A report published by the US Congressional Research Service on July 23 suggested that Taiwan’s armed forces are being “hollowed out.”
It gives two main explanations for this. The first reason is the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has consistently failed to fulfill his pledge to raise defense spending to 3 percent of GDP. The second reason is while Taiwan’s armed forces are transitioning from conscription to voluntary recruitment, they have not been recruiting enough new troops.
Behind these two reasons lie three main trends — a worsening fiscal deficit, an aging population and a weakening clarity about who the enemy is.
As Taiwan’s population gets older and the government changes its order of priorities, and as the government’s fiscal deficit continues to pile up, defense spending tends to get squeezed out. This situation keeps getting worse. During the five years of Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration, defense’s share of the central government’s total budget has shrunk, dropping from 17.22 percent to 15.8 percent of the total budget and falling ever shorter of the 3 percent of GDP target.
The long-term fall in the birthrate is now causing a drop in the number of potential recruits. With an insufficient budget, it is impossible for the Ministry of National Defense to offer favorable pay to recruit enough people into the armed forces.
Frequent negative news reports have tarnished the image of the military, further weakening young people’s motivation to sign up. The transition to an all-volunteer military, ignoring the military’s advice, has already weakened troop strength.
The Ma administration has misjudged the nation’s security situation and it has mistaken surrender for peace. It highlights good news about relations across the Taiwan Strait, without mentioning the negative aspects. It has also looked the other way as retired armed forces officers go off on trips to China, where, wine glass in hand, they say the nationalist and communist armies are both Chinese armies and other such morale-weakening statements.
Cases of spying and passing information to China are increasing and getting more serious. Even William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan’s Taipei office, has warned that the “success and frequency” of spying cases is having a negative impact on military cooperation and confidence between Taipei and Washington.
A host of actions that have blurred the identity of Taiwan’s main enemy have led people to say no to devoting more resources to national defense. This is leading many in the military to wonder what they are supposed to go to war for. Taiwanese are putting themselves in danger by forgetting the need for military preparedness. Taiwanese must have a proper understanding of cross-strait relations and must maintain a sufficient self-defense capability so they can say “no” at the negotiating table if need be.
An adequate military budget is not just a matter of arms purchases, but it also influences the international community’s assessment of Taiwan’s determination to defend itself.
The Ministry of National Defense should also foster the idea of asymmetrical warfare and allocate resources effectively to counter China’s plans to make the first battle decisive and win any war in a short time. That would give Taiwan enough time to get help from the international community following an attack.