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.
One recent example is an article by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) on June 28 (subsequently picked up by a number of publications) about a failed test firing of the Hsiung Feng III (“Brave Wind”) anti-ship missile developed by the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST). Headlined “Taiwan supersonic missile test flops,” the article’s opening paragraph explained that the failed test was “the latest in a series of setbacks,” while the China Times gratuitously opined that this was particularly “embarrassing” because it coincided with naval exercises by the PLA Navy.
Those setbacks, AFP wrote, were two “failed” missile tests earlier this year, including the much-publicized United Air Defense Fire exercise at the CSIST’s Jiupeng missile testing base in Pingtung County in January. What the article failed to mention was that the so-called “failure” in January was within the range of the 70 percent success rate adopted by military forces the world over (it did not help that Ma himself, who attended the drill, expressed “strong displeasure” afterwards.)
The AFP piece also omitted to mention that no matter how advanced a military may be, missile tests will inevitably fail at some point. Given the number of missiles under development by the PLA, it is a certainty that China has had its share of missile failures over the years. However, an authoritarian country with tight controls on information, China ensures that those failures receive as little exposure as possible, while the successes are overemphasized — and at times fabricated.
How often, though, do Taiwanese and foreign media report on Taiwan’s successes?
The CSIST, constrained though it might be under the ministry, is for the most part a success story and over the years it has developed a variety of missiles that some defense analysts say constitute a key component in Taiwan’s ability to ward off a Chinese invasion. It is a principal target of Chinese intelligence for a reason.
By unduly focusing on setbacks, while ignoring positive developments, the media, legislators and government officials are undermining the morale of the armed forces by creating an environment suffused with pessimism.
The last impediment to good morale is the current political leadership, which has failed to provide a clear mandate for the military, mostly as a result of its efforts to engineer closer relations with Beijing after more than six decades of conflict. This situation has reached such an extreme that a military configured to counter a specific opponent or to conduct specific missions is unable to perform its task when the situation calls for it.
One recent example is the decision by Taipei to send coast guard officials to defend the Republic of China’s (ROC) claims over a series of small islands under dispute in the South China Sea, prompting disgust within the Taiwanese navy.
While Ma, playing to a domestic audience, underscored the significance of the ROC’s claims over the islets, his government’s decision to send the lightly armed coast guard rather than the better-equipped navy was a lose-lose move. Not only did it expose an unprepared coast guard to unnecessary dangers by deploying it to a potential flashpoint where it would be outgunned, it snubbed a navy that has spent decades preparing for such a contingency. Little wonder that some navy officers are reported to have scoffed at the ability of the coast guard to defend the nation’s sovereignty over the islets, armed as they are with “pellet” and “plastic” guns.
Here again, political expediency was undermining the military’s sense of mission, this time with the Ma administration doing everything it could to avoid sending signals of belligerence to Beijing, which dispatching the navy probably would have done. However justified the government may be in not wanting to “provoke” Beijing, there is little doubt that this kind of avoidance is having a deleterious effect on morale in the ranks.
Given that the current stability in the Taiwan Strait could very well be but a temporary phase, Taipei has every incentive to ensure that morale in the armed forces is as strong as possible. Providing the armed forces with the means to perform their mandate, emphasizing successes and fleshing out a clear mandate would be a good start.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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