Taiwan’s Search for Security Partners: Looking Beyond Washington

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 5

In November 2016, Hong Kong authorities seized nine Singaporean Terrex infantry carrier vehicles en route home after training exercises in Taiwan (Today News, November 29, 2016; Phoenix News, November 30, 2016). The carriers were taking the same route shipping containers have taken for decades as part of the Singaporean-Taiwan “Starlight Program” (星光部队 or 星光计划). [1] After two months of closed-door diplomacy, Hong Kong customs authorities announced that the shipment would be returned to Singapore in time for Chinese New Year. The message in seizing the Terrex vehicles was a resoundingly clear one: abide by Beijing’s “One China” principle (一中原则) or risk the consequences.

Beijing’s insistence that other countries recognize the People’s Republic of China as the sole Chinese government has led to Taiwan’s marginalization. Though Taiwan has been able to maintain unofficial ties around the world, economic cooperation with mainland China, and regional trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand, it continues to face challenges in identifying willing and able security partners. Rather than utilizing unofficial, largely economic ties around the world to advance its defense interests, Taiwan continues to rely almost exclusively upon U.S. security assurances. Amid the uncertainties of President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Taiwan policy, Taiwan must avoid an overdependence on the United States by actively diversifying the island’s portfolio of defense partners. Such efforts are particularly important as the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense operationalizes its new “multi-deterrence” strategy (Focus Taiwan News, March 12).

Why Look Elsewhere?

The rationale for Taipei to look beyond Washington to the expertise and assistance of other partners and allies is simple. Taiwan’s needs cannot be met by reliance on Washington alone; additional relationships are necessary to ensure the island has political, economic, and security ties to sustain its future. This argument may be misconstrued as a Taiwanese brand of hedging—and, indeed, Taiwan today maintains economic ties with mainland China and security links with the United States. But Taiwan will never be able to “hedge” between the U.S. and China the way other regional powers can, for there is little ambiguity in Taipei’s policy decisions. [2] Instead, Taiwan should seek to strategically diversify its portfolio of security and defense partners beyond the United States. With the obvious exclusion of China, this insurance policy will strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense regardless of the person or party in the White House.

To be certain, encouraging Taiwan to broaden its strategic vision for defense partnerships does not diminish the value of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Taiwan was the United States’ ninth largest trading partner and among its top-ten destinations of agricultural and food products in 2015 (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, 2016). Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the U.S. remains legally committed to supporting Taiwan’s defense, “[making] available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services…as may be necessary to enable [it] to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” [3] Presidents Bush and Obama furthered this security commitment to Taiwan through arms deliveries valued at $4.5 billion from 2007 to 2014 (Congressional Research Service, December 21, 2015). Weapons packages included technology such as P-3C maritime patrol aircraft, Patriot missile systems, and F-16 A/B retrofitting aimed at supporting Taiwan’s self-defense needs (Congressional Research Service, August 29, 2014). Beyond military hardware, the relationship has deepened to involve closer mil-mil exchanges and a range of track-two security dialogues (Taipei Times, December 2, 2016; Up Media, December 8, 2016).

The depth of U.S.-Taiwan ties should not, however, preclude Taiwanese efforts to diversify security partners. Due to the unique challenges of Taiwan’s strategic environment and the far-reaching responsibilities of the U.S. national security strategy, it behooves Taiwanese policymakers to explore additional partnerships.

Diversifying Taiwan’s Strategic Portfolio

Taiwan’s sole existential threat, China, is a mere 120 miles from its shores. Military planning has shifted from a porcupine “Hard ROC” to a “multi-dilemma” strategic approach (Ministry of National Defense (ROC), October 2013; Focus Taiwan News, March 12). Despite divergent language, both concepts are focused on one and the same objective: denying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the ability to invade or occupy the island. Such a defense posture must simultaneously operate within the limits imposed by a tight defense budget ($9.7 billion, or 1.8 percent of GDP, for 2017) and a personnel pool of 215,000 active duty troops, of which 23,000 are one-year conscripts (Ministry of National Defense (ROC), September 2016; IISS Military Balance, 2016; Taipei Times, August 17, 2016).

Strengthening Taiwan’s portfolio of security partnerships must first begin by looking to other countries in similar strategic environments; namely, those small- to medium-sized countries building a robust deterrence posture amid a lack of strategic depth, tight budgetary and personnel constraints, and an intimate proximity to existential threats. Taipei should partner with countries procuring and training with the sort of innovative and asymmetric platforms the Taiwanese defense forces require for multi-deterrence—including cyber, undersea, and anti-aircraft capabilities (Focus Taiwan News, March 16). Like-minded defense partners may also serve as conduits for buying, co-developing, or indigenously procuring advanced military technologies. Such additional ties will decrease Taiwan’s current reliance upon the lengthy timelines of Congressionally-approved weapons packages.

The call for rethinking Taiwan’s security assistances beyond Washington is hardly new news to current Taiwanese officials. President Tsai has already begun a search for alternative economic partners, as can be best seen in the New Southbound Policy aimed at broadening business links between Taiwan and Southeast Asia as a counterbalance to China (BBC Chinese, May 28, 2016). Her administration continues to deepen unofficial ties with Japan, promising a cooperative attitude in engaging with the Abe government and pro-Taiwan parliamentarians (China Brief, October 26, 2016; Radio Taiwan International, March 20). Tokyo could build on these ties by supporting the development of Taiwan’s submarine capabilities, such as in sending retired Japanese naval officers, retired defense officials, or even engineers from Kawasaki and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries—builders of Japan’s Sōryū-class submarines—to Taipei for dialogues with their counterparts.

Within the region, neighborhood partners offer the geostrategic proximity and foothold in intra-Asian networks which Taiwan needs. Singapore, with its long history of interactions with Taiwan and firm observance of “One China” coveted by Beijing, should be a starting point (Apple Daily, March 23, 2015). With undoubtedly the most advanced defense forces in Southeast Asia, Singaporean capabilities punch far above their weight. The city-state’s defense strategy has transformed from purely retaliatory to swift pre-emptive strikes—a strategic shift captured in zoological metaphors of poisonous shrimp, porcupines and, now, dolphins. [4] Singapore also takes a holistic approach to security in adapting a total defense plan comprised of designated roles across its society in a future contingency (MinDef, 2016). As the hub for Taiwan’s economic Southbound agenda, the unofficial but substantive relationship with Singapore offers a worthy springboard for expanding into closer security cooperation despite the November Terrex incident.

Beyond Asia, Taiwan has previously looked to Germany, Italy, and Israel for security assistance and arms purchases (The Guardian, February 5, 2010; Security Assistance Monitor, November 5, 2014). [5] Under pressure from China, such ties have largely been abandoned—but should not be entirely forgotten. Israel, like Taiwan, emphasizes capabilities that enable it to maintain a credible deterrent posture and strategic defense. A hefty defense budget of $18.2 billion (or approximately 6 percent of GDP) for 2017–18 and the benefits accruing from close defense ties with the United States, Russia, China, and Singapore have supported Israeli efforts to field advanced technology (Times of Israel, December 21, 2016; World Bank, 2016). The Israeli Navy’s diesel-electric Dolphin-1 and Dolphin-2 submarines fall in approximately the same specifications bracket as Taipei envisions possessing, offering an alternative approach to the costly indigenous procurement currently underway (Commonwealth, June 1, 2016). The challenge with Israel, however, will be whether and how Taiwan can navigate around the cooperation, logistical support, and arms sales between the Israeli defense sector and the Chinese military (China Military, February 21; DefenseTech, December 24, 2013).

Several European countries face strategic environments that bear striking resemblance to Taiwan. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Georgia share borders with their primary existential threat, Russia. Each lacks adequate strategic depth and must operate with limited budgets or personnel. While these countries arguably benefit from forward deployed NATO forces, they have pursued independent steps to bolster self-defense and deterrence. In response to the threat of Russian hybrid war, each country has developed its own military strategy to preserve and protect territorial integrity. Latvia and Poland have also implemented extensive cybersecurity strategies, an area in which Taiwan hopes to improve (National Information & Communication Security Taskforce, February 2013; Taipei Times, January 17).

In maritime Europe, one additional possibility for future cooperation lies in the Cypriot experience. An island divided by political recognition, Cyprus focuses on platforms and training that will decrease its vulnerability to asymmetric threats. Beginning with the 1995 Greece-Cyprus Joint Defense Doctrine, which committed Athens to consider casus beli any Turkish attempt to invade Cyprus, the Greeks have sought to expand their naval and air defense footprint in Cyprus and the southeast Mediterranean more broadly. U.S. and European governments also continue to support Cypriot defense capabilities to ensure access to the geostrategically important island. [6]

Diversification From Within Taiwan

Even as Taiwan looks abroad for additional security partners, policymakers must also undertake meaningful, credible efforts to bolster Taiwan’s self-defense at home.  Taiwanese policymakers face the daunting challenge of increasing the defense budget to 3 percent of GDP, a fiscal threshold impeded by the gradual transition from a conscription to an all-volunteer force (Focus Taiwan News, June 7, 2016; Taipei Times, December 17, 2016). Absent a larger budget, Taiwan will struggle to meet the demands of domestic procurement for necessary platforms such as Hsiung Feng missiles and minelayer vessels. An inability to show commitment to defense spending at home will further undermine Taiwan’s ventures abroad.

Taiwan and its overseas representative offices should also take steps to make the island a more attractive defense partner. In cooperating with Asian or European neighbors, Taiwan could offer leased access to its facilities for training—as has long been the case with Singapore—or joint training in rapid runway repair, a forté of the Taiwanese military (China Post, January 14, 2014). Taipei should also pursue humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) agreements with more countries, operations in which Taiwan has displayed extensive regional experience. Above all, Taiwan needs to demonstrate an increased resilience to Chinese espionage and psychological warfare (China Brief, December 5, 2014). Defense partners—Washington included—are less willing to sell advanced platforms to a Taiwanese military weakened by leaks to the PLA. Taiwanese military and civilians need to develop greater confidence in their troops and their own abilities, a mental resilience to China’s “Three Warfares” and efforts which seek to influence and control the strategic discourse on Taiwan (China Brief, August 22, 2016).


The relationships Taiwan maintains with partner nations around the world have been—and will undoubtedly continue to be—placed under strain by Beijing’s insistence on recognition of the “One China” principle. However, such a reality does not mean Taiwan should accept sole reliance upon the United States for its security and defense needs as a fait accompli. At the domestic level, Taiwan must allocate the money and resources necessary to support a robust deterrence and a military capable of defending the island against a potential future contingency with the PLA. Beyond the island, Taiwanese officials must think just as creatively about defense and security partners as they already have in the economic realm. While Taiwan’s defense will continue to benefit greatly from the relationship with Washington, such ties should not preclude Taiwanese efforts to look elsewhere for partners in similar strategic circumstances. Prudence demands Taiwan diversify its defense portfolio and broaden available security partners.


Lauren Dickey is a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on Chinese strategy toward Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.


  1. Author interview, Singaporean government official, February 2016.
  2. Darren J. Lim and Zack Cooper, “Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia,” Security Studies 4 (2015): pp. 696–727.
  3. Taiwan Relations Act (1979), Public Law 96-8, available at: https://www.ait.org.tw/en/taiwan-relations-act.html.
  4. Bernard Loo, “From Poisoned Shrimp to Porcupine to Dolphin: Cultural and Geographic Perspectives of the Evolution of Singapore’s Strategic Posture,” in Amitav Acharya and Lee Lai To (eds.), Asia in the New Millennium, conference proceedings (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004), pp. 352–375.
  5. Meron Medzini, “Hands across Asia: Israel-Taiwan Relations,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 2 (2015): pp. 237–251.
  6. Michalis S. Michael, Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 146.