Editorial: Military budget needs support

Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 8

Government officials and members of the press accompanied President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday in a joint air force and navy anti-submarine exercise, in which two submarines were taken out to sea. Everything went off without a hitch. The purpose of this particular exercise, in which the head of state himself directed the proceedings from on board a submarine, was not simply to demonstrate the strength of the nation's armed forces. It was a military exercise, a media event and a political stunt all rolled into one, to show the public just how successful the government's policy on purchasing military equipment has been.

The nation has been conducting the Han Kuang annual military exercises since the middle of this month. Many of the exercises occur every year and are little noted. By contrast, attention-grabbing drills such as the simulated emergency jet landings on the highways -- the first of their kind in over 20 years -- have captured the public's imagination and been widely reported in the press. This latest exercise, with the president going out to sea on board a submarine, is one such attention-grabbing event.

These novel exercises have sparked a public discussion on national security. This offers the country another opportunity to debate the need for military purchases. It also offers a chance to discuss the multi-billion dollar military-purchase budget, which is stalled in the legislature as a result of the stand-off between the governing and opposition parties.

The strategic thinking of the nation's military is focused on keeping a decisive battle in the Strait. Far from being an aimless waste of funds, the purchase of anti-missile and anti-submarine arms and equipment therefore fills a crucial need. Currently, a scarcity of funds and the government's inability to persuade the opposition parties and the general public are preventing passage of this critical budget appropriation.

Under Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule, big military purchases resembled black holes. It was hard for the public to know what was going on. Even in the government, only a few people had a full grasp of the situation. Because of this lack of transparency, national funds were mixed up with private funds, and huge amounts of taxpayers' hard-earned money found their way into the pockets of vested interests.

What's more, the military-purchase budget has become a tool in the development of a pragmatic diplomacy. The government is exchanging arms purchases for international visits by top level officials and the development of diplomatic space.

The stalling economy has also meant that the government's tax income is falling precisely when military expenditures should be increased. This has led to public concern that spending on social welfare and infrastructure development will be curtailed.

To win approval for its multi-billion dollar budget allocation, Chen has gotten personally involved. He emphasized that both the government and the opposition should work together to approve this budgetary allocation. To help achieve this, Chen has even taken a ride in a submarine, a clear indication of the urgency with which the government views this issue.

National security should not be sacrificed to the standoff between the pan-blue and pan-green camps. Neither should the government view all the criticisms made by the opposition as malign obstructionism. We hope that the government will work hard to win public support for this NT$610 billion (US$18.2 billion) budgetary allocation for the military by addressing concerns of where the money will come from, its impact on other spending and the transparency of the purchasing process.