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.