Su Chi, Chairman of Taipei Forum
United Daily News (聯合報), August 15, 2021

Diplomacy and national defense are businesses of conscience, because only those directly involved know what is really going on; those outside could hardly exercise oversight. This is especially true for national defense. Its unique nature allows it to continue hiding in a dark corner even after Taiwan’s democratization. With cross-strait relations increasingly testy now, defense issue should at last step into the sunshine.

Generally speaking, until the turn of the century, Taiwan was capable of safeguarding its security by itself. However, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in former Yugoslavia and Taiwan’s pronouncement of “special state-to-state relationship” in 1999 gave a big push to Beijing’s drive toward military buildup. Its capabilities to strike Taiwan reached a minimal level by 2008. As of now, according to a number of studies in the United States, China is capable of disrupting or denying possible American intervention, creating a new fait accompli in the Taiwan Strait.

This does not mean China can drive the U.S. out of East Asia or overturn the US-led world order. In fact, the United States is still the sole superpower, and it will take more years for China to reach parity with the U.S. But in the most sensitive and critical region of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing already enjoys some military advantage. Several studies have indicated that “at least in the first few weeks of conflict,” the U.S., constrained by the “tyranny of geography” and China’s precision-strike missiles and submarines, cannot do much beyond watching Taiwan absorbing the first blow, even change of regime. American experts question mostly whether Beijing will actually do it or whether its amphibious operation will succeed. From Taiwan’s perspective though, it will have suffered a great deal before the landing begins.

This “new normal,” on the one hand, renders full confidence to Beijing when it deals with the United States. On the other, more and more American experts begin to debate whether the U.S. should step in to overturn the fait accompli; if so, how. Herein lies the role of Taiwan’s defense policy.

During the last five years, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has pursued its defense policy along three main lines. The first is arms purchase from the U.S., such as F-16 jet fighters and M1A2 tanks and, for the first time in history, building eight indigenous submarines. Since all major political parties support the purchase of American weaponry, there is little controversy at home. Occasional complaints about the astronomical prices were easily brushed aside due to grossly uneven amount of information available inside and out of the administration. 

A retired U.S. admiral, who sympathizes with and understands Taiwan’s defense, once reminded me that “submarines requires a lot more supporting ships, equipment and facilities, including harbors. The overall cost will be three times that of shipbuilding itself.” The Tsai administration clapped a tight lid on this and other defense-related information. It is thus difficult for outsiders to get the total defense picture.

Interestingly, many Americans take issue with this line. To save Taiwan’s face, public figures remain silent. But professional writings and private conversations are animated. Some argue that those large platforms look good to the untrained eyes, but are extremely vulnerable to China’s first wave of missile strikes. Others contend that the transition time from arms purchase to war readiness is too long and too dangerous. Still others fear that the more advanced weaponry Taiwan buys from the U.S., the better trophies China may savor as spoilers of war.

Therefore, the Pentagon has proposed publicly since late 2016 the new approach of “asymmetry,” urging a new focus on “a large number of small things, things that are mobile, survivable and lethal,” such as sea mines, UAVs, multiple rocket launchers, missile speedboats, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, land-based Harpoon missiles, etc., to prevent the PLA from crossing the Strait and occupying Taiwan. These “small things” are ready to use, have a short waiting period, and save money. Some American experts even suggested that Taiwan need only to retain 50 F-16s. Money thus saved could be spent on training a large reserve force to fight guerilla warfare in Taiwan’s towns, jungles and mountains, trapping the PLA in a quagmire. 

President Tsai verbally echoes the U.S. In actuality a large chunk of budgets are still thrown into “small number of big things.” She did not dare to tell the Americans that few if any in Taiwan have a stomach for guerrilla warfare, that the people generally appreciate more the “big things.” She is also reluctant to admit that the “small things” have low symbolic linkage with the U.S.; were she to shift gear, she’d fear greater likelihood of abandonment. 

Currently the two lines are openly in competition. However, both seem to agree on exploring a new line, i.e. to build a concrete linkage between the U.S. and Taiwan militaries, and to empower Taiwan with a new capability to strike inside the Chinese mainland. If the offensive operations were carried out by the U.S., the risk of escalation to a nuclear war would be greatly increased. 

The proposed joint initiatives available in the public domain include: storage of American war reserve stocks in Taiwan, stationing of U.S. special forces in Taiwan, cooperation between the Coast Guards, docking of American warships at Taiwan ports, emplacement of THAAD system and ground launched cruise missiles aimed at China’s ICBMs, and so forth. 

Most baffling, Tsai’s administration and Washington have so far completely ignored the fundamental of any national defense - people’s will to fight. They would rather believe in the polls taken by pro-DPP organizations with a distinct slant toward “political correctness.” Instead, they should seriously study why the youngsters in Taiwan are so reluctant to volunteer for military service, to enroll in military academies and, for those who did join, to stay on longer after completing their services. They should also fathom deeper why the currently serving officers (especially the pilots) and sergeants are leaving their jobs en masse before their time of service expires.

Plus the fact that the Tsai administration continues to tear apart the social fabric and suppress the opposition ruthlessly. With the morale at such dismal low, no matter how many “big things” and/or “small things” we have, they may just prove completely futile.
The author, chairman of Taipei Forum, formerly served as secretary-general of the National Security Council, Republic of China (Taiwan), from 2008 to 2010.