For several decades, Washington followed a policy that shied away from irritating China when it came to Taiwan. As the island of 23 million evolved into one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, with a boisterously free press, successive American administrations were careful not to provoke Beijing even as they tried to shelter Taiwan diplomatically and provide for the territory’s defense.
An influential report written in 2008 by a retired U.S. naval commander was embraced by officials from the Obama administration because it argued that the United States no longer needed to sell Taiwan big-ticket items, such as fighter jets, or support its submarine program, which would anger Beijing. Instead, the author, William Murray, contended that Taiwan could forgo an air force and a big navy and focus instead on making itself a “porcupine” by adding smaller weapons systems and mobile infantry units that could defend Taiwan’s beaches from an all-out Chinese assault. The logic, in the words of Thomas X. Hammes, a former Marine Corps colonel now at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, was that “a grizzly bear can eat a porcupine anytime it wants to, but it just isn’t worth the pain.”
However, intensifying Chinese pressure on Taiwan, a growing disenchantment with China within the ranks of the U.S. government and Congress, and the rise to prominence of Taiwan’s friends within the Trump administration have presaged a move away from the “porcupine” strategy toward one more willing to confront Beijing. This trend could continue further if President Trump, always unpredictable, lets his advisers on the National Security Council and Defense Department have their way.
Starting earlier this year, China’s air force fighters and bombers began circling Taiwan, forcing Taiwan’s air force to scramble its jets. In late April, China’s state-run television released footage of People’s Liberation Army forces invading a mock Taiwanese village. And late last month, Chinese naval forces had a drill in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, the Dominican Republic became the third country in less than two years to sever official ties with Taiwan to favor China. Now, because of Beijing’s accelerating campaign to diplomatically isolate Taipei, only 19 countries recognize Taiwan.
China’s tactics have alienated many members of a younger generation of State Department officials who used to be considered the strongest proponents of smooth relations with Beijing. Exasperation with China has bled into Congress, which has adopted its most activist position on Taiwan since 1979, when Congress defied the administration of then-President Jimmy Carter to pass the Taiwan Relations Act, mandating that the U.S. government help in Taiwan’s defense.
In February, the House and Senate unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which called on the Trump administration to send high-ranking U.S. officials to liaise with Taiwan’s government. Both in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council, Trump administration officials are far more sympathetic to Taiwan’s challenges than their counterparts have been in the past. They have given the U.S. Navy more leeway to challenge China in the Pacific. Earlier this month, the Navy dispatched two destroyers through the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 2017.
In April, the State Department approved a plan to allow U.S. defense companies to explore selling Taiwan technology and weapons systems for its submarine program. The decision marked the first sign of life in an endeavor that last received U.S. support in 2001 when President George W. Bush announced a U.S. program to help Taiwan purchase eight diesel submarines.
It’s still a long shot whether Taiwan is going to be able to cobble together a new submarine, but this move marks a major break with the Obama administration, which had essentially shelved the deal. In another shift, there’s also talk now among experts and industry sources that the U.S. government is seriously considering selling Taiwan jet fighters for the first time since 1992. Senior Republicans in the Senate have called on the Trump administration to sell Taiwan the F-35. Others have argued for an upgraded version of the F-16, which since the sale in 1992 has served as the backbone of Taiwan’s air force.
The Trump administration is also pushing Taiwan’s government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, to substantially increase its defense spending. American officials have said that ideally Taiwan should double its defense outlays. Taiwan currently devotes less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product to defense.
Some experts, such as Ian Easton, the author of “The Chinese Invasion Threat” and a research fellow at Project 2049 Institute, think that this shift in U.S. policy is overdue and that the United States needs to support both big-ticket items such as fighters for an air force, as well as armed drones, smart mines and other weapons that were part of the porcupine strategy, too.
“There are certain capabilities that no other country can provide Taiwan,” he said. “If we don’t, no one will.”
The wild card in this equation is Trump. Will Trump sell Taiwan down the river in order to make a deal with China over trade or North Korea, or will he listen to the advice from Congress and give Taiwan the help it needs?
Of course, if Trump increases American support of the sole democratic Chinese territory in the world, China will be furious. When reports emerged that the State Department had requested Marines to protect the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto American embassy on the island, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman urged the Trump administration to “exercise caution.” Should the United States start selling Taiwan jet fighters again, the reaction from Beijing will be substantially worse.