Sun, Jan 16, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Breakthrough in the military

The new National Defense Law, passed on Friday, addresses an issue which is for most people somewhat arcane; namely, whether the chief of the general staff reports to the president or to the minister of national defense. In fact, this issue goes to the heart of Taiwan's democratic normalization.

Most countries have a defense ministry which looks after the logistical nightmare of feeding, clothing, housing and equipping several hundred thousand troops and a general staff which is responsible for training those troops to do their job, and deploying and commanding them in time of war. Ideally, in a democracy such as Taiwan claims to be, the general staff should be answerable to the defense minister who, like any other minister, is answerable to the legislature -- the representatives of the people these armed forces are meant to defend.

Taiwan has not, until now, had such a system. Instead, the chief of the general staff has been answerable only to the president. This has allowed the armed forces to do pretty much as they pleased, with the president's approval. That such a system existed was largely as part of the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) who, in his role of supreme commander, did not want anybody to have the right to question what he did. That the president had such a right didn't bother Chiang because he was, of course, the president as well.

This system has led to a great many distortions in the relationship between the armed forces, the government and society as a whole.

Moreover, the fact that the president has always been the chairman of the KMT and advancement in the armed forces has depended on one's standing in the party has raised the question of exactly whose army it is. That of the Taiwanese people who pay for it, that of the Republic of China whose "one China" ideology makes up the orthodoxy in which all armed forces members are trained, or that of the KMT itself, whose insignia it honors. This confusion of identity has made the military a political loose cannon in the event of a non-KMT president being elected, as marked by the frequent statements of the previous defense minister, the spectacularly incompetent Chiang Chung-ling (蔣仲苓), to the effect that the armed forces would not fight for a government that espoused Taiwan independence, democratically elected though it may be.

Such attitudes are dying out, thank goodness. But the National Defense Law will hasten this. By making the chief of the general staff accountable to the defense minister, for the first time the military comes firmly under the control of the Executive Yuan, overseen by the legislature. It becomes answerable, in the last analysis, to the people who employ it, the citizens of Taiwan.

What this means is a number of things. First, the president can no longer tell the chief of the general staff what to do. He can tell the defense minister what to tell him and the defense minster can, with the approval of his boss, the premier, say no. This is an interesting abridgement of presidential power that tends to be overlooked. Second, in the past the defense minister depended on his relationship with the general staff to persuade the military leadership to adopt a certain course. He couldn't simply tell it what to do. This means that defense ministers had to be people with good relationships with the general staff, ex-generals themselves, for the most part, whose loyalty to their brother officers and the codes they lived by was far stronger than their loyalty to democratic politics or listening to the interests of an electorate. This is no longer the case. And finally, the ability of the armed forces to brush over the traces of their numerous snafus and corruption problems will diminish with greater civilian oversight; it is just possible that the armed forces will even get better.

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