To be fair to the military, Taiwan’s at times irresponsible and oftentimes sensationalist media has also had an impact on the willingness of defense officials, and the defense industry in general, to share information with reporters. For example, one major US defense firm recently informed the author of this article that it has adopted a policy of no longer providing information to the media.
One consequence of the decision to bypass the media (foreign included, despite its tendency to be more “responsible”) is that erroneous news will go unchecked.
Given the propensity of reporters in Taiwan to focus on the negative aspects of the military (spy scandals, accidents, less-than-satisfactory results in exercises and so on), this risks exacerbating the perception, however false, that Taiwan’s armed forces are inefficient.
Conversely, while a lot can be said of the ills of China’s near-total control of the media, the advantages of positive, if perhaps scripted, coverage of its own military are difficult to miss, providing a morale booster to the People’s Liberation Army and the nation in general, while compounding fears of China’s might in capitals like Taipei, Tokyo, Manila and Washington.
Given Taiwan’s extraordinary security challenges and the sustained threat of Chinese espionage, there is an evident need for the armed forces to maintain a certain degree of secrecy and in many areas serious shortcomings need to be addressed. However, information security should not come at the expense of good PR, especially at a time when certain individuals with leverage on US policymakers are clamoring for Washington to “abandon” Taiwan.
While Taipei has slowly shifted its defense policy to better reflect rapidly changing realities in the face of an increasingly powerful China, it has yet to adequately reconfigure its propaganda strategy and does so at great peril.
In this day and age, wars can be won without a single bullet being fired, which happens to be Beijing’s preferred outcome. China is already on the offensive in that aspect of the conflict. It is high time that Taiwan came up with a counterstrategy.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.