Randy Schriver on Equipping Taiwan’s Military, Ukraine’s Lessons for Taiwan, and Strategic Ambiguity
Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver talks to CACR about Washington, Beijing, and Taipei’s strategic calculus, political factors, and military preparations concerning a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This interview is edited for clarity and length. (September 22, 2022)
Randall Schriver is a partner at Pacific Solution and concurrently serves as Chairman of the Board of the Project 2049 Institute, a non-profit research organization dedicated to the study of security trend lines in Asia. Randy most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs from January 2018-December 2019. In that role, for nearly two years he was the senior most official at the Department of Defense responsible for managing Asia policy and the broader Indo-Pacific. Prior to his role as ASD, Randy was one of five founding partners of Armitage International LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in international business development and strategies. Randy was also CEO and President of the Project 2049 Institute.
Previous government experience includes Randy's service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (2003-05), Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State (2001-03), and Senior Country Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1994-98). Prior to his civilian service, he served as an active duty Navy Intelligence Officer from 1989 to 1991, including a deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. After active duty, he served in the Navy Reserves for nine years, including as Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an attaché at U.S. Embassy Beijing and U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar. Randy serves on the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, the Board of Advisors of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, and teaches U.S. Foreign Policy at Stanford University's "Stanford-in-Washington" program.
Randy hails from Oregon, and holds a bachelor degree from Williams College and a Master Degree from Harvard University.
Regarding China’s response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, in your opinion, have all of China’s military responses meaningfully established a new normal? Also, do you think that their measures like normalizing ADIZ median line incursions, having exercises close to the island, and firing missiles over the island would facilitate a future attack or blockade of Taiwan, or are these merely politically signaling measures?
We’re all taking our best guesses at this, but I would submit that the response to the Pelosi visit as well as other recent activities even prior to that has been designed largely to create, in your words, a set of new normals. I think you’ve touched on some of it— basically erasing the center line, contesting the status of the Taiwan Strait as to whether it’s international waters or Chinese sovereign waters, the whole normalization of coercion– all these are being set to new standards that are routinized and expected and in many ways, if not accepted, at least accommodated without a great deal of direct pushback.
From a military perspective, I don’t think that this significantly advances their position vis a vis Taiwan and an invasion scenario. There is a theory that it could ramp up the exercise level and then take a sharp right turn [into an invasion], but it’s fairly difficult to pull off with complete strategic surprise given the kinds of logistic support and sustained operation required. You’re talking 80 nautical miles of water, and if you cut that in half, it’s not so much easier that you remove risk. If you compare 80 to 100 nautical miles versus the English Channel, D-Day was 12 or 14 miles. It’s a pretty substantial operation, and there is not a lot that the PLA can do to get a running start, so to speak.
I think what they are doing, though, is adding some precision. These missile exercises and the closure areas that were announced and then later exercised can have a demonstration effect, but it can also practice things like a de facto blockade, and in fact there was some disruption to commercial shipping. They can also test one another and get a sense for Taiwan’s air defenses. So there’s learning going on, which is part of being more prepared for actual contingencies, but this positionally doesn’t make them significantly better off. I think it’s more coercion and politically motivated.
What do you think about where the PLA is right now in terms of their ability to pull an invasion off? A lot of the relevant debate seems to center on whether civilian capabilities are usable in an invasion. Do you think that they’re at a point where they could invade, or do you think that they’re not ready for this kind of operation, particularly with the possibility of US intervention?
The long pole in the tent has always been strategic lift, getting enough guys across the Taiwan Strait to seize and occupy and hold Taiwan. I think that remains the case today. To augment PLA vessels with civilian vessels is a possibility, but you have to have an uncontested environment or be prepared to lose an awful lot of civilian unprotected shipping and associated personnel. It’s a long distance to cover, and if you have a contested environment, your first big challenge is getting across the Strait in one piece and then actually getting a beachhead and pushing into Taiwan. The geographic advantages of Taiwan are not only the Taiwan Strait, which is a big one, but also the mountainous, inhospitable terrain, unfavorable sea conditions for much of the year, and very limited landing potential for beachheads. So if the PLA successfully gets a sufficient number across, being met at the beaches is still a difficult challenge for them because they’d likely have to be concentrated in the limited landing spots that Taiwan has. All of this is magnitudes easier if it’s an uncontested environment, so there’s a theory that they can just use ballistic cruise missiles and air power to knock everything Taiwan has out, and there are scenarios where the annihilation is so complete that the Chinese can come in and occupy, but one might suggest that sort of defeats the purpose, as you would no longer have a functioning economy or society or anything to actually conquer in Taiwan.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the timeline for an invasion. Regarding predictions that there could be an invasion in the next few years, do you think that’s too pessimistic, given the difficulties inherent in seizing the island?
I think there are still military gaps for the PLA. On the political calendar, you have one very near-term event, the 20th Party Congress, but then you have the election in Taiwan. If you agree with the underlying assumption that the PLA and PRC prefer to win without fighting, there’d be a strong argument for waiting for the next election in Taiwan for the hopes of the return of the KMT or somebody willing to be more accommodating and deferential to Beijing’s interests. So I think we’re pushing out a few years. It doesn’t mean that some event might not trigger a crisis that could escalate, but I think from a PRC self-interest standpoint in terms of when the odds are going to be most stacked in their favor and when are they willing to bear the risk, I still think the window is longer than a couple of years. Regarding Davidson’s six-year, now five-year window, I’m skeptical that we can know with that kind of precision, and I’m also of the view that there are things we can do to complicate that and extend that. I also think that what we’re seeing in Ukraine should give us some degree of confidence that smaller countries with less personnel and without allies present on the ground can still do a pretty good job defending themselves. I think that should give at least the military professionals in China some pause. I don’t know how that gets communicated to Xi Jinping, who’s got the only vote that really matters, but I would think that they should get an understanding of how hard these things are. And of course the Russians occupied Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, and Belarus is a satellite state, so they had a pretty good running start, which the PLA would not.
On that note, do you see any lessons from the Ukraine experience for a Taiwan contingency? Should that influence our thinking about the weapons systems that we give Taiwan? Should it influence Taiwan’s strategy? Do you see it influencing anything in terms of preparation for defending Taiwan?
I think when people talk about the Ukraine model, you’ve really got to understand what they mean when they use it. In Taiwan, it’s not particularly attractive, because deterrence failed, Ukraine was invaded, and tens of thousands of people have been killed, with four to five million refugees. Even surviving on the battlefield, if not repelling the Russian invading forces, comes at such a high cost, I think the Taiwanese would much rather strengthen deterrence and avoid all this. The other point is, where the Ukrainians have been successful, a lot of people credit the training that they’ve received from the US and other Western-oriented countries from 2014 on, and we just don’t do that kind of training with Taiwan in terms of how we have historically defined an unofficial relationship.
I think we can examine what kinds of weapons would be most effective, and I think we can consider more training. There’s certainly lessons about continuity of government and communications. If Zelenskyy had pulled a Ghani in Afghanistan and gotten out of there, I think we would have had a whole different situation in Ukraine, so they understand the importance of Tsai Ing-wen’s ability to communicate to her people, inspire confidence that the government is continuing to exist and function, and be able to communicate internationally. These are things that they understand the importance of, and I imagine Beijing does as well. I imagine that decapitation would have to be part of their strategy, but these are things that we can assist Taiwan in, and we have, but with maybe greater urgency.
With the Biden administration, we’ve obviously seen a lot of interesting developments on the strategic ambiguity front, and Biden has made a lot of comments about defending Taiwan. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that we’ve moved closer to strategic clarity, and do you feel that it’s helpful or do you feel that it’s unhelpful?
Well, I think the way you phrased it is the right way, because I think a lot of times people misunderstand and think it’s a binary choice of strategic clarity or strategic ambiguity. You can become more clear about your interests and certain types of support without [it being binary]. We’ll always have some degree of tactical ambiguity because our response would certainly be scenario-dependent, and we still have Congress and deliberative decision-making on matters of war and peace, and so I don’t think we ever completely remove ambiguity. But if you look historically, strategic ambiguity was promoted for the purpose of dual deterrence: deterring military action from the PRC and deterring political adventurism and de jure declarations of independence from the Taiwanese. But those aren’t necessarily in exact proportion today. I think the risk of Taiwanese independence, at least de jure independence, is quite low, certainly nothing on Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda. The polling suggests strong support for the status quo. I think the real risk is PLA coercion, if not actual attacks. So I think we have to rebalance, if you will, that equation of dual deterrence and work more intently on the deter-the-PRC side of that.
Do you think that the statements of the kind that Biden makes are useful, or do you think we should only focus on capabilities?
Without sounding partisan, I think President Biden’s comments have confused them, because he’s very clear, but then he’s immediately been walked back by the White House and the State Department, and confusion can have a deterrent quality all on its own. I think President Biden is probably speaking his mind. He was a senator for several decades and vice president, so he’s got a view on these things, and he was around when we passed the Taiwan Relations Act. I think he probably is stating his mind, and then that sort of gets walked back, and then we’re all left scratching our heads a little bit, so there may be some deterrent quality in that.
One of the things that Oriana Skylar Mastro emphasized to me in our interview a couple of months ago is that she thinks the question of whether or not Japan participates in a Taiwan contingency is critical. Do you think that Japan’s participation is almost a key question for the US being able to defend Taiwan? Do you agree with her assessment that Japan is very unlikely to take part in a Taiwan conflict?
I definitely disagree with the second part. Regarding the first part, Japan is critical due to its proximity alone, but also if you look at US force disposition. The old saying is that you fight with the military that you have on the day the war starts, and if you look at our disposition alone, we’re heavily reliant on US forces in Okinawa and Japan. There’s no other option. And if you look at proximity to Taiwan, that’s largely where you’d want your forces. The grand bargain we struck with Japan at the time of the defense treaty was that we’d use US forces in Japan not only to protect Japan but to affect security in the area surrounding Japan. That’s in our alliance commitments to one another.
Additionally, the Japanese have been much more forward-leaning on their interest in seeing Taiwan’s continued survival so as to not see Taiwan fall under Communist Chinese control. They have been pushing as much as the US has for a bilateral military plan to be developed in our alliance. The LDP under Abe moved a lot more in that direction, and I think his half-brother as defense minister is probably the biggest advocate for Japan-Taiwan relations in the government. I think it’s very unlikely Japan would sit it out. There’s a question as to whether or not they actually could sit it out with US forces being there. If the Chinese were going to deal with intervening US forces, I don’t know how they leave Japan alone.
One of the things that people are talking about a lot these days is a phased invasion, either with a blockade or with an attack on some of the outlying islands before attacking the main island. Is there a chance that that approach would be counterproductive because it would allow the United States more time to gather its forces for a defense of Taiwan?
I would say those scenarios are different. The taking of an offshore island could be a tactical victory but a strategic setback for the Chinese. This is where the issues surrounding Taiwan are really sui generis. White can be black and night can be day here. The offshore islands would be sovereign territory of the governing authorities on Taiwan under the ROC constitution, but the Taiwanese [who identify as Taiwanese] don’t care about the offshore islands. They’re KMT legacy claims that are viewed as indefensible, and in fact the DPP largely demilitarized them. You could have an effect where China easily seizes Jinmen or Matsu and then there’s international outcry, Taiwanese support for independence grows stronger, China is sanctioned for this egregious act, and [China is] really no better off than getting a few square kilometers. It’s not an obvious strategic gain for them.
A blockade is a little different. It’s more a form of coercion, although traditionally defined as an act of war. It would certainly challenge the US and others to see how we could run the blockade or help Taiwan circumvent or run the blockade. I think we would in that case, and again you sort of ask, are they better off strategically having attempted a blockade and failed or not? I think this is one of the conundrums that the PRC has, which is that anything short of an invasion and annihilation worsens their situation politically. They’ve already effectively destroyed all constituencies on Taiwan for unification. I think the polling is abysmal from their perspective, with single-digit support for unification, and it’s hard to see that turning around as the coercion picks up. But in any of these scenarios, presumably peaceful unification gets much more difficult if not impossible. Their political objectives really become more difficult to obtain with any of these measures that are short of invasion or annihilation. I just do not believe that these measures short of invasion lead the Taiwanese authorities to capitulate or the people to capitulate. Presumably, [China] has done all this calculation and has come to a similar conclusion, but I certainly don’t pretend to know exactly all the conversations inside Zhongnanhai.
Another thing that’s been a notable development this year has been that China’s economy is in some trouble. It looks like there are some fairly significant headwinds, some self-inflicted because of the ongoing pandemic response, and also issues with the property bubble and a number of factors that are causing growth to taper off. If the period of miracle growth is coming to an end, do you think that could influence Beijing’s willingness to invade Taiwan and absorb what could be serious economic costs? Do you think it could influence the timeline for trying to take Taiwan?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s very hard for us to analyze that accurately. I do think US analysts have gotten analytically lazy for a while thinking that economic growth was key to political stability and CCP legitimacy. I don’t think it ever was, but to the extent it might have been, they certainly are willing to forgo it if they think they need to for reasons of control and stability. This is a country where 30 million or so were killed in the Great Leap Forward, and rather than admit that their policies were wrong, or at least rather than Mao admit that his policies were wrong, they continued to let millions of people die. I think they’re willing to put up with an awful lot of pain and suffering if they think the outcome is greater CCP control.
You’ve mentioned the upcoming 20th Party Congress. Do you think it’s going to have an impact on China’s foreign policy strategy or foreign policy approach writ large?
Well, to the extent this is all affirmation of Xi Jinping as the paramount leader, I think we have a sense for his willingness to bear risk and accept friction and behave in a more assertive way, so I would expect more of the same. I don’t think that this was an inflection point that he needed to get past in order to be a more reasonable statesman and diplomat. That just doesn’t seem in his character.
One thing that’s gotten a little bit of attention in the past few months and years is Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. Some observers believe that this would be a game-changer. Do you think that that capability would have a significant impact on an invasion scenario?
Well, if they actually built modern submarines and they were successful, I think it could be a significant capability to deal with the potential invasion force. Those that are pro-Taiwan who are against the submarines mostly point to the cost and the opportunity cost if you’re spending a lot of money on these programs. I haven’t really seen anybody say that that would be a terrible thing for Taiwan, it’s just the cost and the difficulty [they object to]. It’s pretty hard to build high-quality submarines. So if you end up with a Taiwan version of the Collins-class Australian submarine, that’s a lot of time and money and energy going into something that may not be the militarily effective platform that they want. But I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to say that it wouldn’t make any difference at all. It’s a pretty lethal platform.
Could the procurement of those submarines create a closing window of opportunity for China if it feels that Taiwan’s ability to defend itself might substantially increase by a certain time? Does that give China an incentive to try to expedite its invasion plans?
Well, that’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation that carries a lot of risk. China’s calculation regarding air and ship capabilities, air and ship cruise missiles, and potentially even submarines, all these things that would make a crossing difficult, would be, “we’ve got to move before they have all that in place,” but it still means probably moving without sufficient numbers of platforms to transport the number of troops needed, and it probably means moving without adequate joint and combined training. And remember, [the problem] is not just Taiwan’s geography, it’s the lack of experience. The PLA hasn’t seen combat since 1979, and that was a land border war with Vietnam that didn’t go very well for the Chinese. It was also so long ago that nobody who was part of that combat is left in the force. So there’s a lot of risk in saying, well, we’d better go now, because the Taiwanese are going to have ship cruise missiles in greater numbers pretty soon. I know there’s a cottage industry of people who are trying to figure out when this war is going to happen, but if you’re sitting in Zhongnanhai, it might look different.
What do you make of China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands and its efforts to get a multilateral agreement with 10 Pacific Island countries earlier in the year? Does that present a military or strategic threat to the United States? Is that something that we should be concerned about?
Well, on the margins, it’s not positive for us, and I think first and foremost, it’s a significant change in the strategic environment for Australia, and that’s not lost on them. They call it the Solomon shock, and it probably contributed to the throwing out of the Liberal Party in favor of Labor in this last election.
The Solomons is an isolated gain. It’s not a game-changer necessarily, but we know their missions go beyond that. In the 1990s, the Indians talked about a string of pearls, and everybody sort of scoffed at it, but if you look at [China’s] access in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Ream, Cambodia, and if you look at Pakistan, you start to see that maybe there is this string of access points that are developing. I think this is more concerning as a piece in a long-term vision and strategy more than a game changer in and of itself. I think there’s been enough blowback that the immediate possibility of another Pacific Island country flipping and saying we’re going to sign a security pact with China is not a near-term concern I have, but it’s an incremental step forward in terms of where the PRC sees itself as a global power.
China and Russia issued a new joint statement on deepening their partnership shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. With things going so badly for Russia, do you think that this relationship might be more trouble than it’s worth? Do you think it could be a strategic liability?
Well, we’ll see. That would largely depend on how things turn out in Ukraine. I tend to think this will be isolating for China. My sense is there aren’t a lot of swing states left in the Indo-Pacific, but this has had a huge impact in Europe. I’ve traveled through Europe this summer, and in almost every meeting I had the European officials, it’s not concentration camps in Xinjiang, it’s not coercion of Taiwan, it’s the Chinese backing of Russia and what this has caused in Ukraine and the refugee spillover into Europe [that] is hugely consequential for them. If I had to sort of do the tally right now, I think it’s a strategic loss for them. I don’t know if that will remain the case. We’ll have to see. And some of the impact may be subtle. I think what the Chinese have in terms of access to Western capital and technology and all that is under great scrutiny right now, and certainly what they’re doing for Russia is not going to help them if Republicans take control of the House and things like that. So we’ll see.
There’s been some public discussion about the United States government trying to get Taiwan to adopt a fortress or hedgehog defense concept. Do you think Taiwan is going along with it, or is it continuing to go its own way? There has been some discussion about Taipei still prioritizing capabilities that are not necessarily survivable, or that are more prestigious but not as useful in an asymmetric conflict.
To say something is not survivable or not useful implies that the only scenario that we need to be concerned about or plan for is the invasion, the all-out attack involving ballistic and cruise missiles. [Regarding] F-16s, for example, not to be survivable, you have to say we’re talking about a scenario where the Chinese [bomb] airfields and command posts and the like. So you’re really saying Taiwan should have a force equipped only for the most dangerous and perhaps not as likely scenario, which is the attack invasion scenario. You would be saying that they don’t need a military for counter-coercion or peacetime missions, which I just disagree with, and I think people in Taiwan disagree with.
If you look at where Taipei is prioritizing acquisition now, it’s a mix. There’s been an increased urgency on the counter-invasion capabilities like anti-ship cruise missiles, but if you put yourself in the shoes of decisionmakers in Taipei and you say we’re not going to support you having an air force, or the reports are that we’ve denied their requests for ASW helicopters, shouldn’t Taipei rightfully ask, “Ok, are you going to do that? Are you going to be the ones in the Taiwan Strait sweeping for submarines?” So in a way, what we’re telling Taiwan is “you only need to prepare for an invasion, you only need weapons that are useful once you’re attacked, and by the way, we’re not going to tell you whether or not we’re coming to your defense, because we have strategic ambiguity, not an alliance. And by the way, we’re not picking up any of these missions in the gray zone that you say you need your conventional platforms for.” So that’s an awful lot of trust to put in a group of strategists who think that Taiwan doesn’t know what to ask for and what to buy. By the way, the #1 priority system of the United States for Taiwan, the anti-ship cruise missile, is the exact same system that we denied Taiwan for decades, and when we found out they were developing a system of their own, we sent a flag officer to Taiwan secretly and told them to knock it off because it’s destabilizing. And now, twelve years later, we’re telling them you’re stupid because you’re not buying the right things, you’re not prioritizing the right way. I don’t think these guys are stupid, I think they listen intently to what we have to say, and then they have to make their own sovereign decisions about how to equip and prepare their military.
At the military level in Taiwan, is there not confidence that the United States would intervene? Is strategic ambiguity getting in the way of that assumption?
Taiwan, as a matter of planning, plans to defend themselves without a lot of US assistance, so that’s what their op plans are based on, and so on. If you ask them if push comes to shove, I think they understand it’s a whole lot more difficult if the US doesn’t intervene and they should be doing everything they can to encourage that and make that optimized from a military perspective. I don’t know that there’s high confidence that the United States intervenes fully. I think there’s confidence that the US would do something, as we did in the 50’s and 1995 and 1996. But as for the level of support, I don’t think they have a clear idea of that, because we don’t share those plans with Taiwan, because it’s not an actual alliance. We’re not doing things that an alliance would do to underscore that confidence, so it’s high-risk, high-reward. If we’re all waiting for the attack to see if the US is going to be there or not, that’s pretty high-stakes. Because we’re not showing it in peacetime, we’re not helping them with their ASW problems and their flight intercept problems, they’re on their own there. So it’s a tough calculation when you’re in Taiwan.
Do you think strategic ambiguity has outlived its usefulness?
In the most straightforward answer, I would say yes, but I would also refer to the previous conversation we had about the degrees of clarity and the degrees of ambiguity. It’s not binary.