Military exercises are a means to ensure troop readiness and improve coordination. They are theory put into practice and a mechanism to see where improvement is needed. For many soldiers, exercises are the closest they will ever get to actual combat.
Given the high costs involved in large-scale exercises and the amount of planning that goes into them, military strategists take into consideration two variables: threat and risk assessments. A threat assessment determines the nature of a threat to national security — from cyber-attacks to terrorism. Risk assessments, on the other hand, determine the likelihood of a potential attack and how detrimental it would be to the well-being of the nation.
Through these, a matrix can be created to isolate the likeliest threats and those that would be most damaging, which also helps governments allocate resources to where they are needed most.
It is therefore puzzling that on Sunday the government would choose to hold an anti-terror exercise at sea in Kaohsiung in lieu of the traditional live-fire drills simulating a Chinese attack.
The threat of terrorism in the waters off Taiwan is quite low. The motivation to target Taiwanese shipping isn’t there; the Taiwan Strait is not the Strait of Malacca. Furthermore, in terms of potential damage to the national interest, the hijacking of an oil tanker — the scenario in this weekend’s exercise — ranks rather low.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said after the exercise that “reconciliation” in the Taiwan Strait meant that Taiwanese “no longer need to spend time worrying about war” with China, which ostensibly translated into the military no longer having to prepare for that contingency. The problem with this, however, is that in spite of warming ties between Taiwan and China, a military attack by China remains the likeliest threat to Taiwanese security and the one that would have the most serious consequences for the survival of the nation. It is the responsibility of the military to prepare and train for the likeliest scenario.
Sunday’s exercise, which was preceded by an equally risible computer war game last week, was not a serious affair. It was theater, turning a necessary tool through which soldiers develop important skills into a political signal to two audiences. It was meant to tell Taiwanese that Ma’s cross-strait policy is working — so quickly, in fact, that a mere year after he stepped into office, Taiwan no longer needed to prepare for war with China. It was also a signal to Beijing that Ma doesn’t take the threat of invasion seriously. Given that China has yet to reciprocate Taiwan’s military drawdown and has shown no sign that it will abandon its own military exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan, Ma’s message could be interpreted as capitulation.
This is not to say that the Taiwanese military should not prepare for contingencies other than a Chinese invasion, and in that regard Sunday’s exercise is valid. But a military that constantly complains about budget constraints should allocate its precious resources to prepare for the likeliest threats.
Ma has no crystal ball. He doesn’t know what will happen. Given the problematic relationship between Taiwan and China, there are bound to be phases of deterioration in cross-strait relations. It’s even possible that in 2012 the Ma government will be replaced by a pro-independence party. As such, any president who takes national defense seriously would ensure that, regardless of future developments, the nation will retain the capability to defend itself.