Despite being commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), during his first term, said there would be “no military action” against China, a policy he has actively pursued — although perhaps it is more accurate to say that he has done nothing about it. What did he mean by saying “no military action?”
We now have a very precise answer. According to a recent report published by the US’ Congressional Research Service (CRS), Ma has never fulfilled his promise of bringing the national defense budget up to 3 percent of GDP, and if Taiwan switches over to the all-volunteer system to replace conscription it will be difficult to recruit soldiers. People are increasingly concerned about the hollowing out of Taiwan’s armed forces, and “hollowing out” is probably the most accurate explanation of the “no military action” principle.
The death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) days before his discharge caused a public outcry, with protests held around the country. Young people, in particular, are angry and afraid: angry the military system lead to a person’s death and afraid because they are soon to enter the system themselves.
As society fumes, the commander-in-chief retreats, offering little but assertions that he has “got it covered,” when in fact he does not dare touch the shady dealings in the military.
The victim’s family can find little reassurance in Ma’s assertions, given his record of broken promises. Instead, it fell to the Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) to bear the responsibility.
It is no easy task being defense minister in the Ma administration. What exactly is he supposed to do when the commander-in-chief says there will be no military action? Kao is most often seen answering questions at the Legislative Yuan when something goes awry, and not so much at training intended to reinforce military preparedness. This has been the case for some time, and who knows just how effective our armed forces are right now?
In May, a Taiwanese fisherman was killed after personnel aboard a Philippine government vessel opened fire on his boat. Ma ordered a Republic of China (ROC) Navy vessel to approach the Philippine’s maritime waters in a show of force, to give the message that our country was to be taken seriously. Within a few days, two ROC Air Force planes crashed in Taiwan, making us a laughing stock in the Philippines by giving the impression that our armed forces are incompetent.
Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Huang-liang (蔡煌瑯), a member of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, criticized the Ma administration, saying that for years it has committed only to nominal military weapons procurements, and has allotted no budget for precision, advanced weaponry purchases from the US, with a preliminary national defense budget for next year NT$2.7 billion (US$90 million) short of this year’s. Tsai added that Ma only announced switching to the all-volunteer system to improve his chances for re-election last year, and that Hung’s death was the straw that would break the back of the all-volunteer system policy.
Meanwhile, China consistently makes noises intended to intimidate Taiwan, and refuses to rule out using military force. At the same time, it is rapidly increasing its own national defense budget, and there is no country in the region that is under greater threat than Taiwan. Nevertheless Ma, faced with such an insidious foe, continues to trumpet cross-strait peace, reduction of the defense budget and to fiddle with military recruitment.
Although Taiwan does not have diplomatic relations with the US, there are provisions for the sale of military equipment to Taipei in the Taiwan Relations Act. Despite these provisions, Ma remains opposed to buying them, just as when he boycotted the military procurement budget while in opposition, and is quite content to watch as the balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait tips in favor of China.
It is not out of ignorance or neglect that Ma has allowed China to mount ever more military intimidation against Taiwan; he is deliberately engineering a situation in which Taiwan’s armed forces are left helpless in the face of China’s burgeoning military might by introducing the all-volunteer system and allowing military discipline to go to the dogs, which will see Taiwan routed should any conflict break out. The hollowing out identified by the CRS report is a deliberate policy of Ma’s and with his “no military action” policy is the best way to fulfill his commitment to “no independence.”
There is another level on which the hollowing out of the military is occurring. Retired generals, as soon as they leave the forces, travel to China and hobnob with senior military figures there, adding to this idea that “the militaries of the ROC and People’s Republic of China [PRC] both belong to China’s army.” Active-duty officers hold back from expressing their true feelings because of their positions and will hightail it over to China the minute they retire. They shuttle back and forth across the Taiwan Strait, coming back to support Ma in major elections, and Ma in turn relies on them to promote unification. Who knows, Ma himself will probably do the same when he leaves office.
The CRS report is hardly news. For more than five years Ma has been working to hollow out the military. Even Taiwan’s sovereignty is about to be sold out with the service trade pact. The question is, what is the US’ approach? Is it happy to see Taiwan embark upon this road to annexation by China, and to stand by as China absorbs a democratic nation in its quest for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region? Of course, we could ask the same question to 23 million Taiwanese.
Translated by Paul Cooper