Defense policy needs direction

By Damon Bristow  / 

Sat, Feb 17, 2001 - Page 8

The future direction of Taiwan's defense policy has never been that much of a hot topic for discussion in the country. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has changed all that, however. On June 16, 2000 he gave a speech at the 76th anniversary of the Army Academy, at which he talked about "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory." His remarks precipitated a debate that has rumbled on ever since.

To be fair, Taiwan's defense policy has shifted in emphasis considerably over the past fifty years. In the period 1949-50, following the defeat of the KMT by the Chinese Communist Party, for example, the central objective of the country's defense policy was to preserve the government of the ROC. From the 1950s onward the military focused on the idea of reclaiming China. This was dumped in the late 1980s, when the military adopted a more defensive posture known as "strong defense and effective deterrence."

More recently, a number of Taiwanese academics and analysts have started to talk in terms of "active defense," or gaining the ability to strike effectively and accurately at targets in China, while ensuring that any conflict with China is fought as far away from Taiwan's shores as possible. This idea was taken up by Chen in the run-up to the March election. It also lies at the root of his Army Academy speech, in which he spoke of the need to "develop our military readiness in the directions of precision deep strike, early warning capabilities, and information superiority" within the framework of "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory."

Like those of all countries, Taiwan's defense policy is the product of a mix of both external and internal forces. Major events include: the 1972 decision by Washington to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing; the 1987 decision by Taipei to recognize that the PRC exercises control over the mainland; and the lifting of martial law and the subsequent flowering of democracy in Taiwan.

The nature of the threat from China has also been crucial. Indeed, most of the impetus behind much of the recent thinking on defense issues in Taiwan has been prompted by China's decision to test missiles off the coast of Taiwan in the run-up to the March 1996 presidential elections. The continued build-up in China's short and medium range ballistic missile capabilities in parallel with the acquisition of sophisticated military hardware from Russia has helped to fire the debate.

Despite the changing nature of the Chinese threat, the move away from the more defensive posture adopted in the 1990s toward the more pro-active views being expressed by Chen has nevertheless proved controversial. There are a number of reasons for this.

To start off with, it is far from clear at this stage exactly what Chen really meant when he talked about "fighting a decisive battle outside" the territory. Some people have argued, for example, that he was talking about conducting pre-emptive strikes against targets in China. Others reckon that he was speaking instead about blunting a Chinese attack before it reaches Taiwan, and then striking back if necessary. It is likely that the president subscribes to the latter view; but, he has yet to say so in public.

Connected to this, a question mark also hangs over whether or not Chen's speech actually amounts to official policy, or was merely an expression of his own opinions and views. Speculation on this point has not been helped by the fact that, although in the spirit of his Army Academy speech, the National Defense Report 2000 takes a less forthright view: in it the Defense Minister Wu Shih-Wen (伍世文) states that the nation's military policy has been adjusted to an "effective deterrence and strong defense posture."

Others have asked whether or not the military is actually capable of carrying out those roles and missions suggested in his statement. In a reflection of this, Major General Chen Shih-yu (陳士瑜), the Assistant Deputy Chief of the General Staff, recently remarked that "we recognize that the armed forces do not yet have the capability to stage a decisive battle with the enemy outside our territory."

Additionally, the president has stumbled into something of a political minefield back home -- although it is certainly not as serious as the furor surrounding the cancellation of the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (核四). His Army Day speech, for example, provoked a rather public and acrimonious debate with his tormentors in the KMT, some of whom described the idea as "unreachable" and "misleading."

There is also rumored to be some disquiet within the military, which, largely for historical reasons is close to the KMT, about his views. True, even before the results of the March 18 presidential elections had been announced it took the unprecedented step of swearing allegiance to the new president. In private, however, some members of the armed forces remain uncomfortable with Chen's links to a party that has pro-independence views.

Last but not least, the notion of "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory" has raised some eyebrows abroad, particularly in the US, which is Taiwan's main military backer. Impor-tantly, although Washington may look more favorably on Taiwan under President George W. Bush than was the case with former president Bill Clinton, the simple fact is that it will not support any proposal which openly advocates a policy of pre-emptive strike at targets in China.

Such a move is also unlikely to go down well over in China either. If he is really serious about development of the nation's defense policy Chen will therefore have to find a way to overcome these challenges and differences of opinion. Bearing in mind the range of political and institutional interests involved, and the complex nature of the international situation in which the country finds itself, this will not be easy.

A good place to start would probably be for the president -- and his advisers -- to make it crystal clear that they are not talking about pre-emptive strikes against China. Such a move would help to blunt criticism at home and calm concerns abroad. Next, he should stress the point that, while "fighting a decisive battle outside the territory" is a long-term objective, pressing ahead with the reform of the military -- such as the reduction in the number of troops and the reorganization of the Ministry of National Defense -- remains his number-one priority. Indeed, until this crucial objective is achieved, Chen's vision of the country's future defense policy will remain little more than a topic for conversation and debate.

Damon Bristow is head of the Asia Program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in Whitehall, London.