In late March, two Chinese fighter jets crossed the maritime border separating China from Taiwan, lingering in Taiwan’s airspace for about 12 minutes. It was the first time China had flown aircraft across the border since 2011. The event — and China’s live-fire military exercise near the strait in May — joins a growing list of boundaries crossed — figuratively and literally — in the Taiwan Strait and as part of an intensifying and expanding U.S.-China geostrategic competition.
The stakes of this competition are high, increasingly focused on the future predominance of democratic norms, efficacy of the rules-based order, and persistence of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Department of Defense’s recently released “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” frames the challenge to the U.S. and the region starkly, labeling China as a revisionist power seeking to “reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.”
Deterring expansion and intensification of these behaviors requires an integrated whole-of-government effort that should prominently feature a U.S. defense export strategy that balances multiple imperatives: demonstrating commitment and providing capabilities to allies and partners, confronting China directly when necessary, and building new and enhanced partnerships all while managing increasingly pronounced escalatory risks.
At the root of China’s Taiwan Strait encroachment in March was the Trump administration’s approval of the sale of 66 F-16Vs to Taiwan.
The deal will not fundamentally alter the strategic military balance between Taiwan and China. Neither will the Administration’s approval in June of the export of an additional $2 billion worth of defensive equipment. The F-16V constitutes a significant upgrade of Taiwan’s tactical air capabilities and offers a clear commitment to Taiwan, though it will not solve the central challenge associated with the defense of Taiwan: absent intervention from the United States, Taiwan would likely be overwhelmed by the quantity of missiles and aircraft and increasing sophistication of Chinese military assets.
However, fully redressing the military imbalance between China and Taiwan was never the objective of these deals. They are largely symbolic, designed to deter China by signaling heightened U.S. commitment to Taiwan rather than through providing a specific balance-shifting capability. The deals also represent provocative means of pushing back on China’s efforts to define and bound the competition and, as a result, bound U.S. action and strategic flexibility.
As welcome as this pushback is, a U.S. Indo-Pacific defense export strategy cannot rest solely on provocation or on a narrow focus on “the revisionist power of China.” Deterrence need not always be confrontational, especially in the charged and complicated competitive environment of the Indo-Pacific. Subtle but directed should also be part of the strategic mix.
A focus on the export and development of primarily defensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities constitutes a potential “sweet spot” for advancing U.S. interests and deepening partnership- and capability-building efforts while reducing risks of escalatory responses. And demand for U.S. ISR assets across the region is more than notional in a region marked by difficult-to-detect gray zone challenges.
Australia announced in November 2018 its intent to acquire MQ-9 Reaper drones through a sole-sourced procurement. India, Japan and New Zealand have also all expressed interest in acquiring the platform, among other ISR assets, as part of efforts to enhance situational awareness of an expanding range of fast-moving threats frequently unfolding over great distances or in crowded and contested urban or maritime environments.
A U.S. defense export strategy stressing ISR assets has an additional benefit for allies and partners. Geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific do not lend themselves to clean, Cold War–like lineups of economically and ideologically separated blocs. Many U.S. allies and current and prospective partners have deep economic and political links to China, raising fears among some that they could be caught in the middle of a competition that compromises their interests and forces unwanted choices.
As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted during June’s Shangri-La Dialogue, “unfortunately when the lines start to get drawn ... that makes it difficult for the small countries.” U.S. partnership- and capacity-building efforts focused on ISR capabilities offer opportunities for constructive engagement that does not have to aggravate this sense of vulnerability. The foreign military sale in May of 34 ScanEagle drones to support maritime security activities in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam offers a useful and replicable model.
Deterring China in the Indo-Pacific is a complicated, but achievable task. It begins by signaling commitment and resolve to U.S. allies and partners (as well as China) through many measures, including defense exports. The nature of these exports should align with the broader objective of deterring China without unnecessarily risking escalation or alienation of partners. An enhanced — but not exclusive — focus on building allied and partner situational awareness seems both operationally relevant and strategically correct.
Tate Nurkin is the founder of the OTH Intelligence Group and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.