At a US congressional hearing on March 14 — the 35th anniversary of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act — US Congressman Brad Sherman asked if Taiwan was doing enough for its national defense.
“It is important that we provide Taiwan with the tools to defend itself, but Taiwan needs to act as well. Taiwan spends less than one-fifth per capita [on defense] than we Americans do,” Sherman said.
As a 19-year-old Taiwanese, I was surprised to hear that Taiwan spends less than many nations that do not face the same external threat. At present, Taiwan’s defense expenditure amounts to approximately 2.2 percent of GDP, compared with the 3 percent considered nominal internationally.
It is the nation’s responsibility and privilege to protect its democracy, liberty and culture.
I have heard a lot of people say that no matter how much Taiwan spends on defense, it would still lose in a cross-strait confrontation with China. That attitude is wrong: Taiwanese should not surrender before the fight has even begun. The people of Taiwan want peace, but freedom and democracy are just as important.
Others argue that the US will not sell Taiwan its latest weapons, so spending money on old military aircraft is a waste. Taipei is seeking to purchase F-16C/Ds, but Washington only wants to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs, so purchasing F-35s is impossible. Also, does the nation even have the experts and technical knowledge required to maintain and operate such advanced fighter jets?
Opposition to spending big on national defense is also down to a lack of public trust in the military, in part due to several high-ranking military officials being charged with spying for China or corruption. The government must take action to shake up the military culture, since they are the ones that the public should entrust their lives to.
Taiwan recently implemented an all-volunteer military service system to replace the semi-voluntary one. Joining the military should be seen as a meaningful and courageous career move, but local culture does not encourage pride in serving one’s country.
Some Taiwanese feel that serving in the military is a waste of time and a career for people who do not want to study and cannot find a job. In this digital age, the military is more about brain than muscle. Taiwanese have to change their attitude toward the military and the government should come up with creative ideas to encourage young people to take pride in protecting their nation.
It is a fallacy to think that as long as Taiwan maintains the “status quo” and does not declare independence, war is not going to happen. China has 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan and would not hesitate to apply military force if they saw a chance to take the country. Taiwanese therefore need to protect themselves and develop “self-defense consciousness.”
To build up the public’s trust and willingness to invest in national defense, the government needs to be transparent about defense spending, engage domestic industries in supplying military arms and equipment, undertake military reform and provide incentives for outstanding young Taiwanese to serve their nation.
Only with strong enough national military capabilities — which requires spending of at least 3 percent of GDP on defense — will the nation be able to protect the democracy and liberty that Taiwanese have worked so hard to achieve.
Doing this will show Sherman and other international friends of Taiwan’s that Taiwanese do care about national defense and are contributing to peace and stability in the part of the world they inhabit.
Roxie Zhuang is a sophomore at Wesleyan University and an intern at the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Washington.
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