Since the 1990s each ROC President has played an important role in shaping Taiwan’s defence strategy, a process that reflects differences in their cross-Strait policies, the mind-set of other important policy makers, and the growing challenge from all branches of the Peoples Liberation Army. Lee Teng-hui’s administrations introduced the concept of “effective deterrence and resolute defence”, acknowledging that re-taking China was no longer the mission of the Republic of China’s (hereafter Taiwan) armed forces. Instead, the “new” mission was to deter China’s attack by building an effective defensive posture and if deterrence failed, to defeat enemy’s forces on Taiwan’s coastline. This defence posture was primarily army-centred, with the air force and the navy playing a supportive role.
The Taiwan Strait missile crisis in 1995-96 revealed that the threat from China could not be limited to the worst-case scenario of an amphibious invasion. Other scenarios include a missile “decapitation attack” aimed at Taiwan’s leadership and key infrastructure, a massive missile and air campaign, or naval and air blockade to name a few. All of these military scenarios seek to impose Beijing’s unification conditions without undergoing highly risky and destructive amphibious invasion.
Realization of these developments altered the defence strategy during Chen Shui-bian’s two terms as President. Deterrence was still a key word in the concept of “effective deterrence and strong defence posture”, however the change in wording signaled a shift from defence based on repelling an enemy on the beaches. In the early 1990s Taiwan still enjoyed qualitative superiority in the air and on the sea, yet from the beginning of the 2000s this was no longer true. The PLA’s growing arsenal of precision strike-capable ballistic and cruise missiles, along with a fleet of submarines, have tipped the strategic balance in China’s favour, making it more dangerous for hypothetical intervening US forces. Reactions in Taiwan included the difficult procurement of PAC-2/PAC-3 Patriot missile defences and the development of shore-based and sea-borne anti-ship (Hsiung-feng III) and cruise missiles (Hsiung-feng IIE).
Thus a “strong defence posture” involved the development and acquisition of weaponry that would enable defence beyond Taiwan’s shoreline, with the possibly of a counter-strike option involving targets in Chinese territory. In addition to that, a greater role was envisaged for the navy, while the role of the air force was to maintain air superiority. Defence strategy under Chen was called by some “offensive deterrence”, as opposed to the “defensive deterrence” introduced by Ma Ying-jeou who was elected president in 2008 and re-elected in January 2013.
Keywords of the Ma administration are “resolute defence, credible deterrence” and “Hard ROC”. The former appears to resemble a return to the passive defensive posture of Lee’s period and “Hard ROC” concept enforces that impression. These concepts are elaborated in detail in the two editions of Quadrennial defence review (QDR, Chapter 2 of 2009 and 2013 editions), a new type of policy document that was released for the first time in 2009 and will be updated every four years, within one year of the inauguration of whomever is elected President. One of the key elements of “Hard ROC” is the transition to an all-volunteer, professional military by 2016 (originally scheduled for 2014) and part of the process is the reduction of the standing force from 275000 to 215000. On one hand, the high-tech equipment and conditions of modern warfare require skilled soldiers and conscripts serving short terms do not suit that need well. On the other hand, critics advocate a dual-track approach where the role of volunteers would be increased gradually.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, there is remarkable continuity in the approaches of the Chen and Ma administrations. First, war prevention has been declared as the ultimate goal of defence policy since 2002. Ma Ying-jeou has been praised for a less confrontational China policy than Chen Shui-bian, which is an oversimplification in the spirit of “bad Chen, good Ma” promoted by Beijing. After all, cross-Strait relations are a dance for two and no matter what intentions Taipei has, Beijing can always spoil them if it wishes to, and generally prefers a President from the KMT. A closer look at measures undertaken by both Presidents shows that Ma Ying-jeou’s “Hard ROC” benefits greatly from past decisions. Hardening of air bases, including a massive hangar built inside the mountains at Hualien AFB, is just one example of measures that are central to “Hard ROC” that were implemented earlier. Ma has not reversed the development of offensive missile capabilities: Hsiung-feng IIE cruise missiles were deployed to combat units recently and medium range cruise missile Cloud Peak is under development. Thus, even under Ma, Taiwan continues to develop the offensive capabilities needed for a counter-strike or even a possible pre-emptive strike, although there is no support for such an option currently.
Overall, “Hard ROC” seeks to ensure that Taiwan and its armed forces will be able to withstand an opening attack by the PLA through different means of passive protection, early warning and joint warfare capabilities. This echoes suggestions made by proponents of the “porcupine strategy”. Introduction of a more asymmetrical response to the growing military imbalance between Taiwan and China is definitely step in the right direction, as it is impossible for Taiwan to match China dollar-to-dollar, plane-to-plane.
Defence-planning notwithstanding, there are several challenges, some temporary, some embedded in the specific conditions in Taiwan, all of which the Ma administration ought to address sooner rather than later. One of the most urgent matters is the imminent fighter jet gap. A significant component of the current jet fleet (F-5s, Mirage 2000s) is going to retire, or is scheduled for upgrade (F-16A/Bs), by the end of the decade, which means that some of them won’t be available at any given time between 2017 and 2027. This relates to the problem with arms procurement. At the moment, the US is, realistically, the only source of advanced weaponry besides domestic production, which would not be possible without US assistance. After 2008 record procurements were made in terms of money spent, but the most important element, the 66 F-16C/D fighter jet, has yet to be secured.
A large part of recently materialized procurements were long-stalled orders held over from Chen’s presidency, which blocked by a KMT majority in the Legislative Yuan, in some cases for several years. That defence matters were subject to “petty” domestic disputes was not perceived well in the US and voices questioning Taiwan’s resolve to prepare for its own defence originates from that period. Thus, the persistent negative perception of political bickering between the KMT and DPP during the Chen era is a formidable spoiler of US-Taiwan relations. Although this does not tell the whole story about US-Taiwan military cooperation, as there is much happening under the table far from the spotlight, (mis)perceptions should be tackled better. The oft-mentioned problem with Taiwan’s low defence spending – approximately at the level of NATO countries facing no comparable threat – is a matter to be addressed too, and it is well noted in current edition of QDR. Yet allocation of resources for defence should not be considered as a final figure, given the option of approving a special budget outside of regular defence spending. If the US approves the F-16 deal in the short term, a special budget would be a way to tackle the issue financially on Taiwan’s side.
Despite cross-Strait rapprochement, the PLA military build-up aimed at Taiwan shows no signs of slowing down and espionage activities, including frequent cyber-attacks, are on the increase, which Ma Ying-jeou himself admits in recent interview with the Financial Times. National defence is without doubt a serious matter and under Taiwan’s conditions it cannot be subject to mere declarations of goodwill from Beijing when its actions continue to speak to the contrary.
Michal Thim is Taiwan Studies PhD candidate at University of Nottingham and concurrently research fellow at Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO). His research interest mainly focuses on foreign, defence and security policy of Taiwan, territorial disputes in South and East China Seas, foreign policy of China, and the role of the USA in East Asia. His PhD research deals with Taiwan’s defence and asymmetrical defence strategies. He owns blog Taiwan in Perspective, follow him at @michalthim.
Michal Thim has 6 post(s) on Asia Security Watch