Despite a rapidly changing international context during the past half-century, the task of Taiwan’s national security apparatus has remained surprisingly stable and to this day continues to revolve around the sole principle of defending the nation from external aggression.
From the moment Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) abandoned its policy of “retaking” China from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the nature of the Taiwanese military turned into one that was — and is — predicated on homeland defense. While this may seem self-evident, it nevertheless contrasts sharply with other militaries whose mission is often capabilities-based, where technology and the options to which it gives rise drive policy.
Capabilities-based military forces, such as that of the US and, increasingly, China, are by default outward-looking, scanning for contingencies that reflect the latest weapons systems that are being developed or fielded. To a large degree, the Taiwanese military, and to a similar degree the South Korean military, look at their role from the opposite direction, developing policies and technologies to meet the very specific purpose of defending the nation. Theirs is therefore an inward-looking posture.
A prerequisite for a functional national defense policy is a clear sense of mission and an equally clear definition of the nature of the enemy. For example, there is no doubt that for the South Korean military the enemy is North Korea and that their defense policy, development and acquisition are all geared toward meeting that contingency.
The same applied to the Taiwanese military, at least up until recently. From 1949 on, there was little doubt that the enemy was the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which on a number of occasions either bombarded outlying islands or threatened outright invasion of Taiwan proper, moves that could forever have altered the way of life for Taiwanese.
Attendant to Taiwan’s defense posture was its intelligence priorities, which were equally centered on a single target and threat. As with the military, the opponent was clearly defined and the political leadership was adamant as to the nature of the enemy and the costs of wavering on that issue.
There was some discontent in the ranks during the last years of former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) administration and eight years in office of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whose emphasis on Taiwan’s identity rattled senior officers who either were born in China or grew up under a system that reinforced Chinese identity. By some accounts, this includes General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲), who was indicted last month on charges of spying for China. Still, the Lee and Chen administrations never wavered in their definition of the enemy or in their orders to the defense and intelligence apparatuses.
All this began to change when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in 2008 on a platform that, it soon emerged, encouraged closer ties and identification with China, while downplaying the threat of the CCP and PLA. Two years into his presidency, Ma was proclaiming that nature, rather than the PLA, was now the Taiwanese military’s principal enemy.
Amid the confusion created by such statements, the Ma administration negotiated 15 cross-strait agreements with the CCP and opened Taiwan to Chinese investment to an unprecedented, if not dangerous, level, while implementing policies allowing for Chinese to study in Taiwan and, starting yesterday, unsupervised tourism by individual Chinese at a rate of 500 people a day. Although this is not the place to argue the potential benefits of this rapprochement — of which there undoubtedly are some — the implications of this sudden change for national security are no less real.