Jun 28, 2022 - World

Pressure grows for Taiwan to boost its defense force

Illustration of Taiwan's flag symbol as a clockface
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Taiwanese military is still organized around the strategies once required for its decades-long goal of retaking mainland China, rather than repelling a possible Chinese military invasion.

Why it matters: Focusing on power projection instead of defense means Taiwan's armed forces may not have the weapons and plans in place to deter an attack, analysts say.

  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shaken many in Taiwan, where both civilians and the Ministry of Defense are seriously considering how they would fight back if Beijing attacked.
  • But experts say Taiwan has invested relatively few resources into waging the type of asymmetric warfare Ukraine has used to effectively repel Russia's larger military.

Where it stands: Taiwan's generals have been slow to update their mindset, according to analysts.

  • "Taiwanese senior military leaders are resistant to transforming into a defense-focused force instead of a power projection force," said Ivan Kanapathy, former National Security Council director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
  • The Taiwanese military, known as the Republic of China Armed Forces, is still focused on acquiring expensive heavy armor like tanks and big-ticket vessels and weapons required for launching a land invasion from the sea. Those offensive capabilities are easy targets for Chinese missiles launched from the mainland, and they aren't very useful in defending against a Chinese attack.
  • Instead, it should be buying more truck-mounted missile launchers and surface-to-air missiles, Kanapathy told Axios. "They just need to deny air superiority from the [People’s Liberation Army]," he added.
  • "Taiwan is committed to safeguarding freedom and democracy by strengthening self-defense, enhancing asymmetric capabilities and mobilizing our population, while expanding cooperation with the U.S. and like-minded partners," the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in D.C., told Axios in a statement.

The Biden administration is pushing leaders in Taipei to purchase defensive weapons from the U.S. and discouraging further sales of tanks and anti-submarine helicopters, which U.S. officials believe would do little to counter a full-scale attack.

  • Retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis has also called on Taiwan to acquire smart mines, cybersecurity, and "special forces who can neutralize Chinese advance teams, and air defense systems."
  • "There has been this wake-up call in the Pentagon to make sure Taiwan is serious, and we need to get serious too," Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told the New York Times in May.
  • Taiwan's military knows it has weaknesses and wants more assistance from the U.S. and its allies, experts say. “The Taiwanese troops barely have opportunities to conduct exercises with the allies,” Shu Hsiao-huang, an analyst at the Taiwanese government-affiliated Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said in May.

Background: In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) after a years-long civil war. The KMT fled China to the island of Taiwan off the southern Chinese coast, relocating the capital of the Republic of China from Nanjing to Taipei. The CCP established the People's Republic of China on the mainland.

  • Both sides vowed to retake what they had lost and unify China under their own flag. But it's worth noting, said Jessica Drun, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, that "the PRC government has never had jurisdictional control over Taiwan."
  • For the first few decades, the two competing governments were somewhat evenly matched. Taiwan may have even had the upper hand. Taiwan had diplomatic relations with powerful countries and the backing of the United States, while China suffered through years of domestic upheavals and economic devastation.
  • But starting in the 1960s and 1970s, as China's domestic and foreign policies evolved, Beijing convinced most of Taiwan's diplomatic allies to switch sides, oversaw dramatic economic growth, and launched a rapid military modernization.
  • China is now an economic, technological and military giant with a population of 1.4 billion, dwarfing Taiwan economically and militarily. And leaders in Beijing have made clear that unification by force is on the table.

For Taiwan's military, its current problems run deeper than its hardware.

  • Taiwan's Ministry of Defense is staffed almost entirely by military officers, and the country lacks a well-developed security studies academic community. This means defense policy is shaped by career military officers whose perspectives have all been shaped by lifelong loyalty to the same institution, and there are few alternative information sources outside the military itself.
  • Before Taiwan's transition to democracy in the late 1980s, it was an authoritarian one-party state run by the KMT, and the military served as the KMT's muscle. As a result, distrust in Taiwan between politicians and the military lingers, preventing more proactive oversight of defense policies.
  • Due to that distrust, among other factors, many Taiwanese in the general public also do not see a military career "as a respectable career choice," says Drun.
  • Scandals and corruption have also plagued the Taiwanese armed forces, and it has struggled to recruit talent.

What they're saying: It would be "politically costly to impose change on the historically Kuomintang-leaning military bureaucracy," Michael Hunzeker, associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University, wrote in November.

  • "Nor does the Democratic Progressive Party have a deep 'bench' of civilian defense experts who can help to translate top-level political guidance into an actionable plan, especially in the face of entrenched resistance."

What to watch: The U.S. approved the sale of 250 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Taiwan in 2019, but Taiwanese defense officials expressed concern in May that the high demand for Stinger missiles in Ukraine may delay the delivery to Taiwan, expected by 2026.

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