Taiwan’s Failure to Face the Threat From China

The Taiwanese flag flies on a naval warship during a military Naval drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, last year. Credit Ritchie B. Tongo / European Pressphoto Agency
The Taiwanese flag flies on a naval warship during a military Naval drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, last year. Credit Ritchie B. Tongo / European Pressphoto Agency

China’s aggression in the Asia-Pacific region has been met with little tangible response from the United States and other countries. China’s neighbors have acquiesced to Beijing’s claims to the airspace above the East China Sea and have stood by as it embarked on a long-term project to militarize the South China Sea. The security balance in Asia is shifting under the weight of a resurgent China.

Beijing’s belligerence presents an existential threat to Taiwan, a country that Chinese leaders have long vowed to take by force if they deem necessary. For years, the political establishment in Taipei has delegated responsibility for responding to Beijing to the United States. Still, with China’s military advances and unchecked assertiveness, we Taiwanese could be headed for a compromise over the fate of our country on China’s terms.

Whether Taiwan eventually falls to Beijing depends on the choices we make now. Taiwan needs a new approach for its security: The political leadership must correct decades of mismanagement of the military and accept ultimate responsibility for the defense of the country.

Taiwan’s capitulation to Beijing would not only destroy the way of life for the 23.5 million Taiwanese — who have become accustomed to personal freedom and democracy — but it would also harm the interests of the United States and its allies. China would be emboldened to consolidate its claims to the surrounding skies and seas, destabilizing the entire Asia Pacific. With full control of Taiwan, Beijing would gain access to ports and airfields uncomfortably close to Okinawa, where over 20,000 American troops are stationed.

Support from the United States has long played a critical role in Taiwan’s defense, beginning in 1949 when the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, was defeated in the Chinese civil war and retreated to the island. Even after Washington severed formal diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of the Beijing government in the 1970s as part of the “one China policy,” it continued to support Taiwan through arms sales, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.

Before our first democratic presidential election in 1996, China launched missiles into our waters to show its disapproval of the leading candidate, who was seen by Beijing as insufficiently supportive of eventual unification of our two countries. To put an end to the intimidation, the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft-carrier groups into the region.

Since that crisis, China has become an economic powerhouse focused on building its military, investing in thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles that can damage Taiwan’s ports and runways many times over, neutralizing our navy and air force. These missiles have the range and accuracy to cripple American bases on Okinawa and Guam. This capacity — combined with a buildup of submarines, “carrier killer” missiles and advanced air-defense systems — has all but ensured that the United States would be reluctant to interfere again on behalf of Taiwan in China’s backyard.

Taipei’s political leadership has failed to address this growing threat. Our leaders have gutted the military and continued to base defense planning on the assumption that the United States would always come to the rescue. Policies put forward by the Kuomintang and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party have left the military understaffed and in a state of low morale.

Taiwan has reduced its active force from 400,000 in 1996 to well under 200,000 (the exact number is classified). The nearly two million reservists exist in name only: They are underequipped, not assigned to actual units, and most have not been called up for retraining. We’ve acquired advanced weapons platforms that are impractical against the threats we face. (For example, we have slow-moving warships and tanks vulnerable to Chinese missiles.) We have neglected logistics and shortfalls in munitions. Training and education have become low priorities.

Taiwan also effectively abolished conscription. Since 2000, the leaders have cut the length of mandatory service from two years to just four months and introduced “alternative services” to allow young men to fulfill their obligations at civilian ministries and private enterprises. In February, we began an alternative program for competitive video gamers. In March, alternative services were expanded to include trainee positions at chain restaurants and 7-Eleven.

We seem to expect American sons and daughters to risk their lives to protect our home, while relieving our own of that very duty.

Taiwan’s defense policies are largely a result of deep distrust between the military and politicians. The military has struggled with scandals ranging from abuse to graft to espionage. (In November last year, more than 30 retired generals caused a public uproar when they were shown on Chinese state television at a speech in Beijing by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.)

It is also burdened by its past as a pillar of the former authoritarian regime: For 40 years, before the democratic transition, the military carried out surveillance of activists and court-martialed dissidents — many of whom now hold political office.

After democratization, military officers went from being feared to being disrespected. Force reductions and pension cuts have further alienated them from the political process. A common refrain among officers is that “democracy ruined the military.”

This mutual suspicion has prevented policy makers from embracing military affairs. The Democratic Progressive Party’s landslide victory in the 2016 elections was recognized as a rebuke of the Kuomintang’s pro-China policies, yet only one lawmaker in the 113-member Legislature initially signed up to serve on the defense committee.

The lack of engagement of our politicians is in contrast to the views of most of the people. In a 2015 survey, 60 percent of respondents agreed that conscription should be reinstated to enhance military strength. In 2016, the support for national service rose to 83 percent.

President Tsai Ing-wen and other elected officials must rebuild our armed forces by first restoring the trust between civilian and military leaders. They must also correct the misconception that Taiwan stands no chance against China’s military without help from the United States. A country outnumbered and outgunned can still mount a formidable defense with the right strategy, an adaptive military and a hardened population.

As commander in chief, Ms. Tsai must articulate to the military that its sole job is to prepare to fight — and win — wars. We must ensure peace between Taiwan and China on our terms.

The Taiwanese public’s resolve is clear. Our elected leaders must follow.

Enoch Y. Wu, a former noncommissioned officer in the Taiwanese Army special forces, is a member of the defense policy advisory committee of the New Frontier Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Democratic Progressive Party.

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