China Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Politics & Diplomacy Resilience Security & Defense Taiwan
New Atlanticist June 28, 2024

Dispatch from Taipei: Why Taiwan’s survival may depend on deterrence through resilience

By Markus Garlauskas

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What a difference a year can make. Last summer, I was part of the annual Atlantic Council delegation and research trip to Taiwan that met with then President Tsai Ing-wen. Last week, I again visited Taipei with a delegation that included Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe, during which we met with newly inaugurated President Lai Ching-te. I came away impressed by the progress of Taiwan’s defenses since our last visit. Taipei has continued military reforms and modernization, while shifting more attention and resources to “asymmetric warfare” approaches. And it is incorporating lessons learned from the war in Ukraine into its military planning, doctrine, and force structure. For example, after seeing the effectiveness of drones in Ukraine, Taiwan accelerated and expanded its efforts to field unmanned aerial systems. During our visit, the news broke that Washington had approved Taiwan purchasing over one thousand US-made armed drones.

I also saw momentum toward fully implementing the “all-out national defense” concept, emphasized under Tsai. Most notably, since our last visit, Taiwan followed through with executing plans to extend conscription from four months to one year. This year, a new word was also at the forefront—resilience—mentioned first by some key Taiwanese officials. Resilience was also raised by delegation members, in part because several of us had read a soon-to-be-published draft study on improving Taiwan’s resilience led by Atlantic Council Board Director and Distinguished Fellow Franklin Kramer, along with Philip Yu, Joseph Webster, and Elizabeth Sizeland. For Taiwan, resilience is a term whose exact meaning can be difficult to nail down—as we observed in our discussions—but I considered it to mean Taiwan’s will and ability to withstand Chinese coercion, as well as to adapt and sustain its defenses while under attack.

Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te meets with a senior delegation from the Atlantic Council on June 18, 2024. (Official Photo by I Chen Lin / Office of the President)

These opportunities for on-the-ground observations and interactions with officials, experts, and private sector leaders in Taiwan have been enlightening. This was only my second trip to Taiwan despite a longtime personal and professional interest in this embattled island on China’s doorstep. In my US government service as an intelligence officer and strategist, I had been stationed in South Korea for a dozen years, and I had also visited military bases, diplomatic posts, and other sites around the region—but never in Taiwan. The unique “unofficial” relationship between Washington and Taipei—along with decades of US deference to Beijing’s sensitivities—has resulted in, as in my case, many career US military officers and government officials never visiting Taiwan while on duty. Despite the best efforts of the de facto US “country team,” the American Institute in Taiwan, to ensure that US policymakers and analysts are well-informed, this anomaly of so little on-the-ground exposure among US national security professionals may cloud US analysis of Taiwan issues.

In contrast, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s intentions should be clear to Washington: Xi wants to bring Taiwan under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control, by force if necessary. When Xi and his top officials plan to accomplish this goal—and through what combination of subversion, coercion, strangulation, quarantine, blockade, bombardment, and invasion—is less clear and likely depends on unpredictable variables. (The Atlantic Council is exploring this further in its “Tiger Project” covering war and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.)

Some commentators, like our own Brian Kerg, point to the challenges of a cross-strait amphibious attack on Taiwan and emphasize the importance of countering other threats. Other US experts consider invasion to be a plausible “worst case” or “most dangerous” near-future scenario that should be the focus among these various threats. These experts recommend that Taiwan and the United States accelerate their preparations to quickly counter an invasion across the Taiwan Strait as the top priority. Evocative wording plays a part in this focus. Metaphorically turning the Taiwan Strait into a “boiling moat,” as depicted by Matt Pottinger and his colleagues, or into an “unmanned hellscape,” as described by US Indo-Pacific Command’s Admiral Samuel Paparo, often drives conversations on deterrence and defense against China to begin and end with stopping a cross-strait attack. So, too, does more technical terminology, such as Elbridge Colby’s “forward denial defense.” This focus could help deter Beijing from invasion by convincing it that landings are likely to be defeated before they can gain a foothold, but this is a risky bet.

Many Taiwanese officials instead appear to be emphasizing the broader importance of preparing for a sustained defense and ensuring resilience beyond just preparing to stop a cross-strait invasion. The idea that such resilience would contribute to deterrence resonated in some discussions, but one senior nongovernment expert scoffed at the idea that Taiwan’s resilience matters for deterring Xi. He argued that only credible threats to impose unacceptable costs or outright defeat of an invasion would be sufficient. But I question what sort of punishment, short of nuclear strikes, could inflict enough costs in mere weeks if Xi believed that Taiwan was not resilient enough to last very long.

More importantly, a focus on stopping an invasion force does little to deter and defeat other forms of attack aimed at subjugating Taiwan, such as persistent informational pressure and subversion to undermine Taiwan’s will from within, slow “strangulation” through internationally isolating Taiwan and wearing it down with military threats and coercion, and a bombardment or blockade designed to rapidly break Taiwan’s will to resist. The endgame of such scenarios would be either the arrival of a Chinese occupation force, rather than an invasion force, or a political settlement in which Taipei cedes control to Beijing.

When considering how long Taiwan could resist determined military pressure, perhaps the most worrisome point is its energy sector’s near-total reliance on imports by sea combined with insufficient stockpiles. As a result, the disruption or blockade of Taiwan’s sea lines of communication could quickly cripple its electrical power grid, economy, military logistics, and food distribution.

With this in mind, I looked out the window during our late-night flight home and snapped a few photos of the dazzling lights of the Port of Taipei. The view reminded me of the contrasting nighttime satellite photos of a well-lit South Korea next to a mostly pitch-black North Korea, and I pictured how the scene could quickly fall dark under a Chinese blockade. How would the people of Taiwan react? Taiwan can and should improve its energy resilience to be able to keep the lights on even during a lengthy blockade. But thriving maritime commerce will remain Taiwan’s economic lifeblood, so its people will still have to be willing to endure great sacrifices to preserve their freedom in the event China uses force.

A view of the port of Taipei, June 21, 2024. (Photo by Markus Garlauskas)

To be fair, Taiwanese themselves—including scholars and business leaders we met—have wide-ranging views on the resilience and will to fight of the people of Taiwan. We were also struck by polling data that tells contrasting stories. First, poll after poll shows that a clear majority opposes accepting CCP rule of Taiwan. This is a strong foundation to work with. However, only just less than half of Taiwanese surveyed are “very willing” to fight to defend Taiwan. The good news is that this number can be increased. As one expert in public opinion shared with us, other polls show that Taiwanese are more likely to be willing to fight after receiving military training and if Taiwan can hold out after an initial attack.

Far more concerning, one independent poll we were briefed on suggested that Beijing and Moscow have a sympathetic ear among a large minority of Taiwanese. Given these polls and China’s unrelenting and insidious information warfare, our delegation came away concerned by the threat of subversion to Taiwan’s democracy. But in the next few years, such information warfare is unlikely to be decisive on its own. Instead, it could undermine Taiwan’s unity and will to resist if Beijing forced the issue. In short, if it came to blockade, bombardment, or invasion—accompanied by an information campaign and cyberattacks—would the Taiwanese people fold or fight? This is one question that Taiwanese institutions, such as the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, are exploring.  

In unstructured discussions among members of our delegation, several of us came to the informal conclusion that leadership could be decisive in answering that question—citing positive examples present and past, including Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Washington. The personal resilience of Taiwan’s democratically elected leadership, along with its determination to ensure continued investments in resilience, could determine Taiwan’s resilience under Chinese attack. This gives me cause for optimism.

Not all of the Taiwanese public has awoken to the rising Chinese threat, and much work remains, but Taiwan grows more resilient by the day. Taiwan’s freedom may hinge on its people’s willingness to invest and make sacrifices to prepare to face unrelenting pressure, up to and including blockade, bombardment, and invasion. Deterrence by preparing military capabilities that could deny success to Chinese invaders or threaten severe punishment will continue to be important, but these capabilities may not matter if Taiwan folds or breaks as Chinese pressure and aggression ramps up. Improving deterrence through resilience—by visibly ensuring Taiwan’s ability to absorb, endure, adapt, and resist—could be the key to Taiwan’s survival.

Markus Garlauskas is the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, leading the Council’s Tiger Project on War and Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. He is a former senior US government official with two decades of service as an intelligence officer and strategist, including twelve years stationed overseas in the region. He posts as @Mister_G_2 on X.

Note: The Atlantic Council delegation’s visit to Taiwan was supported by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). This analysis was informed by the research trip and by Atlantic Council activities sponsored by the US Department of Defense. It represents the author’s views and not those of the government of Taiwan or any US government entity.

The Tiger Project, an Atlantic Council effort, develops new insights and actionable recommendations for the United States, as well as its allies and partners, to deter and counter aggression in the Indo-Pacific. Explore our collection of work, including expert commentary, multimedia content, and in-depth analysis, on strategic defense and deterrence issues in the region.

Further reading

Image: A new military recruit looks on during a training in Taichung, Taiwan June 28, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang