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How does the US support Taiwan militarily?

August 4, 2022

The United States, Taiwan's primary military backer, is advising Taipei to purchase weaponry designed for mobility and precision to fight a seaborne invasion from China.

Taiwan's AT-3 fighter jets with blue and red smoke trails
China's military is far larger than Taiwan's, but the self-ruled island is bolstering defensesImage: Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images

China is undertaking its largest military exercises in decades off the shores of Taiwan this week in response to the visit of the highest-ranking US congressional delegation to the island in 25 years.

The trip, led by the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has been criticized by some as being a risky, symbolic gesture, when what is really needed from Washington is more work behind the scenes to bolster Taiwan's defense capabilities in the face of China's increasing aggression.

"We should focus our bilateral relationship with Taiwan on low-profile but highly impactful actions that strengthen Taiwan's defenses. A visit by the US House speaker is close to the opposite end of the spectrum," said Kharis Templeman, a Taiwan expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institute.

The forward presence of the US Navy in the Pacific and the South China Sea serves as the main deterrent to China in the region.

Indeed, nurturing the US's network of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region was the stated reason for Pelosi's trip. This also involves bringing in European countries like France and the UK to participate in so-called freedom of navigation maneuvers in international waters China claims as its territory.

Map: US and Chinese bases in the Pacific

Tzu-yun Su, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, said China's military exercises were intended as "strategic psychological warfare" targeting Taiwan, and a sign that Beijing wants to "prevent the US military from supporting Taiwan."

The United States is Taiwan's primary military backer, selling Taipei much-needed weapons and defense tech. For decades, Washington has sold arms to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows for the supply of "defensive" weapons.

Since 2019, Taiwan has ordered at least $17 billion (€16.65 billion) worth of US military equipment, according to Defense News. This includes an $8 billion order of 66 F-16 fighter jets under former President Donald Trump, one of the largest single orders ever.

In July 2022, the US State Department approved the possible sale of "military technical assistance" worth $108 million for Taiwan. The Pentagon said in a statement that Taiwan requested repair parts for tanks and combat vehicles, small arms, combat weapon systems, and logistical support items.

In January, amid increased Chinese sorties into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, the island's legislature passed an extra $8.6 billion in defense spending, much of which will likely be allocated to anti-ship weapons.

A model of Taiwan-made Anti-Ship Missile Hsiung Feng III
Anti-ship missiles are a integral part of Taiwan's arsenalImage: Ritchi B. Tongo/EPA/picture alliance

Making Taiwan a 'porcupine'

Despite US support and more defense spending, Taiwan is still unable to keep up with China's decadeslong military modernization. This mismatch is pushing Taiwan toward building its "asymmetric warfare" capacity, also called the "porcupine strategy."

The strategy involves using smaller, but highly effective, weapons to fight a larger enemy force. Ukraine's success in fending off the first phase of Russia's invasion, for example, by using shoulder-fired rockets to decimate tanks, has been cited as a successful application of the strategy.

The US is now advising Taiwan to purchase weaponry designed for mobility and precision to fight a seaborne invasion from China.

In May, The New York Times and Politico reported that the State Department had told Taipei that it should focus on acquiring equipment that's suited for asymmetric warfare and would better deter and defend against China — such as missiles and upgraded artillery — instead of attempting to secure big-ticket weapons like expensive helicopters designed to hunt submarines.

Since the Trump administration, Washington has already approved the sale of such asymmetric systems as Harpoon coastal defense missiles, high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), Stinger missiles and MQ-9 "hunter killer" drones.

Graph China-Taiwan military

The 'ambiguous' defense of Taiwan

Not all of the weapons ordered have arrived, because of production problems and the war in Ukraine. This comes along with criticism that the US is moving too slow when it comes to prioritizing Taiwan's defense as a national security priority.

The United States does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognizes the People's Republic of China (PRC), with its capital in Beijing, as the "the sole legal Government of China" under the "one China" policy.

Beijing views Taiwan as a Chinese province that one day will be "reunited" with the mainland, even by using force if necessary.

The United States does not explicitly recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, however, and continues to provide arms to the self-governed island, which has led to the current tricky diplomatic and strategic gray area.

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington maintains a stance of "strategic ambiguity," which means that direct military intervention is not guaranteed, but it is also not explicitly ruled out.

Recent remarks by President Joe Biden that the United States would "defend" Taiwan if it were attacked by China caused confusion and forced the White House to clarify that Washington had not changed its stance on nonintervention.

There have been some calls in US foreign policy circles for the United States to change its tune as China gradually builds up its military capabilities. Critics say the policy comes from a time when the US military vastly outmatched China's.

Richard Haass, the director of the US Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs that Washington needs to switch to a policy of "strategic clarity."

The old "playbook that worked when Taiwan and the United States had a military edge over China is unlikely to keep at bay a PLA that has spent the past two and a half decades preparing for a Taiwan conflict," Haass wrote.

"Washington needs to make preparing for a conflict over Taiwan the top priority for the Department of Defense and resource it accordingly," he added.

Taiwanese analyst Su said that, although the PLA is mounting an "unprecedented" show of force this week, the chance of escalation is "very small" because a war now is very "unfavorable for Beijing" and victory is uncertain.

"Xi Jinping can't risk endangering his third term as Chinese leader," he added.

Map: Countries that recognize or have relations with Taiwan and countries that don't

Will the US intervene?

In 1950, shortly after the Chinese Communist Party took over mainland China, US Army General Douglas MacArthur said Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the "hands of the Communists" could be compared to an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that would jeopardize US strategic interests in the Pacific.

The United States, however, is unlikely to interfere this week in what only amounts to military drills, said Lev Nachman, political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.  

"I think this is a clear intimidation tactic, and, if the US considers changing strategic ambiguity, that shows Beijing was very successful at scaring everyone," he said.

Nachman added, however, that the current situation could change the domestic political calculus in the United States.

"I think all the hawkish politicians in the US are going to eat this up," he said. "I worry this could be a race to the bottom, and this gives fuel to those looking for a hawkish stance on China to justify their position. These types of strong reactions will feed off each other."

Additional reporting by William Yang from Taipei

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia