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Taiwan Can’t Rely on ‘Daddy America’ to Solve Its Problems

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit exposed serious security weaknesses.

By , a journalist in Taiwan.
Taiwanese air force staff inspect a F-16V fighter jet.
Taiwanese air force staff inspect a F-16V fighter jet.
Taiwanese air force staff inspect a F-16V fighter jet during a drill at Hualien air force base in Taiwan on Aug. 17. Sam Yeh/AFP

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei, Taiwan, and the resultant week of Chinese military drills around Taiwan led to heated debate over the visit, its ramifications for Taiwan, and the U.S. public’s reaction, so much so that some have debated whether it constituted the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis. But regardless of what this whole affair should be called, the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit marked an ominous new stage in cross-strait relations. The immediate danger has died down, but Beijing is determined to create a “new normal” that bodes poorly for an ill-prepared Taiwan.

The intrigue and drama surrounding Pelosi’s Aug. 2 visit as part of a wider Asia trip—China’s strident warnings, the secrecy of the Taipei stop, the escort by U.S. fighters amid fears that China might intercept her plane, cheering crowds and ecstatic Taiwanese politicians greeting her, and the ensuing Chinese naval and missile drills held around Taiwan—had the tensions of a Tom Clancy thriller. But in real life, the ramifications are permanent, and the story doesn’t end when the cameras turn elsewhere.

Taiwan’s government seems to want it both ways—to spur foreign countries to take action to support Taiwan in the face of China’s threats while, at the same time, disregarding those threats and not acting to solve significant military problems at home. The mixed messaging was noticeable as several op-eds by local and diaspora Taiwanese came out during Pelosi’s visit, criticizing the international community for worrying too much about Taiwan and discussing war. Yet within the past week, Taiwan’s foreign minister claimed China was making preparations to invade while a ruling party official published an op-ed urging the “free world” to defend Taiwan. The seeming complacency and inability to take significant action to improve national self-defense is unfortunately largely due to a reliance on “Daddy America” to come to Taiwan’s aid quickly if it is attacked.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei, Taiwan, and the resultant week of Chinese military drills around Taiwan led to heated debate over the visit, its ramifications for Taiwan, and the U.S. public’s reaction, so much so that some have debated whether it constituted the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis. But regardless of what this whole affair should be called, the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit marked an ominous new stage in cross-strait relations. The immediate danger has died down, but Beijing is determined to create a “new normal” that bodes poorly for an ill-prepared Taiwan.

The intrigue and drama surrounding Pelosi’s Aug. 2 visit as part of a wider Asia trip—China’s strident warnings, the secrecy of the Taipei stop, the escort by U.S. fighters amid fears that China might intercept her plane, cheering crowds and ecstatic Taiwanese politicians greeting her, and the ensuing Chinese naval and missile drills held around Taiwan—had the tensions of a Tom Clancy thriller. But in real life, the ramifications are permanent, and the story doesn’t end when the cameras turn elsewhere.

Taiwan’s government seems to want it both ways—to spur foreign countries to take action to support Taiwan in the face of China’s threats while, at the same time, disregarding those threats and not acting to solve significant military problems at home. The mixed messaging was noticeable as several op-eds by local and diaspora Taiwanese came out during Pelosi’s visit, criticizing the international community for worrying too much about Taiwan and discussing war. Yet within the past week, Taiwan’s foreign minister claimed China was making preparations to invade while a ruling party official published an op-ed urging the “free world” to defend Taiwan. The seeming complacency and inability to take significant action to improve national self-defense is unfortunately largely due to a reliance on “Daddy America” to come to Taiwan’s aid quickly if it is attacked.

Pelosi’s visit did make Taiwan’s government happy and was appreciated by the public, but it seemed Taiwan was not fully prepared to handle the consequences. While downplaying China’s anger in the lead-up to Pelosi’s visit, authorities were restrained toward China’s immediate punitive measures, such as a ban on more than 2,000 Taiwanese products, mostly food-related items, and a four-day series of live-fire drills in six designated zones surrounding Taiwan.

The drills unfolded on Aug. 4 amid a surreal atmosphere on the island. On the one hand, life went ahead as normal in Taiwan, though Chinese ships and planes operated freely in the seas around the island, and local fishermen and airline and shipping traffic to and from Taiwan were substantially affected. Several regional airlines canceled flights to Taiwan, whereas others took longer routes to avoid the drill zones. Taiwan’s authorities and the press emphasized how calm things were on the island. But in effect, China implemented a semi-blockade that in wartime conditions could be used to cut off food, energy, and other shipments to and from Taiwan.

China also launched several ballistic missiles into different locations in waters north, east, and south of Taiwan. However, Taiwan’s defense ministry neglected to tell the public that several of those missiles that landed in the east had actually flown over Taiwan. It was only when Japan’s defense ministry announced the paths of these missiles, several of which had landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, that people in Taiwan realized this. When North Korea fired missiles that flew over Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido in 2017, sirens sounded and text message alerts were broadcast to the public.

But despite the supposed calmness of Taiwan’s authorities and public, China’s drills broke new ground in several ways. They normalized the massing of naval and aerial forces close to Taiwan and from several directions. They demonstrated that the median line between the two sides in the Taiwan Strait no longer served as an informal boundary, which China had first said it did in September 2020 and reiterated before the drills. More importantly, they demonstrated both operational capability and willingness to carry out significant and large-scale military actions that could constrain and attack Taiwan.

The United States did not do anything beyond criticizing China to halt or obstruct the drills. Although there were several U.S. Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, in the vicinity when Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, they all left before China’s drills started.

On the supposed final day of the drills on Aug. 8, China promptly extended the drills, which went on for another two days. When China announced the official drill conclusion on Aug. 10, it also said it would continue combat patrols around Taiwan. Since the drills started and ended, Chinese planes and ships have regularly ventured beyond the median line, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry. The planes are also shown to be flying closer to Taiwan and crossing the median line in the northwest, whereas previously they usually flew to the southwest.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen gave a televised speech about the drills to the public on Aug. 4, but it was brief, coming in at less than 4 minutes. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s military put out videos and tweets trying to assure people that it was monitoring the Chinese planes and ships and on alert.

And while the public might have appeared calm, Taiwan’s military may be feeling differently.

In confronting Chinese planes and vessels closer to Taiwan than before the recent crisis, Taiwan’s military has learned some hard truths about how outmatched it might be in a future conflict. For instance, Taiwan’s navy realized its ships were too small compared to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s when they sailed out to confront them at sea, something that is not surprising given the enormous quantitative and size disparities between the two navies.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Taiwan’s authorities mulled the extension of mandatory conscription to one year. At four months, it has been derided as useless and more like summer camp than drill camp, which makes it essential that it be lengthened if Taiwan has to count on its people in a future conflict. Yet almost half a year later, there have been no real updates from the authorities on whether they would lengthen conscription. Even extending conscription is useless if the government cannot improve the actual training and logistics to facilitate this, given how ineffective it runs the four-month conscription.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s air force faces a fighter pilot shortage, and at current rates, it would require as much as 50 years to train enough pilots to fly its ordered batch of 66 new F-16V jets. Taiwan only trained 21 new pilots from 2011 to 2019. The lack of military pilots, which has put a heavy strain on the country’s existing experienced pilots, has been cited as a factor for the air force’s frequent accidents in recent years. In 2022, Taiwan has experienced at least four military crashes—including involving an F-16 jet, a helicopter, and a trainer—and 10 crashes in total since the start of 2020. With China’s military now flying closer to Taiwan and more often, Taiwan’s air force will be required to fly more missions, which will put a toll on both planes and pilots.

Both the pilot shortage and the reluctance to extend conscription stem from a lack of appreciation and trust among the public in Taiwan’s military, with the island’s past under harsh martial law being a factor. The current Democratic Progressive Party government has also failed to instill a sense of urgency and awareness of the importance of national defense in society, though it has recently tried to portray the military in a more favorable light. Nevertheless, the military is still perceived as a poor career choice, and conscription is seen as unnecessary and a waste of time. Meanwhile, a declining birthrate and a steadily reduced number of young people mean there are less available conscripts. A high rate of nearsightedness among young Taiwanese also reduces the number of potential pilots. And it is not just the air force that’s having personnel problems, as the Taiwanese army also has severe problems maintaining units at full strength.

If Taiwan can raise its efforts and urgency on improving its national defense, that would be worthy. Otherwise, relying on visits from U.S. politicians to deter China and hoping for the U.S. military to come in and save the day if China attacks is wishful thinking. A Taiwanese deterrent needs to come from the Taiwanese themselves.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss China’s actions as noise or mere gestures of intimidation. Having carried the drills out this time, China has the ability to repeat them or conduct even more extensive ones in the near future, not to mention regular so-called patrols. There might even come a time when Chinese maneuvers will not be drills. Taiwan as well as the United States must be prepared to accept this new reality and act accordingly.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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