Tue, Sep 25, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Taiwan's military juggling act

Now matter how one looks at it, diplomacy -- the course Taipei has chosen to adopt, despite the arduousness and slowness of it -- is the most reasonable option to advance state interests. Sad to say, however, regardless of whether one is in favor of militarization of the Taiwan Strait or against it, Taiwan must, in the face of potential aggression by China, stand on guard.

But as it builds its defenses, the country must juggle defensive and countervailing measures. In other words, it is one thing to reinforce command-and-control nodes and have alternative airstrips and missile defense systems, but in order to be truly effective, the state must also possess a deterrent force, one that compels the enemy (assuming its decisionmakers are acting rationally) to calculate the costs and benefits of launching an attack.

However pessimistic this may sound, people who argue that Taiwan should only purchase and develop defensive weapons have, at best, a tenuous grasp of how military decisions are made.

Hence, the sporadic rumors that Taiwan is developing missiles capable of reaching major Chinese cities or, more recently, the ado over the possibility that Taiwan would deploy surface-to-surface missiles on Kinmen and Matsu.

Whether such a deployment will become reality or not (and the maintenance of a little secrecy on the matter wouldn't necessarily hurt), the very existence of a possibility is enough to play into Beijing's calculations should the moment come when it feels compelled to launch an attack against Taiwan.

But Taipei's juggling act involves a third ball, one that it must keep airborne with great caution. A state's ultimate defense lies not in the quantifiable -- eg, the number of aircraft, subs and missile defense systems it owns -- but rather in its capacity to avert armed conflict in the first place. So, putting diplomacy aside and focusing on the purely military, Taiwan's military build-up must be accompanied by the necessary mechanisms mitigating the risk that war will come not out of will, but through error.

As we have seen, defenses alone are insufficient, and a state facing a threat of invasion must also have a deterrent. However, as countervailing forces imply offensive weapons, the risk that human or technical error will result in an accidental launch and spark a conflict increases exponentially as the arsenal grows. The greater the number of weapons, the higher the complexity.

We can all be grateful that Taiwan isn't a warlike country and that in the Strait, only one half of the equation has adopted an aggressive stance. The risk to us all would be all the greater if both were rattling their sabers, or much more threatening if Taipei had chosen to go down the nuclear path.

In the end, it all boils down to keeping everything in balance: Building forces while managing to avoid an arms race that, by virtue of its disproportionate opponent, Taiwan cannot hope to win. It means reducing the risks of error by establishing better communication and greater transparency with the opponent without, on the other hand, revealing one's every position.

All that being said, the value of deploying missiles on Kinmen and Matsu, among other options, is open to debate, as is the veil of mystery that surrounds that possibility. But no matter what it does, every offensive capability Taiwan acquires comes with a responsibility to ensure that it doesn't create more danger than it prevents.

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