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A Competitive Strategy for Taiwan

Nov 20 , 2013

“Competitive strategies” sounds a mite redundant, doesn’t it? All strategy is competitive, in wartime and peacetime alike. According to Carl von Clausewitz, competition is a seesaw process in which the protagonists struggle for strategic advantage. It’s a “duel” on a grand scale, a “collision of two living forces,” a grudge match in which two “wrestlers” try to throw each other. Reversals of fortune are commonplace. 

Here’s the intriguing part. The outcomes of such contests are far from predestined, even when the wrestlers come from different weight classes. 

That’s the essence of today’s China-Taiwan competition. How can Taipei bring about stable, enduring deterrence across the Taiwan Strait? Competitive strategies has a specific meaning dating to the late Cold War, when the U.S. Office of Net Assessment, headed by Pentagon sensei Andy Marshall, oversaw an analytic effort titled the Competitive Strategies Initiative. The idea behind the initiative was to devise low-cost stratagems whereby the West could induce the Soviet bloc to take costly — and ultimately self-defeating — countermeasures. 

The initiative sought to exploit an economic mismatch. An economically backward Soviet Union, that is, could never afford to throw money at strategic problems. Faced with unaffordable competition, Moscow would moderate its policies, capitulate, or collapse. Best of all, the West would prevail in this long-term strategic competition without turning the Cold War hot. 

But the Cold War was a protracted contest between peer antagonists. How can Taiwan, an island populated by 23 million souls, resist the demands of a China that commands lopsided resource advantages? Clausewitz holds forth on such unequal contests. He identifies three basic ways to prevail in international competition. First, the victor can overthrow the vanquished by force of arms and dictate the terms of peace. Second, one contestant can convince the other he can’t win. And third, one contestant can convince the other that victory is unaffordable — or, at any rate, will cost more than the political stakes warrant. 

Outright military victory now exceeds Taiwan’s grasp. So long as China’s armed forces remained large but backward, the Taiwan Navy and Air Force could hope to offset their inferior numbers with sophisticated ships, aircraft, and weaponry operated by better-trained and -motivated warriors. But the People’s Liberation Army has closed the island’s technological advantage over the past decade, meaning that numbers may decide a test of arms. No longer does Taiwan rule nearby seas and skies. Nor is it likely to regain its edge. 

So Clausewitz’s first method of winning is no longer an option. To believe otherwise is whimsy. But the other two methods — persuading an opponent that winning is improbable or will cost too much — remain open to Taipei. Or, if you prefer your strategic thinkers Asian, Sun Tzu maintains that balking an enemy’s strategy is the supreme excellence for generals and sovereigns. With some strategic artistry and well-chosen force acquisitions, Taiwan can balk its overbearing opponent. 

How are the island’s armed services faring in this department? Are they seeking affordable ways to impose high costs on — or dishearten — Beijing? The answer is mixed. The redoubtable Wendell Minnick of Defense News reports that big platforms — frigates, submarines, fighter aircraft — retain their allure for Taipei. For instance, defense officials muse about acquiring Aegis-equipped surface combatants — men-of-war built to duke it out in major fleet actions — from the United States. This suggests that commanders remain wedded to head-on battle. 

On the other hand, some procurements have a competitive-strategies look to them. Minnick notes that the Taiwan Navy may replace some of its elderly Knox-class frigates with Hsun Hai catamarans. Outfitted with eight indigenously built Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles — by most accounts a triumph for the island’s defense industry — these inexpensive, stealthy small craft can be built in large numbers. Swarm attacks by enterprising Hsun Hai skippers could give any invasion or blockading force a grim day. 

Strategists have taken to urging Taiwan to embrace strategies of the weak. My colleague Commander Bill Murray created a sensation on the island a few years back when he urged Taiwan to make itself a “porcupine.” Taipei, maintained Bill, should give up trying to command the air and sea. Instead it should channel finite defense dollars into cheap but lethal weaponry such as anti-air and anti-ship missiles. It should make an aggressor flinch at the difficulty and expense of a cross-strait assault. No predator relishes devouring a porcupine. 

Toshi Yoshihara and I leapt into the debate in 2010 with a couple of China Briefs, and in 2011 with a monograph adding a forward, maritime dimension to Bill’s porcupine strategy. Scattered at seaports around Taiwan’s rugged periphery, small craft like Hsun Hais would stand a good chance of escaping destruction — and they pack quite a wallop for their size and cost. Small-ship tactics — a kind of “people’s war at sea” strategy — would give even a domineering foe pause. 

The more Taipei adopts such measures, the better competitive-strategies proponents will like its prospects in a fight — and thus its capacity to deter attack altogether. And winning without fighting is what success in long-term peacetime competition is all about. Force acquisitions, then, provide allies and foreign observers a standard to track the evolution of Taiwan’s defense posture — and to shape their own strategies accordingly. 

To balk Chinese aggression — for the lightweight to frustrate The Rock — Taiwan needs a Competitive Strategies Initiative all its own. Faster, please

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a contributor to Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century (Stanford University Press, 2012). The views voiced here are his alone.


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