China’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan is intensifying as next year’s legislative and presidential elections approach. For its part, Taiwan is stepping up its defense funding and preparedness with the launch of the Hai Kun (海鯤號), or “Narwhal,” the first domestically produced submarine.
The White House is also expanding its support for Taiwan by approving an US$80 million grant to bolster the island nation’s military capabilities. This move, authorized by US President Joe Biden, signifies a major departure from the past four decades, as the US is now directly funding the provision of American military equipment to a region it does not officially recognize as a country. This financial aid-grant is a departure from the usual practice of providing loans, highlighting a significant policy shift in US-Taiwan relations.
As part of the foreign military finance (FMF) program, Biden, back in July, gave the go-ahead for the sale of military services and equipment to Taiwan, amounting to US$500 million. In an unusual move, Taiwan is set to send two battalions of ground troops to the US for training, a development not seen since the 1970s. The projected funding for Taiwan’s defense could climb to as much as US$10 billion in the next five years.
What makes this recent US military aid to Taiwan unique is the expedited process enabled by the FMF program. In contrast to the usual prolonged approval procedures for foreign military funding, the US is directly supplying weapons from its own arsenal, using its funds. This bypasses the typically lengthy and bureaucratic Congressional approval process.
Following joint military training exercises in Hawaii that included the US Army and the New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, and British armies, supported by the US Air Force, a new strategy for countering China has emerged. The plan involves deploying small, land-based units on island chains in the South China Sea. These units would be equipped to launch long-range anti-ship missiles and long-range air defense missiles. This strategy capitalizes on US operational advantage stemming from its alliances and forward bases in the region.
Additional recent agreements have been inked to broaden the US utilization of bases in collaboration with South Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and India. This not only allows the US to deploy forces from these bases, but also facilitates resupply efforts, addressing the challenge of dealing with the “tyranny of distance” when conducting military operations in a theater thousands of miles away from home. While the US is suited to the new strategy of small, land-based unit deployment, Taiwan is not.
For more than 15 years, US analysts have raised apprehensions about Taiwan’s military preparedness to counter a potential invasion. In response, Taiwan has articulated a distinct defense strategy: “Resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area and annihilate it on the beachhead.”
The challenge arises from Taiwan not allocating sufficient resources to effectively implement this defense concept.
A significant portion of Taiwan’s defense spending is channeled into high-cost assets that could potentially become obsolete in the event of an invasion. Taiwan’s security is closely tied to its alliance with the US. And the acquisition of expensive items, like fighter aircraft, is seen in Taiwan as a means of enhancing security ties with the US, modernizing the military and boosting morale. Nevertheless, experts concede that these systems might not be optimally suited for the emerging wartime scenarios. Taiwan has always prioritized its navy’s ability to make a Chinese People’s Liberation Army invasion too costly for China, but now that China’s navy is so powerful, Taiwan must also build up its land-based army.
Instead of emphasizing high-tech weaponry, US defense experts argue that Taiwan should focus on enhancing its infantry and artillery capabilities. These units are deemed vital for repelling a potential invasion on Taiwan proper’s beaches. The land units must prioritize mobility and the ability to fire and move swiftly.
However, this proves challenging as many of Taiwan’s units are equipped with guns dating back to the Vietnam War or even World War II, which are manually loaded and cumbersome to move. After firing, the crews become vulnerable targets for retaliatory fire due to the slow and laborious process.
An additional challenge in strengthening Taiwan’s land-based capabilities is the weaknesses in the conscription system. The mandatory military service duration was reduced from one year to four months, with recruits expressing concerns about inadequate firearms training and minimal physical exercise during their brief training period. Although President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) reinstated one-year compulsory military service, there remains a manpower availability issue.
Taiwan has 170,000 active-duty troops and 1.5 million reservists, significantly fewer than the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) more than 3 million troops, encompassing active duty, reserve and paramilitary forces. Compounding the challenge, Taiwan’s total fertility rate has dropped to 0.98 births per woman, well below the 2.1 rate needed to prevent population decline. As a result, last year’s military intake marked the smallest in the past decade.
Notably, the prevalence of buxiban (補習班, cram schools) and video game culture is failing to produce sufficient numbers of physically fit young men to fill the military ranks. The defense ministry has even lowered physical requirements for new recruits, allowing shorter and under or overweight individuals to enlist.
However, concerns have been raised about potential consequences, as lower standards might result in soldiers ill-equipped to handle larger weapons and equipment.
To address the manpower gap, Taiwan has attempted to invest more in technology and equipment, but the evolving combat strategy demands a heightened emphasis on recruiting and training soldiers. In a bid to increase numbers, Taiwan has opened the door for women to join the army reserves. US trainers would maintain their collaboration with Taiwanese forces, conducting joint training sessions both in Taiwan and in the US. Furthermore, Taiwanese military leaders are contemplating the adoption of physical fitness training methods modeled after the US military.
Recent developments underscore a strong commitment from both the US and Taiwan to enhance the nation’s defense capabilities. The Rand Corporation, a prominent US geopolitical think tank, recommends that Taiwan continue its modernization and collaboration with the US military. Additionally, countering Chinese propaganda and fostering social cohesion within the civilian population are identified as key elements to bolster Taiwan’s readiness for potential conflict, both socially and economically.
Antonio Graceffo, a China economic analyst who holds a China MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University, studies national defense at the American Military University in West Virginia.
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