbing Japan of a friendly neighbor. China, by dint of its victory, would become even more threatening to Japan.


The obstacles to Taiwanese defense reform and asymmetry are not insurmountable. But they must be addressed head-on, because they will not resolve themselves and because they are no secret to Beijing. Simply helping Taiwan improve its defense industrial capabilities will not be enough.


Japanese officials must seek to make Lai and his new administration understand that Taiwan has to be able to hold on and hold out for months or longer against withering Chinese attack. This can happen only if Taipei overhauls its military training, doctrine, logistics and leadership, and adopts a genuinely asymmetrical defense posture.


Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) should also continue to make themselves as interoperable with the U.S. military as possible. Sending a clear signal that the SDF is ready and able to meaningfully help the U.S. military penetrate a Chinese deterrent bubble around Taiwan will make it easier for Taiwan to focus on asymmetric warfare.


To help its message to Taipei sink in, Tokyo could establish an asymmetric warfare study group and invite Taiwanese think tank experts and former defense officials to participate in simulations, conferences and studies. The U.S. Marine Corps could potentially contribute to such an effort as well given its own recent experiences with asymmetric transformation.


This kind of effort would help to “normalize” asymmetric warfare by showing Taiwan that Japan and the U.S. are actively incorporating asymmetry into their own military organizations.


Anything else that Japanese officials can do in terms of sharing best practices for military training, inviting Taiwan to participate in informal dialogues related to doctrinal development and emerging operational concepts and even discussions about interoperability would also be beneficial.


Cross-strait deterrence will rest on the strongest possible foundations if Beijing knows it cannot win a rapid military victory. Cross-strait stability is weakest when China thinks it can win quickly.


Connected by history, trade and a shared commitment to democratic values, the Taiwan-Japan nexus is emerging as an important bulwark against the rising tide of aggression in East Asia.


Both Japan and Taiwan would benefit from making sure that Taiwan is ready, willing and able to defend itself. Pushing Taipei to urgently address its defense posture will require uncomfortable conversations, but difficult challenges often forge the strongest bonds.