Taiwan Could Be America's 'Maritime Israel,' Says Taipei Defense Guru

Mainstream support for Taiwan in the United States could see Taipei become America's "Maritime Israel," the island nation's leading defense analyst told Newsweek.

Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing, has existed for decades on the front lines of the once theoretical "China threat"—now very much a reality following a recent "awakening" by America's political elite, said senior analyst Su Tzu-yun.

A national security expert, Su is director of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. INDSR was founded with funding support from President Tsai Ing-wen's government and is the country's first defense think tank.

Washington's prescient Beijing watchers, including recent President-elect Joe Biden appointee Kurt Campbell, were already wary of the Chinese Communist Party's expansionist ambitions in the 1990s, Su said. It was a time when, despite incidents like 1989's Tiananmen Square Massacre, the United States and its allies were still idealizing future relations with China, which they hoped—maybe even expected—would evolve into a more liberal state.

The declassification last week of the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific strategy confirmed that Western dreams of a peaceful China had finally shattered, he added, noting that the quashing of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement was likely the "final straw."

"Chinese expansion in the South China Sea starting in the latter years of the Obama administration, more recently Hong Kong and the pandemic have all created mistrust in the Chinese regime," he said. "The China threat theory of 20 years ago is now a reality."

According to Su's analysis, an "awakening" in policymaking and academic circles in the U.S. has helped drive Washington's consensus that China is the strategic threat to national and global security interests in the coming decades. Amid this trend, Taiwan has emerged as an antithesis, a country deserving of "respect and support" because of its common values, he added.

Taipei enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, and successive U.S. governments have understood Taiwan's geopolitical importance, Su said. Mainstream public opinion, however, remains the final hurdle.

"In terms of conventional security importance, if Taiwan becomes a part of China, it will become China's Hawaii and the Chinese navy will have easy access to the Philippine Sea," Su explained. "Chinese nuclear submarines cannot strike the U.S. West Coast from the South China Sea. They will need access to the waters east of Taiwan in order to directly strike the West Coast."

Another significant player in U.S.-Taiwan relations is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. Its commercial customers include tech firms Apple and Qualcomm, but the chipmaker also supplies U.S. Air Force F-35 fighters and Chinese electronics giant Huawei.

Su predicts the TSMC tug-of-war between Washington and Beijing to result in one outcome—the world's largest semiconductor company will align with the U.S. and Japan to create a mutually reliant "strategic triangle."

It could continue to supply microchips to Huawei, but Taiwanese products would ensure Chinese-made dual-use technology—and potential back doors that cause such alarm in the Pentagon—would no longer be a concern, Su explained.

By increasing its ability to defend itself, Taiwan helps deter Chinese adventurism and contributes to Indo-Pacific regional security, as well as that of the United States, said the analyst, who spent time as an adviser on Taiwan's National Security Council and its defense ministry.

"Although the U.S. is unable to openly admit that Taiwan is an independent state, it treats Taiwan as one. Taiwan can use this as leverage to strengthen its defense capabilities," he said, adding: "This grows more trust in Taiwan from the U.S., Australia and Japan. Taiwan can become a Maritime Israel."

"Taiwan must now win over public opinion. As a kind of Israel, Taiwan would be worthy of respect and support," Su noted. "Worthy of respect because of its democracy and freedom; worthy of support because Taiwan is capable of protecting itself."

Unlike Israel's disputes with Palestine, Taiwan's campaign to push back against China would not be fraught with widespread allegations of human rights violation, giving legitimacy to any support for Taipei, Su argued. "Taiwan wants to protect its human rights, not impact the rights of others."

A responsible posture

Separating China and Taiwan is the Taiwan Strait, a body of water about 80 miles wide at its narrowest point.

Su said: "Unfortunately, Taiwan is close to China, but luckily the Taiwan Strait is wide enough. Any invasion of Taiwan would require a large-scale amphibious assault."

The China threat theory of 20 years ago is now a reality.
Taiwan defense analyst Su Tzu-yun

Last week's declassified White House document gave the clearest indication yet of U.S. intentions to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, possibly solving the decades-long conundrum of Washington's "strategic ambiguity" on the subject.

The Trump administration's Indo-Pacific strategy, which would have had input from a number of defense experts and non-partisan advisers, should put the Taiwanese public "at ease," Su said.

The Taiwanese government has not had formal exchanges with its cross-strait counterpart since Tsai's first election to office in 2016. Taipei says it is open to dialog but rejects preconditions for talks, including Beijing's insistence on its one-China principle and all that it encompasses.

Analysts have described Taiwan's posture as responsible and, importantly, not provocative, despite finger-pointing from Beijing blaming Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party for the cross-strait deadlock.

At the same time, through its public diplomacy engagement, Taipei's top diplomats have made friends from Ottawa to New Delhi while emphasizing Taiwan's will to defend itself against Chinese aggression. Su said this was the correct tone and direction for the Tsai administration to take.

Regardless of domestic opinion in the U.S., Taiwan needed to be seen as willing to protect itself—and not as a freeloader—in order to win support from others. To that end, Taiwan would require a boost to its defense budget and an overall "political culture" shift, he added.

INDSR's senior defense analyst said Beijing's escalation of military activity in the Taiwan Strait would only serve as further evidence of the growing China threat. He described Beijing's reputation as "self-inflicted."

Beijing's response so far will ensure that the incoming Biden administration does not return to the arguably softer China policies of the Obama era. Referencing Joseph Nye's hard and soft powers, Su said Biden would wield tenacity as his power.

Analyses from Beijing have described the president-elect and his foreign policy team as predictable and likely to seek a return to more harmonious U.S.-China relations.

Su argues that the likes of Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan and especially Campbell—the former pair described in China as "old faces" and the third appointed to the new role of Indo-Pacific coordinator—will not be blind to China's rise and threat.

Working with Chinese leaders on climate change and nonproliferation while confronting Beijing on security and human rights issues will mark what Su terms Biden's "flexible containment" strategy.

Campbell, an old friend of Taipei and of the current administration in particular, is an "Asia guru," Su said. "He voiced concerns about China's blue-water navy decades ago. His concerns have come true."

"Beijing's hopes that he will help China recouple with the West won't come to anything," he added.

Taipei City Landmark 101
File photo: Taipei 101, Taiwan's capital city landmark. Ashley Pon/Getty Images for Autism Speaks

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