In his Art of War (孫子兵法) military treatise, ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (孫子) makes a convincing case for the need to ensure good morale in the ranks while undermining that of one’s opponent, adding that this will be a determining factor in a military’s will to fight.
If Sun were alive today and asked to assess the balance of morale in the Taiwan Strait, he would quickly conclude that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is faring much better than the Taiwanese military. A handful of factors in recent years have contributed to this state of affairs, including the inability of Taiwan to keep up with the PLA in terms of modernization of its military, defeatism in the public sphere and lack of a clear mandate from the executive branch.
The state of affairs in terms of modernization has been gloomy for a good part of the past decade, starting with the inability of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration to secure arms sales from the US, mostly as a result of obstructionism by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the legislature. While KMT legislators masqueraded their opposition by claiming the defense articles were overpriced, there is ample reason to believe that the pan-blue camp was hoping such systems would be released if and when it regained the Presidential Office in 2008. However, after spending years waiting for Taiwan to get its act together, Washington was no longer in a giving mood by the time President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in May that year. A new administration in the White House, as well as a global context that is markedly different from the one in which the initial arms requests had been made, compounded the difficulties.
When the US did release some of the arms packages, their cost — now prohibitive in the aggregate, as the backlog had grown over the years — forced the Ma administration to dither, while the military had to deny rumors it would seek deferrals for a number of items. Ma’s promise to create a fully professional military — an extremely costly endeavor, the achievement of which remains in doubt — added to his failure to meet his campaign promise to bring the national defense budget to 3 percent of GDP has also hurt morale.
However much the Ma administration massages the numbers by factoring in subsidies for veterans (and therefore the claim that the current defense budget is larger than last year’s) and no matter how hard it looks for alternatives to raise money, such as selling property owned by the Ministry of National Defense, halfhearted efforts will inevitably undermine morale, as will repeated failure to secure the release of the F-16C/Ds, among others, as this compounds a sense of abandonment.
Those effects, of course, are exacerbated by reports of the Chinese military budget expanding by leaps and bounds over the same period, allowing Beijing to acquire and develop a variety of increasingly modern weapons platforms, many of which could be used in a Taiwan contingency.
Attendant to this is the problem of pessimism by the media and their focus on failure. While there is no doubt that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has shifted in China’s favor, a reality that has been faithfully reflected upon by the media, the emphasis on failures by Taiwan’s military risks creating a misleading picture of the actual state of affairs.