Between the Giants: The Future of the Taiwanese Navy in an Era of Great Power Competition

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Jonathan Selling 

For years worries about a potential second Cold War between the United States and China have swirled within discussions on the Asia-Pacific. For a while these proclamations seemed overblown, seemingly more the fever dreams of Cold Warriors hoping for a new adversary. But in the last few years it seems these concerns are finally coming true as tensions between the two nations have increased dramatically. While it is still possible that relations between the United States and China could improve and tensions may fall, various regional states are preparing for a new era of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

In this new world of enhanced competition between the United States and China, no nation has more reason to be concerned than the island nation of Taiwan. Claimed by China, and largely protected by the United States, Taiwan cannot avoid being drawn into the competition. Because of its unsettled political status, Taiwan could easily become a flashpoint between the two powers. Tensions have risen across the strait recently and it remains to be seen how much more it would take for them to boil over. For this reason, a rise in great power competition will signal a precarious time for Taiwan, where its independence will be threatened more severely than perhaps ever before.

In the naval realm, this has resulted in a shift in how the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) is composed and deployed. A focus on asymmetric warfare has become the mainstay of ROCN defensive plans, with major surface ships becoming much less important for Taiwan’s seaborne defense. Likewise, a new emphasis on integration with the United States and its allies has become more important and has allowed for a new use for Taiwan’s surface fleet.

A Shifting Doctrine

Taiwan’s defense doctrine has had to undergo shifts in recent years. Until recently the ability of China to existentially threaten the island nation was negligible. Taiwan could be confident it could repel a major Chinese attack with the backing of the United States. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996 demonstrated the inability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deter the United States Navy from sailing through the Strait, and a significant American show of force was enough to dissuade the Chinese.

While the crisis demonstrated Taiwanese safety from the mainland, it sowed the seeds of the current climate. It prompted the PLA to undertake wide-reaching reforms and modernization which allowed the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to become larger and more advanced, which has significantly changed the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait as the PLAN now dwarfs the ROCN. This has driven a shift toward a strategy of asymmetric warfare to harass and chip away at the PLAN in the event of war with the goal of inflicting mounting casualties and ideally preventing an invasion fleet from crossing the strait.

Taiwan’s most recent defense plan, the Overall Defense Concept, lays out the concept of asymmetric warfare. The plan calls for a two-phase system to defeat China. Phase one involves harassing a Chinese invasion fleet and weakening it before it hits the beaches. The second phase calls for the invasion to be annihilated as Chinese soldiers wade ashore on Taiwan. This change calls for assets to be lighter and more survivable than what Taiwan has traditionally relied on.

The adoption of this strategy has led the ROCN to recently purchase systems specifically for this task and to focus exclusively on this mission. This meant acquiring small, cheap, and asymmetric assets that can harass the PLAN as it attempts to cross the strait. The Taiwanese Navy has invested in minelayers that will quickly litter the seas with mines to slow down the invasion fleet. Diesel-powered submarines will prowl the Taiwan Strait, a body of water uniquely suited for submarine warfare, looking for Chinese vessels to pick off. Fast attack boats armed with anti-ship missiles will also harass the incoming fleet and wreck havoc on the landing ships crossing the strait.

However, as Taiwan procures new force structure to pursue these operating concepts, there still remains the question of how its older force structure will figure into the equation.

The Surface Fleet: Holdover or Essential?

Despite seemingly not fitting into its latest doctrine, the Taiwanese Navy maintains a number of large surface ships, and is continuing to construct or purchase more. In the event of war, these ships would likely either be sunk quickly or would be forced to flee Taiwanese waters, perhaps taking shelter at American or allied ports. Plans for the ships to regroup to wreak havoc during a PLA landing are highly optimistic, and even if successful, would still not be an ideal role. If these ships are so ill-suited for high-end warfighting only miles away from the Chinese coast then why spend valuable resources on them?

This shift to asymmetric warfare is well-suited when it comes to preventing an invasion, but offers little for patrolling Taiwan’s territorial waters or exerting power at any significant distance from Taiwan’s shores. For this, Taiwan relies on its surface fleet, made up of four destroyers and 22 frigates. Although the Chinese threat is primarily depicted as a naval invasion, Beijing could take other actions to subjugate or pressure Taiwan. In particular, a naval blockade or more distant naval skirmishes could be options. In this case, the surface fleet with its range would be invaluable. Likewise, in normal times, Taiwan’s surface ships provide security in the island’s territorial waters, a task that small missile boats and minelayers cannot perform well.

The surface fleet also serves to lend a level of prestige to Taiwan, which helps explain the Taiwanese government’s continued buildup of it. While an asymmetrical fleet is more efficient for protecting Taiwan, switching over to an entirely asymmetrical fleet focused on littoral warfare would signify a degradation of Taiwan’s power and prestige via-a-vis mainland China. This would only serve to enhance mainland China’s diminishment of Taiwan, allowing China to more effectively portray the island not as a sovereign nation but as a rebellious province.

The Taiwan Navy’s ‘Friendly Fleet’ is welcomed home at Zoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on April 15, 2020. (Photo via South China Morning Post)

Finally, the surface fleet can conduct goodwill tours to bolster Taiwan’s international profile. Taiwan’s dwindling amount of official relations still play an important role in legitimizing the nation against China’s claims of its status. By paying visits to overseas nations the ROCN is able to make diplomatic efforts that can have positive effects on these countries’ relations with Taiwan.

The United States: An Indispensable Ally 

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pushed traditional allies of the U.S. to spend more on defense so as to shoulder their fair share of the burden, and this focus on burden-sharing has upset some of America’s traditional allies. But unlike Germany or Japan, Taiwan is far more reliant on the United States for its survival. The threat of American intervention is perhaps the only truly credible deterrent that could foreclose the PRC’s military options against Taiwan. As such, Taiwan can at times be portrayed as a burden for the United States, and there is worry that Taiwan’s future could be a bargaining chip in a grand settlement between the two powers.

Since relations between the United States and China began to deteriorate, Taiwan’s importance has increased. It is now being recognized as an especially important bulwark in the First Island Chain that prevents unrestricted access to the Pacific Ocean for the Chinese Navy. But due to its lack of official relations or a guarantee stronger than the ambiguously worded Taiwan Relations Act, the island nation’s security has not meaningfully increased. In fact, due to the increased tensions, Taiwan is at a greater risk of conflict than before.

Taiwan’s surface fleet thus serves the important role of garnering American support. By being able to contribute to missions far from Taiwan’s shore, such as maritime security missions and cooperative exercises, these surface ships can contribute to some forms of burden sharing with the United States and demonstrate Taiwan’s value as an ally.

The surface fleet also provides the only area where the ROCN can integrate with the United States Navy (USN) in any real capacity. The United States has not operated diesel submarines since the 1950s and mine-laying and sweeping are not emphasized in the U.S. Navy. Fast attack craft with long-range anti-ship missiles are not utilized in any way by the U.S. Navy. This lack of interoperability is a constant headache for the ROCN as well as the other branches of the Taiwanese military. This may be changing though, as Taiwan has begun to ramp up work on its domestic arms industry. After almost two decades of trying to purchase new diesel submarines, Taiwan has begun construction of its own. Likewise, the island has made great strides in developing domestic anti-ship missiles, which will be used by both the Army and Navy.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s surface fleet can do more to protect Taiwan by assisting and cooperating with the United States than it does by lying in wait for a Chinese invasion force to materialize. By integrating itself into U.S.-led alliance and partnership structures, Taiwan can come to be seen as more than just a burden for the United States. The ROCN has also increased its connections to U.S. allies, most notably Australia and Japan. Like with the United States, the more that Taiwan can make itself a helpful ally, the more it will be seen as indispensable in the region.

Conclusion 

In this new era of great power competition the ROCN is designed to maximize utility with a small budget while facing a much wealthier and larger adversary. The small surface fleet patrols and guards the island’s territorial waters, while the anti-invasion force is designed to ensure that the PLA will not be able to land troops on the beach without paying a heavy toll.

The future of the ROCN is likely one of further bifurcation, with the anti-invasion fleet continuing to dwarf the surface fleet. Pursuant to its hedgehog strategy, the ROCN will concentrate on raising the cost of conflict with China in the years to come in an attempt to prevent Chinese aggression, while the surface fleet will conduct goodwill tours and conduct joint operations with allies to build relationships and raise Taiwan’s image abroad.

Ultimately, it will be the United States that will keep China at bay. The power discrepancy between Taiwan and the mainland has grown too great for Taiwan alone to deter China for much longer. While China likely cannot successfully conduct an invasion of the island just yet, it will not be long until it is capable. The continued freedom of the island lies with its friends and allies. It is only through alliances with the United States and other like-minded Pacific nations that Taiwan can hope to continue to prevent a Chinese invasion.

Some claim that Taiwan’s naval defense strategy doesn’t make sense. While the navy is not singularly designed to repel an invasion, it is still designed with a coherent strategy in mind, one that promises to be more effective at protecting the island than the strategy the navy’s critics insist on. While a purely asymmetric fleet would bring better bang for Taiwan’s buck, this fleet would serve to shrink Taiwan’s international profile and reinforce the idea that Taiwan is wholly dependent on the United States.

Taiwan may come to see this new era of great power competition as a blessing in disguise. Ten years ago, one view saw Taiwan merely as an irritant to better relations with China. This argument was made fairly often, and called for a grand bargain with China that would see the United States relinquish its security commitments to Taiwan in exchange for better relations with China. Today such talk is almost unheard of. With the threat of great power competition rising anew, Taiwan is now seen as an important bulwark in the competition with China, and Taiwan is doing its part to rise to that role. The ROCN is preparing for an era of intense competition and has set out policies to keep Taiwan safe during this turbulent era.

Jonathan Selling is a graduate of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies with an MA International Affairs. His primary research interests are the rise of great powers and American alliances in the Indo-Pacific. 

Featured Image: Navy sailors walk past a 500-ton corvette named Tuo Chiang at the Tsoying navy base in southern Kaohsiung on March 31, 2015. (Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

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