In this year’s US presidential election, an issue has arisen about whether allies such as Japan, South Korea and European countries in NATO are spending enough for their defense. Even if Taiwan is not the main subject in this discourse, it has long faced the scrutiny of whether it is sufficiently investing in its self-defense.
Taiwan has a more precarious position than countries such as Israel, which also faces an existential threat. Taipei is sometimes blamed for “provoking” tension, though Beijing is in fact the belligerent bully. Taiwan depends on self-defense and support from the US and other countries for deterrence and defense against threats of coercion as well as force from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Taiwan recently experienced its third peaceful transfer of power — both the presidency and the legislature — with China provoking a minimum of cross-strait tension. President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) strategic challenge is to reverse the decline in Taiwan’s defense and urgently strengthen security in the interest of stability. She can lead Taiwan out of complacency about China’s threat.
With another chance for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to lead the nation, the Tsai administration is aware of its responsibility to fulfill its commitment to Taiwan’s security. However, the DPP’s stress on self-sufficiency in defense can be unrealistic and even counter-productive. Ironically, the foreign country with the most interest in Taiwan’s strong defense and deterrence, the US, is the country that bears some responsibility for pushing Taiwan to this quest for self-sufficiency. US policy also needs an urgent fix, given the hold on arms sales to Taiwan under the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
IMPLICATIONS OF TAIWAN’S ELECTIONS
Contrary to pessimistic perspectives, Taiwan’s democracy underwent a peaceful transition of executive and legislative power following the January elections and May inauguration. The DPP has accepted the “status quo” under the rubric of the Republic of China (ROC). In her inaugural address, Tsai recognized the reality that Taiwanese elected her as “President in accordance with the Constitution of the ROC.” She respects the reality that both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a legacy of more than 20 years of engagement that has enabled positive outcomes for both sides.
Photo: EPA/TAIWAN MILITARY NEWS AGENCY
China criticized her for not using the controversial term “1992 consensus.” But significantly, Tsai affirmed the “political foundations” of cross-strait ties, including the 1992 talks. Tsai’s careful remarks reflect her personal control of Taipei’s policy and its communication with Beijing. Indeed, she inherited a recently-revealed tradition of secret communication channels across the Taiwan Strait (Arthur Waldron’s “How secret were Washington’s talks with China?,” Taipei Times, July 21, 2016.)
However, the DPP’s historic victory in the presidential and legislative elections raises an issue of whether a fundamental change has occurred in Taiwan’s politics. China blames the DPP for changing the status quo related to the “one China” ideology since Tsai took office on May 20. Indeed, there has been a fundamental transformation. However, the shift is not what China blames on the DPP. It only recently regained power.
The decades-long trend of greater Taiwan-centric identity, especially among younger voters, grew through the previous two terms of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Outwardly, China repeats its archaic anti-DPP bashing. Behind this outmoded facade, China is actually afraid of populist movements and democracy, which the regime in Beijing cannot accept or control. Specifically, China is more fearful of the meaning of the 2014 Sunflower movement, which blossomed under Ma’s watch. As a result, people decisively voted against the KMT in local elections in November 2014, before its devastating defeat in January of this year.
The electoral earthquake confirmed the tectonic shift in which a majority trust the Taiwan-centric DPP for economic, defense and other policies, and doubt the KMT’s Sino-centric pivot. What effectively began in 2005 as the Third United Front between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has failed. The DPP evolved to govern again. The KMT atrophied and its recovery is in doubt. China’s always-neurotic anxiety has been heightened, potentially harming peace and stability.
MA’S LEGACY FOR TSAI
Tsai has faced two main challenges in the context for advancing her agenda on defense. The first set of problems beyond her control are the accidents in Taiwan’s military. The second set of challenges concern the legacies that Tsai inherited from the two previous presidents. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) pushed the nation towards de jure independence. In the past eight years, Ma oversaw a resumed cross-strait dialogue, economic and functional agreements with China, an anemic economy and closer cooperation with the US.
However, there are certain areas where MA fell short and Tsai needs to restore trust related to the credibility and broken promises of Ma, who cast doubt on follow-up purchases of US weapons systems and failed to raise the defense budget to Taiwan’s own objective of 3 percent of GDP.
Ma did not place a high priority on defense and even cut defense budgets. He also failed to resolve persistent problems in the military, including not retiring the outdated F-5 fighters that reached the end of their operational life (though Ma saw one in a Californian museum), not procuring new trainers, diverting US-sold Black Hawk helicopters away from defense and forcing a shift to a volunteer force that exacerbated problems in recruitment, retention and training.
Insidiously, Ma headed a shift to stop saying that China is Taiwan’s only threat. Instead of directing Taiwan to support international law and fellow democracies on maritime disputes, Ma slanted Taiwan in shrill sync with China. He undermined exchanges with the US concerning exercises on crisis-management. Ma abrogated pledges to the US over trade in beef and pork and did not bring Taiwan into the strategic Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). His last representative in Washington incited disdain with a gratuitous, self-congratulatory public ceremony to raise the ROC flag.
With its declining emphasis on defense, Taiwan’s credibility is at a low ebb with the US. This includes periodic “freezes” in arms sales, excessive maritime claims and weakened friendships with Japan and the Philippines, who can also aid in Taiwan’s defense.
TSAI’S DEFENSE POLICY
Despite these challenges, Tsai needs to stay strategic and lead Taiwan with urgency for stronger defense and deterrence. In contrast to Ma, Tsai not only seeks to continue cross-strait engagement and stability, but also emphasize Taiwan’s strategic rebalance. Under Tsai, Taiwan is orienting more to the US, other democracies and countries with its new southbound policy, without cutting off China. The nation is also diversifying economic partners without over-reliance on China, while boosting defense without over-indulgence in dialogue with China.
In a worrisome sign, however, Tsai failed to discuss defense policy in her inaugural address. Also, in her June meeting with the visiting Senate Armed Services Committee’s Chairman John McCain, Tsai sounded wishy-washy in response to his stress on Taiwan meeting its defense budgets goals of 3 percent of GDP. Still, she is placing priority on national defense, especially by expanding cooperation between the defense industries of the US and Taiwan. The Tsai administration is relying on papers on defense policy that the DPP published in the past few years. In another contrast with Ma, Tsai retained advisors in her campaign as influential officials in her administration.
Since her inauguration, Tsai has inspected an airbase, a naval base and a Military Police base, to show her government’s determination to safeguard Taiwan’s security.
There appear to be three pillars to Tsai’s defense policy: indigenous weapons programs; information technology, including setting up the fourth military service to counter the PLA’s cyber attacks; and intangible assets, or restoring respect for military service, pride in military personnel and their welfare and careers.
However, while the military needs political support, Tsai’s stress on indigenous defense development faces problems. For example, if the government procures a locally-developed, downgraded Indigenous Defense Fighter as the new trainer, the cost to Taiwan would actually be greater than other options (such as the Italian M-346 or the US-ROK T-50 trainers, if approved).
It is unrealistic to lead Taiwanese to think they can achieve self-sufficiency in the short term. Taiwan’s defense industry would still require foreign technology transfers. Moreover, Taiwan’s defense industry cannot count on sales to foreign militaries or economies of scale to reduce costs. Furthermore, the industry would take a long time to develop, design and produce effective weapons systems. If Tsai insists on expensive local options, Taiwan cannot quickly reverse the decline in its defense.
In contrast to Ma, Tsai has requested an increase in the defense budget. She has refrained from repeating what her staff sees as Taiwan’s unrealistic short-term goal of budgeting for defense at 3 percent of GDP, a goal that became an irritant in talks with the US. Still, Tsai requested a raise in the defense budget next year to NT$321.7 billion (US$10.3 billion). In addition, Tsai has ordered a new military strategy by February of next year based on actual, joint defense needs instead of wish-lists. Such a strategy could employ less expensive asymmetric approaches.
Tsai can be expected to improve crisis-management and to invite US observers to relevant military exercises. She could enhance US-Taiwan exchanges about critical infrastructure protection and continuity of government. She faces decisions that include training, technology transfers, Indigenous Defense Submarine program based on upgrades of Hai Lung-class submarines, MH-60R helicopters, sufficient supplies of munitions, training of fighter pilots at Luke Air Force Base and US exercises.
Tsai could expand cooperation on the US early warning radar to track North Korea’s missile launches, tighten Taiwan’s cyber security and counter-intelligence and deepen the discussions with the US on strengthening special operations and countering the PLA’s special operations forces.
ISSUES FOR US POLICY
The US is concerned about Taiwan’s defense, but responsibility for the accumulated problems also rests stateside. To be fair, Washington faces a number of hurdles such as self-imposed and counter-productive restrictions on contacts with Taiwan’s military officials. The US has declined to use more options to help dispel misunderstanding and urge upgrades in Taiwan’s defense.
One option is to remove restrictions on visits to Taiwan by US general and flag officers (unless approved by the State Department). Another option is to allow mutual ship visits in the US Navy’s often-stated tradition of international inclusiveness and aid. Naval ships could visit for replenishment, refueling or repairs.
The arms sales process is broken, affecting foreign military sales and even direct commercial sales. The US could repair the process by returning to a regular, routine decision-making process that is clear and credible. US hesitancy on security assistance has undermined its interests in Taiwan wisely investing in defense. The Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that decisions be “based solely” on Taiwan’s military needs. Washington could give Taipei a straight answer to follow the initial approval in 2001 for new submarines. With more certainty, Taiwan can plan better for budgets, equipment and training.
One problem is timing. Tsai needs to make progress at a time when the US is preoccupied with the November elections. The default is to let inertia defer decisions.
However, an alternative is to be proactive and to learn lessons. Before Obama leaves office, he could resolve unfinished business, unlike Bush who left pending programs. The new president could avoid repeating the deference Obama showed China in his first year in office, when he refused to announce major arms sales to Taiwan.
But the focus cannot simply be on major weapons. US officials could regularly advance other programs to equip Taiwan’s military. More military-to-military engagement can stress realistic training to raise readiness, uphold international rules and laws and improve safety at sea. Such rules include the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.
The Obama administration asserts that military engagement with Taiwan has become robust and numerous. Some US military exercises have included Taiwan — though not Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the premier international maritime exercise. Nonetheless, there are concerns about connecting engagements with uncertain deliveries of equipment and about connecting senior-level and other meetings as integrated dialogues that produce results.
Another Taiwan Policy Review could be useful, at least for reassessment of trends in the Taiwan Strait. It has been 22 years since the Taiwan Policy Review of 1994, despite significant shifts in the region. It is in the interests of the US to engage Taiwan and support its democracy and defense.
In the short term, attention will focus on Tsai’s speech on Double Ten National Day, which falls on Oct. 10. She will have an opportunity to fill the gap in her inaugural address and outline Taiwan’s realistic assessment of defense against China’s threat. She will also continue to manage communication with China. Some in China have called her Double Ten speech her third — and final — window of opportunity. While moving the goal posts, China berates Tsai to make one-sided concessions.
Tsai faces risks from the KMT even as Taiwan’s leaders shift from politics to governance. The opposition is nitpicking Tsai about national security appointments. Potentially positive, the DPP and KMT could still forge a consensus for joint successes to strengthen Taiwan’s security.
But time is not on Taiwan’s side. Tsai does not enjoy a full term for serious governance to strengthen security. In less than four years, governing efforts will be diverted to campaigning for the DPP, as she seeks re-election in the next presidential election.
2020 has another significance. The US Defense Department has warned that China’s rulers stress the objective of reaching critical economic and military benchmarks by 2020, which include attaining the capability to fight and win potential regional conflicts. The PLA’s primary target remains Taiwan.
Shirley Kan is a retired Specialist in Asian Security Affairs who worked for the US Congress at the Congressional Research Service (CRS)
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