Sat, Feb 17, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Defense policy needs direction

By Damon Bristow

The future direction of Taiwan's defense policy has never been that much of a hot topic for discussion in the country. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has changed all that, however. On June 16, 2000 he gave a speech at the 76th anniversary of the Army Academy, at which he talked about "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory." His remarks precipitated a debate that has rumbled on ever since.

To be fair, Taiwan's defense policy has shifted in emphasis considerably over the past fifty years. In the period 1949-50, following the defeat of the KMT by the Chinese Communist Party, for example, the central objective of the country's defense policy was to preserve the government of the ROC. From the 1950s onward the military focused on the idea of reclaiming China. This was dumped in the late 1980s, when the military adopted a more defensive posture known as "strong defense and effective deterrence."

More recently, a number of Taiwanese academics and analysts have started to talk in terms of "active defense," or gaining the ability to strike effectively and accurately at targets in China, while ensuring that any conflict with China is fought as far away from Taiwan's shores as possible. This idea was taken up by Chen in the run-up to the March election. It also lies at the root of his Army Academy speech, in which he spoke of the need to "develop our military readiness in the directions of precision deep strike, early warning capabilities, and information superiority" within the framework of "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory."

Like those of all countries, Taiwan's defense policy is the product of a mix of both external and internal forces. Major events include: the 1972 decision by Washington to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing; the 1987 decision by Taipei to recognize that the PRC exercises control over the mainland; and the lifting of martial law and the subsequent flowering of democracy in Taiwan.

The nature of the threat from China has also been crucial. Indeed, most of the impetus behind much of the recent thinking on defense issues in Taiwan has been prompted by China's decision to test missiles off the coast of Taiwan in the run-up to the March 1996 presidential elections. The continued build-up in China's short and medium range ballistic missile capabilities in parallel with the acquisition of sophisticated military hardware from Russia has helped to fire the debate.

Despite the changing nature of the Chinese threat, the move away from the more defensive posture adopted in the 1990s toward the more pro-active views being expressed by Chen has nevertheless proved controversial. There are a number of reasons for this.

To start off with, it is far from clear at this stage exactly what Chen really meant when he talked about "fighting a decisive battle outside" the territory. Some people have argued, for example, that he was talking about conducting pre-emptive strikes against targets in China. Others reckon that he was speaking instead about blunting a Chinese attack before it reaches Taiwan, and then striking back if necessary. It is likely that the president subscribes to the latter view; but, he has yet to say so in public.

Connected to this, a question mark also hangs over whether or not Chen's speech actually amounts to official policy, or was merely an expression of his own opinions and views. Speculation on this point has not been helped by the fact that, although in the spirit of his Army Academy speech, the National Defense Report 2000 takes a less forthright view: in it the Defense Minister Wu Shih-Wen (伍世文) states that the nation's military policy has been adjusted to an "effective deterrence and strong defense posture."

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