Taiwan’s national defense is at a crossroads, as several major internal and external challenges impact the country’s security and defense capabilities.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of National Defense released the latest version of the National Defense Report, which pointed out that China has been developing its high-end weapons and will be capable of launching a full-scale attack on Taiwan by 2020.
While China has been enhancing its military preparedness, Taiwan’s national defense budget, in contrast, has been continuously shrinking and has rarely reached the benchmark figure of 3 percent of total GDP promised by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008. Undoubtedly, the balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait has swung markedly in China’s favor. With US forces in East Asia likely to be impacted by Washington’s financial troubles, the military imbalance between Taiwan and China looks destined to worsen in the years to come.
While Taiwan’s overall external strategic environment has become weaker than ever, internally, military morale has plunged amid an unprecedented crisis of trust. After the death in controversial circumstances of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), the defense ministry has suffered a devastating loss of public faith. This tragedy not only triggered the largest civil protest in recent years, but also ruthlessly revealed the long-standing problems of undisciplined management, a culture of bullying and inappropriate training practices in the army.
The image of the armed forces has been seriously tarnished and the protests reflect mounting rage and deep-seated distrust toward the military. Coupled with a series of spying scandals involving high-ranking Taiwanese military officers in recent years, all indications suggest that national defense has silently slipped into a crisis.
Challenges to the nation’s security come from various directions. Externally, the strategic environment in East Asia has experienced a dramatic power realignment in recent years. First and foremost, China’s rapid military buildup and the relative decline of US power in Asia have significantly disrupted regional stability. Despite repeated assertions of its pivot-to-Asia by the administration of US President Barack Obama, the reality regarding its fiscal quandary and political stalemate over government spending has already alarmed many and cast doubt on the credibility of US commitments in Asia.
Compared with declining US power, China’s growing military assertiveness has stirred a sense of insecurity in many Asian countries. For instance, after his success in re-energizing Japan’s economy with his so-called “Abenomics” policies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bolstering his nation’s defense capabilities. Japan is moving toward closer cooperation with the US to enhance military deterrence against threats from North Korea and China.
The Philippines, one of the claimants challenging China over territory in the South China Sea, has also reinforced its military capability in recent years, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III determined to modernize its military forces. Not only has he won congressional support to spend US$1.7 billion to upgrade the Philippine military over the next five years, Manila is also actively seeking to purchase fighter jets and two frigates.
Meanwhile, it has ordered 10 coast guard ships from Japan and three more vessels from France. Needless to say, Manila has revived military relations with the US, while strengthening military cooperation with Japan, ostensibly in the name of counter-piracy operations.
In comparison with neighboring states that have become more aware of Beijing’s military intentions and taken various measures to counter China’s rising power, Taiwan seems to have moved in completely the opposite direction. By adopting a conciliatory policy, Taiwan has strived to make peace with Beijing and make money from closer bilateral ties. As a result, people in Taiwan see that the government is eager to facilitate a closer economic relationship with China by concluding various economic treaties, which are likely to make Taiwan’s disproportionately unilateral economic dependence on China even worse.
Predictably, as cross-strait economic exchanges intensify, the importance of national security is expected to fall further down the list of national priorities. Hence, one should not be surprised to see lax discipline and falling morale in the military in the years to come.
Taiwan’s national defense faces several critical challenges. The first is an insufficient defense budget and unbalanced expenditure structure. For years, the defense budget has not reached a reasonable level, which holds up the purchase of new weapons and the development of advanced technologies. Furthermore, a disproportionate portion of the budget is used to pay military personnel, which crowds out important military programs and modernization efforts.
Second, a shortage of military personnel may emerge in the near future, which will further weaken capabilities. Despite the impending deadline for implementing an all-volunteer military, it remains difficult for the defense ministry to attract sufficient numbers of young recruits. If this situation cannot be improved, we may see more and more private security guards hired by the military to carry out patrolling duties in the future.
Moreover, existing military management seems problematic and desperately needs to be revamped. Certain old-school and inappropriate military cultures appear to nurture and rationalize unhealthy practices among troops. Corruption, cheating, bullying, and inappropriate training seem to be rampant and out of control. If the military cannot undertake comprehensive reforms to eradicate such practices and restore its reputation, the embarrassing situation of the defense ministry being besieged by protesters will be repeated.
Finally, the most critical challenge facing the military is the crisis of national identity. A significant number of middle to high-ranking military officers are perplexed about the new role of the military and have a hard time adjusting to the reality of Taiwan’s pluralistic democracy.
Undeniably, the military has been the most conservative and closest group in Taiwanese society. Although the majority of service personnel have great pride in their duty to defend Taiwan, others have serious issues about national identity and question the cause they may have to fight for and defend.
Coupled with recent downsizing of military personnel numbers and a trimmed-down pension program, many officers feel frustrated and aggrieved about their years of sacrifice. Hence, some have taken early retirement and embarked on other careers, which may significantly undermine the foundation of military and, even worse, could lead to more military secrets being leaked to China.
National defense will be in jeopardy if decisionmakers cannot point out a clear direction for Taiwan’s national security. It is critical for policymakers and politicians to bear in mind that strength is the best bargaining chip in international negotiations. National defense capabilities comprise one of the most essential components of national strength, which is particularly vital for a small state like Taiwan.
Therefore, national security and national defense should never be underrated and traded for short-term economic interests. Although some politicians boast that the past few years have been the most peaceful and successful period in the development of cross-strait relations, Taiwan’s security seems to be gradually eroding and moving toward a dangerous situation.
For far-sighted and prudent leaders, peace provides a golden window of opportunity to enhance national defense capabilities and conduct necessary military reforms to be better prepared for unpredictable threats in the future. It is naive to believe that peace can be achieved by the weak.
Political leadership plays a crucial role in boosting military morale, arousing military honor and restoring the military’s reputation. The vision, determination and concrete action of political leaders to support the military are key to preventing national security and national defense from suffering further degradation. Only with robust and formidable military forces as the backbone of the state can Taiwan be confident of its ability to preserve its democracy and way of life, and its ability to defend national interests in possible political engagements with China.
Eric Chiou is an assistant professor at National Chiao Tung University.
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