Earlier this month, Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全) suggested that if the US ceased selling arms to Taiwan, China might consider making changes to its military deployment. He also suggested that task forces could address the three major obstacles to Sino-US military relations, of which the arms sales to Taiwan is one. The US declined this trade-off, and affirmed that its position vis-a-vis its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act remain unchanged. Nevertheless, Chang’s suggestions have given rise to discussion in several quarters.
The US arms sales to Taiwan issue is delicate because of three interrelated questions:
First, the US and China will continue to develop their bilateral military exchanges. Will Taiwan have the chance or the ability to have a say? Second, exactly what level of national defense capability does Taiwan need to develop for the US to support the sale of advanced military equipment, rather than second-rate, outdated weaponry that is still expensive? Third, given the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations, do the government and the public fully appreciate the potential changes that lie ahead, and support a major restructuring of Taiwan’s national defense?
With the considerable development of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) forces, coupled with increasingly difficult US arms sales to Taiwan, if there should be a conflict across the Strait, Taiwan could quickly lose control of the sea and the air. Therefore, given the increasingly unbalanced nature of hard and soft power between Taiwan and China, there are many calls for national defense reform. It is therefore imperative for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government to put aside political differences with the opposition on national defense strategy, and adopt an approach that looks to the future.
There are five things the government should do:
First, it needs to think very carefully about how to establish an effective asymmetric warfare capability, with things like littoral submarines for operations in coastal waters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and smart mines, rather than waste our limited national defense budget on buying outdated military equipment.
Second, to increase the mobility of the armed forces, it needs to increase stocks of missiles such as the homegrown Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile and Hsiung Feng IIE surface-to-surface cruise missile, and to continue research and development. Production and deployment of these missiles needs to be kept “under the radar” as much as possible. This work can be built upon to develop more missiles with extended ranges. This is the correct way forward.
Third, the government must ensure the army develops large-scale special warfare tactics and its field warfare capabilities.
Fourth, it needs to be mindful of young people’s attitudes toward the military after the new voluntary conscription system takes effect, and encourage them to understand the nature of professional soldiering, and to inculcate a sense of patriotism. Training for reserve forces must also be a priority.
Fifth, over the past few years army recruitment advertisements have been facile and economical with the truth. New adverts — ones that are more honest about the nature of the job (that it is difficult, that one goes into it uncoerced, that it can lead to honor and glory) — should be made.
The armed forces need to attract people who are prepared to step forward and face a challenge.
Wang Jyh-perng is a reserve navy captain and an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
Translated by Paul Cooper