Taiwan Needs More Than Election Victories to Fend Off China

The growing threat from the mainland can only be deterred by a public willing to make sacrifices.

Taiwanese navy personnel salute during a drill near the Suao naval harbor in Yilan, eastern Taiwan, on April 13, 2018.
Taiwanese navy personnel salute during a drill near the Suao naval harbor in Yilan, eastern Taiwan, on April 13, 2018. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The victory of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential elections on Jan. 11 represents a resounding repudiation of Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan. But with attempts to politically subvert Taiwan frustrated, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now far more likely to turn to forced unification via military means. Although it’s always difficult to distinguish rhetoric from intention, the Chinese press has stepped up war talk.

Tackling this means rethinking Taiwan’s approach to its defense. The Taiwanese armed forces have adopted a limited “porcupine” asymmetric defense strategy in the face of the superior size and capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By prepositioning weapons around the island and training its forces to attack invading PLA troops at every turn, Taiwan’s military hopes to make the island indigestible, like a porcupine to any would-be predator. However, it remains dependent on the procurement and deterrence of conventional weapons systems. If Tsai is to maximize the deterrence effect of Taiwan’s limited military resources, she will have to usher in a difficult national discussion about the increased role Taiwan’s society must play in national defense.

In the future, deterring a PLA invasion will require delaying conquest as long as possible in order to allow international military assistance to arrive, which will be difficult to do without a strong presence in urban areas. Taiwan’s military is largely based outside of the urban areas in which 79 percent of Taiwan’s population lives, which would be the focus of any PLA invasion. Delaying the PLA in Taiwan’s cities will in turn require willing Taiwanese citizens to prepare for and resist those attacks.

While the need for such an asymmetric defense is obvious, the present political prospects of reforming Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) and enlisting public support are weak. The MND has adopted a stubbornly resistant institutional position. Criticism of the MND’s approach has not resulted in major change, in part because these alterations require public discussion that would refute the MND’s claims that its strategy and structure are already optimal. If Taiwan hopes to implement the reforms needed to give the PLA second thoughts in coming years, Tsai should initiate a difficult public conversation about the threat of war and what ordinary Taiwanese can do to deter it.

Tsai’s challenge is that there is little precedent for legitimate public discourse about the effectiveness of Taiwan’s military. In most democracies, major change is driven by public discourse and demand for action that in turn incites action by elected leaders. But historically, such discourse has been difficult to incite in Taiwan for multiple reasons. The MND has projected an “all is well” image for decades, and peacetime operations do not expose combat failures that would undermine that message. Unlike the United States, Taiwan does not have well-respected and fully independent think tanks that can openly question Taiwan’s generals, testify to opposing views in the Legislative Yuan, or write op-eds that expose misleading statements by military leaders and highlight gaps in strategy. (Taiwan’s most prominent security think tank is led by a military general and funded by its government, which makes it practically subordinate to the MND leadership.)

Until the past decade, the MND’s confidence was well justified. Based on a strategy of symmetric defense in which Taiwan had a qualitative advantage over the PLA with more advanced weapons systems, MND leaders were reasonably confident in their deterrent effect. But in the past decade, as the PLA’s advancements have tipped the balance of power in its favor, the MND has not significantly changed its strategy or its posture, projecting an image of perhaps false confidence to Taiwan’s people about its ability to deter and defeat the PLA.

Beijing’s military advantages have outgrown the viability of a conventional, symmetric defense strategy in Taiwan. Under what appears to be U.S. pressure to focus more resources on an asymmetric defense strategy, Taiwan recently compromised on its desire for conventional M1A2T tanks by purchasing an additional 1,500 anti-tank missiles and 250 Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles that could be used asymmetrically. It has taken other steps to implement a porcupine asymmetric defense strategy, such as the procurement of fast attack boats, but its conventional forces and high-end weapons systems remain the core of the Taiwanese armed forces.

The shift from conscription to an all-volunteer force has been the most significant change to the MND in recent years—one that has arguably left it worse off as it struggles to recruit and retain its best service members. It is questionable whether Taiwan’s 175,000 active-duty soldiers—with virtually no combat experience to inform their training—are enough to deter the CCP, whose reluctance to attack may be as much a function of self-doubts about the PLA’s capabilities as Taiwan’s.

MND officials may argue that projecting symbolic strength and political unity in defiance of Beijing’s military threats, despite the real problems, is critical. It’s true that shows of strength grow more important by the day as Taiwan’s government is forced to counter the PLA’s soft-power message—combined with military provocations and shows of force—that resistance is futile. Still, Taiwan’s public opinion does not appear to reflect the confidence in the military that the MND seeks to inspire under its current strategy, calling the need for visible strength into question.

The burden of history weighs on Taiwan’s ability to drive policy changes in the MND from the outside. Taiwan’s thriving democracy has evolved significantly from the brutal authoritarian days of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) military government. Despite the success of the political transition, modern democratic Taiwan inherited the KMT’s military, led by KMT officers unaccustomed to oversight by an opposition political party with which they disagreed. Most of today’s leaders had their early careers shaped under military rule and remain KMT party members.

Though the transition from Taiwan’s military authoritarian government to democracy put the MND under civilian control at the most senior level, that careful compromise also left it largely independent of day-to-day civilian oversight. Exacerbating this issue, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), having no historical military ties of its own, does not benefit from the military credibility of retired officers throughout its ranks, making DPP civilian oversight of the MND—especially disagreements on policy and strategy—even more difficult. Under the DPP, Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC) has only one midlevel official who manages MND matters.

With Tsai’s reelection amid broad popular support, she is better positioned than ever before to take the most difficult steps that are sorely needed to improve Taiwan’s defense. Although she would be best served to enlist allies in the MND leadership as she continues to drive reforms, her agenda can also include the establishment of stronger NSC oversight over the MND’s strategy, plans, and policy. The Taiwanese MND is in need of a civilian military oversight office—the equivalent of the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense—that could be housed within the NSC and should be staffed with a mix of former midlevel military officers with relationships in the MND and independent academics and PLA experts who can provide critical analysis.

Rather than confrontationally infringe on the power of existing leaders, she can lay the groundwork for major changes in the future. As the generation of KMT military officers retires, she can identify rising stars in the military establishment and create programs to enhance their development. Such programs could include career-broadening tours at the NSC, as staffers in the Legislative Yuan, as fellows at Taiwanese and foreign universities, and training at the world’s best private military courses. Together, such programs would create a stronger sense of civil-military relations in the ranks and improve her and successive administrations’ ability to oversee the MND.

Most importantly, Tsai can now capitalize on the wave of support for her repudiation of Beijing’s aggressive pressure to facilitate an open discussion with her people about the need for them to participate more actively in Taiwan’s defense. This national conversation can be framed as about the future rather than the present, easing the sting of alarm in change of tone on security matters.

Together with the NSC and allies throughout society, she must make a compelling case why Taiwan’s taxpayers will have to fund increased defense spending, which has fallen behind China by a factor of 15 to 1. She can convey that despite promises once made, the all-volunteer force may not be large enough to deter the PLA of the future—but that rather than suffer under the harsh conscription of a newly drafted army, Taiwanese citizens could join a new reserve force or national guard that would provide attractive benefits, effective training, and good equipment while allowing people to serve in their own communities.

A new force, with new branding, would improve recruiting relative to the poor reputation of unforgiving training and espionage in the Taiwanese armed forces. Tsai can also work with the MND to create and invest in a reformed reserve force or national guard that would be well funded and well equipped in order to attract Taiwan’s citizens and current reservists to join. In the end, the argument boils down to this: A country determined to protect its independence needs a citizenry willing to step up and do so.

Philip Caruso is a fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.  He previously served in the U.S. intelligence community, as a U.S. Air Force officer, and as a legislative fellow with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  Phil received a B.S. in Materials Science & Engineering from Cornell University and J.D. and M.B.A. degrees with honors from Harvard, where he was a Tillman Scholar.

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