When it comes to defense, there is no doubt that Taiwan generally does a poor job advertising itself, especially to a foreign audience.
Part of the reason is the not unreasonable need to maintain a level of secrecy so as not to telegraph its defenses to China. This is further compounded by two additional factors:
First, the ongoing efforts of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to improve relations with Beijing, which discourages overly militaristic signaling, and Taiwan’s inward-looking nature — which it often adopts at the expense of its relations with the rest of the world, including its few allies, who need to be assured of its commitment to self-defense (“Why should US soldiers risk their lives defending Taiwan if Taiwanese are not serious about defending their nation?” the argument goes).
The second factor is especially prevalent in matters of national security, with the Ministry of National Defense only fitfully engaging foreign reporters, while often refusing to comment on matters such as operations, exercises and weapons development.
For example, the much-vaunted Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile has yet to be seen by a foreign journalist. Taiwanese defense officials often bristle at accusations that their nation is not serious about defense because it is reluctant to spend billions to purchase new F-16s from the US. Privately, they will argue that the money could be put to better use, but as long as foreign journalists are not given the information they need to report on the alternatives, foreign audiences will not be disabused of the perception that Taiwan is not truly committed to defending itself.
The few foreign reporters based in Taiwan who cover military affairs have long complained about the difficulty of access and of a mindset within the armed forces that neglects good communication with the world outside Taiwan. More often than not, local reporters and Taiwanese military enthusiasts are given access to maneuvers and events, only for foreign journalists from, say, Jane’s and Defense News (along with local English-language newspapers), to find out about it in the next day’s paper, or in subsequent issues of Asia-Pacific Defense, a Chinese-language monthly magazine.
Not only are all local publications in Chinese, the inability of foreign defense correspondents to conduct investigative work and to interact with defense officials imposes severe limitations on their ability to tell Taiwan’s story to a foreign audience in a language that they understand.
While other countries — including China — have found a balance between secrecy and force projection through public relations campaigns, Taiwan has focused almost entirely on the former consideration, leaving the impression that it is not doing anything worth reporting when it comes to defense issues.
For example, while China has repeatedly put various unmanned aerial vehicles on display at air shows attended by hundreds of foreign reporters, Taiwan’s top military research institute, the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, has a long tradition of paranoia toward foreign attention.
No foreign journalists were present at an event early last month where the institute showcased a variety of systems under development, including a unmanned aerial vehicle, multiple rocket launchers and an anti-ship supersonic cruise missile.
To be fair to the military, Taiwan’s at times irresponsible and oftentimes sensationalist media has also had an impact on the willingness of defense officials, and the defense industry in general, to share information with reporters. For example, one major US defense firm recently informed the author of this article that it has adopted a policy of no longer providing information to the media.
One consequence of the decision to bypass the media (foreign included, despite its tendency to be more “responsible”) is that erroneous news will go unchecked.
Given the propensity of reporters in Taiwan to focus on the negative aspects of the military (spy scandals, accidents, less-than-satisfactory results in exercises and so on), this risks exacerbating the perception, however false, that Taiwan’s armed forces are inefficient.
Conversely, while a lot can be said of the ills of China’s near-total control of the media, the advantages of positive, if perhaps scripted, coverage of its own military are difficult to miss, providing a morale booster to the People’s Liberation Army and the nation in general, while compounding fears of China’s might in capitals like Taipei, Tokyo, Manila and Washington.
Given Taiwan’s extraordinary security challenges and the sustained threat of Chinese espionage, there is an evident need for the armed forces to maintain a certain degree of secrecy and in many areas serious shortcomings need to be addressed. However, information security should not come at the expense of good PR, especially at a time when certain individuals with leverage on US policymakers are clamoring for Washington to “abandon” Taiwan.
While Taipei has slowly shifted its defense policy to better reflect rapidly changing realities in the face of an increasingly powerful China, it has yet to adequately reconfigure its propaganda strategy and does so at great peril.
In this day and age, wars can be won without a single bullet being fired, which happens to be Beijing’s preferred outcome. China is already on the offensive in that aspect of the conflict. It is high time that Taiwan came up with a counterstrategy.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.