Taiwanese hard power: Between a ROC and a hard place


Military personnel on an M113 armoured personnel carrier take part in a joint military drill in Pingtung County, southern Taiwan, January 13, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Taiwan's security environment has deteriorated substantially since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96.

    Tweet This

  • Successive administrations and Congress have not lived up to the Taiwan Relations Act's stipulations.

    Tweet This

  • Only when Taiwan is secure can it, over the long run, engage China with confidence.

    Tweet This

Subscribe to AEI's defense emails
Articles and events on defense policy. Published approximately weekly.

First Name:
Last Name:
Zip Code:

The following National Security Outlook is the 10th in AEI's Hard Power series, a project of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. Michael Mazza's discussion of the current state of Taiwan's military is an especially timely one. This April marked the 35th anniversary of the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a law initiated by Congress in the wake of the Carter administration's decision to break diplomatic ties and abrogate the defense treaty with the Republic of China (ROC) and to instead establish relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC). Arguably, in the face of the PRC's continuing military buildup across the Taiwan Strait, successive administrations and Congress have not lived up to the TRA's stipulations. These stipulations include considering any nonpeaceful means to determine Taiwan's future "a threat" to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of "grave concern" to the United States, mandating that the United States maintain "the capacity . . . to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion" jeopardizing the security of Taiwan's people, and requiring that America provide whatever security assistance is "necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." Certainly, as this Outlook notes, Taiwan could and should do more to up its game with respect to its military capabilities.1 But given Taiwan's strategic importance to the defense of the first island chain, it is in America's interest to see greater defense cooperation between the two countries, and the sooner the better.

—Gary Schmitt, Director, Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Over the past decade, the cross–Taiwan Strait military balance has shifted in favor of the Chinese military.
  • Taiwan’s efforts to meet that challenge have been slowed by insufficient defense budgets; difficulties in establishing an all-volunteer, active-duty force; and a complicated political and economic relationship with the mainland.
  • The United States has a statutory interest in and obligation to help Taiwan maintain an adequate defense posture, but in recent years has fallen short of meeting those goals.


Taiwan's 2013 National Defense Report, a biennial publication of Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND), paints a bleak picture of the island's future security. It asserts that China "plans to build comprehensive capabilities for using military force against Taiwan by 2020."2 The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is apparently well on its way to achieving that objective.

The report describes worrisome advances across the spectrum of PLA capabilities. According to the MND, the PLA's intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are sufficient "to support the use of military force for resolving the Taiwan issue." The ground force can already conduct a landing on, and seizure of, Taiwan's offshore islands, while the Chinese navy can "effectively blockade the Taiwan Strait and seize near shore islands" and "blockade key air space." The air force, for its part, is currently "capable of fighting for air superiority and control over the first island chain," which stretches from the Japanese home islands through Taiwan and south to the Philippines.3

The report also highlights advances in China's missile force-notably, the fielding of advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles and the deployment of more than 1,400 missiles with conventional warheads aimed against Taiwan. The bottom line: "Combined with the Navy and Air Force, the PLA is now capable of conducting large scale joint firepower strikes and denying foreign forces from intervening in disputes across the Taiwan Strait."4

Together, these developments mark a major shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, not all that long ago, the balance favored Taiwan. For example, in 2000 Michael O'Hanlon argued that "China cannot invade Taiwan, even under its most favorable assumptions about how a conflict would unfold."5 According to O'Hanlon, even coercive operations short of a full-scale invasion would have been difficult for the PLA to pull off.

In the MND's previous National Defense Report, released in 2011, negative trends were evident but not so starkly stated. Now the MND assesses that the PLA is only six years away from fielding an effective invasion force and that it can already prevent outside powers from intervening in a timely way. How did Taiwan arrive at this juncture?

Defense Budget Trends

While Beijing has sustained two decades of double-digit growth in its defense budget, Taipei has not evinced a similar commitment to defense spending. In 1996, the year of Taiwan's first free presidential election, Taiwan's military expenditures stood at US$12.9 billion (in constant 2011 dollars), accounting for 4.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The defense budget's share of GDP had already been trending downward, but that trend accelerated from 1996 onward. Between 1991 and 1995, the average percentage change in the military's share of GDP was -4.4 percent; between 1996 and 2000, that rate dropped to -8.3 percent.6

Today, Taiwan only commits 2 percent of its GDP to defense, well short of the 3 percent goal set by both previous president Chen Shui-bian and his successor, Ma Ying-jeou.7 In 2012, Taiwan spent US$10.5 billion on defense, 20 percent less than it was spending in 1996 (again, in constant 2011 dollars). (See figure 1.)8

Defense spending as a share of GDP provides a rough measure of a country's overall commitment to its defense. The military budget's share of the total national budget provides a similar indicator and points to how the government prioritizes defense spending in any given year. A Congressional Research Service analysis found that Taiwan's military budget was responsible for 22.8 percent of total government spending in 1996. In 2013, that share stood at only 16.4 percent.9

Taiwan's Security Environment

These trends are surprising when one considers the inhospitable security environment in which Taiwan has found itself in the past two decades. In 1995, the PLA conducted a series of missile tests in waters around Taiwan to express its displeasure at former ROC president Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States. China did so again in the lead-up to Taiwan's 1996 presidential election. In both cases, the United States responded by sending aircraft carriers to
the region.

In 2005 Washington was seemingly preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Beijing was facing a Taiwanese president (Chen Shui-bian) who prioritized asserting Taiwan's status as an independent democratic state. Against this backdrop, Beijing promulgated the Anti-Secession Law "for the purpose of opposing and checking Taiwan's secession from China by secessionists in the name of ‘Taiwan independence."' Although the law asserts a preference for pursuing "peaceful unification," article eight stipulates China's right to use "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."10

"In telling the Taiwanese public that all is going swimmingly in cross-Strait relations, Ma may well be weakening his own calls for a strong military deterrent."Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou's election as Taiwan's president in 2008 and his subsequent cross-Strait economic policies helped stabilize relations between Taipei and Beijing. Yet even as Beijing acted with less overt hostility toward Taiwan, it pursued policies that did little to reduce the Republic of China's (ROC's) international isolation, continued to increase its military capabilities vis-à-vis Taiwan, and left the island generally less secure. In 2011, two PLA fighter aircraft even entered Taiwanese airspace in an attempt to scare off an American spy plane-a reminder that, to the leaders in Beijing, Taiwan has no sovereign airspace.

China's attempt to wrest control of the disputed Senkaku Islands-which Taiwan also claims-from Japan threatens to turn Taiwan's northern flank. And Beijing's apparent aim of turning the South China Sea into a Chinese lake likewise threatens Taiwan's security. Chinese success there would not only have implications for Taipei's own claims in the sea but would also enhance Beijing's ability to coerce Taiwan militarily.

China's East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its behavior in the South China Sea, moreover, amount to an outright challenge to freedom of navigation through the seas and skies, on which Taiwan depends for its economic vitality. In short, Taiwan's security environment has deteriorated substantially since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96.

Political Roadblocks

With Taiwan's transition to full-fledged democracy in the mid-1990s, Taipei began finding it difficult to sustain previous levels of defense spending. As in many democratic societies, the influence of various interest groups has increased over time. Over the last two decades in particular, the Taiwanese government has dedicated relatively larger shares of the national budget toward social welfare, economic development, education, and pension payments, putting downward pressure on defense spending.11

Moreover, with Taiwan's anemic birthrate, the traditional welfare system-in which children take care of their parents, and siblings assist each other in times of need-has shown signs of fraying. As a result, in recent years the government has eased criteria for securing access to welfare, which has once again lessened the government revenues available for national security.12

Even when the leadership has wanted to spend more on defense, domestic politics have gotten in the way. Chen Shui-bian, who served as ROC president from 2000 to 2008, was in favor of more social spending and a strong defense. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration approved a major arms package for Taiwan, which included submarines, antisubmarine warfare aircraft, torpedoes, and anti-ship cruise missiles, among other systems.

But in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's legislature), the national security debate became highly politicized. With the legislature failing to approve of spending funds that the executive branch had earmarked for these purposes, the defense budget actually declined during the Chen administration.

The Ma Ying-jeou administration has likewise had difficulty boosting the defense spending level to its stated goal of 3 percent of GDP. This has been in part because of the global economic downturn and its impact on the export-dependent Taiwanese economy.

But Taiwan's struggling economy does not alone explain the administration's failure to reach its defense spending target. Although President Ma has consistently claimed a need for Taiwan to maintain a strong defense, his cross-Strait policies may also make it difficult to sustain public support for more defense spending.

Under Ma, Taipei has succeeded in reducing tensions across the Taiwan Strait. The president's "three nos" policy-no unification, no independence, no use of force-has served to reassure Beijing after the eight-year, independence-minded Chen Shui-bian administration. Ma's cross-Strait policy has moreover emphasized opportunities for cooperation with the mainland. The signature achievement of this policy is the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which loosened restrictions on cross-Strait trade and paved the way for Taiwan to complete free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.

Ma, of course, has been eager to tout the successes of his policies. But a side effect has been for his administration to underemphasize those aspects of Beijing's policies that continue to threaten Taiwan. To emphasize those aspects would be to undercut, at least rhetorically, the
Ma administration's claimed accomplishments. This perhaps explains why Taipei's reaction to China's 2013 ADIZ announcement, while critical, was more muted than that of its Japanese and South Korean neighbors.

President Ma has argued that a robust defense allows Taiwan to deal effectively with China from a position of strength. This is sensible. But in telling the Taiwanese public that all is going swimmingly in cross-Strait relations, he may well be weakening his own calls for a strong military deterrent.

Taiwan's Defense and Military Strategies

While the island's level of defense spending may fall short of stated goals, the military has nevertheless added new capabilities in recent years. Since 2001, Taiwan has purchased Kidd-class destroyers, P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) defense missiles, Black Hawk utility helicopters, Osprey-class coastal mine-hunter ships, Apache attack helicopters, retrofits of its 145 F-16 fighter jets, and numerous sea, ground, and air-launched munitions, all from the United States.13 Domestically, Taiwan has been upgrading its Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), building fast-attack missile boats, and developing anti-
ship and land-attack cruise missiles.

Taiwan's second and most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released in 2013, lays out strategies that are both consistent with previous planning documents and mindful of current conditions. Taiwan's national defense strategy rests on five pillars: war prevention, homeland defense, contingency response, conflict avoidance, and regional stability. The strategy equally emphasizes measures aimed at ensuring the Taiwanese military's ability to fight and those designed to ensure a fight will not be necessary.

For example, the MND claims it will "develop defense technologies, continue to procure defensive weapons, establish ‘innovative and asymmetric' capabilities, and strengthen force preservation and infrastructure protection capabilities."14 However, the ministry also vows to institute "information transparency measures" to "help enhance
surrounding countries' understanding of the ROC's defense policy, objectives of military preparation and readiness, and contents of military activities," the aim being to "reduce distrust, miscalculation and misunderstanding."15 The defense strategy also emphasizes collaborative approaches to security: promoting enhanced security dialogues and exchanges, working with others to establish regional "security mechanisms," and establishing programs to "jointly safeguard regional maritime and air security."16

"Taiwan's missile program is an effort to develop 'innovative and asymmetric' weapons and strategies to deal with the Chinese threat."Taipei's military strategy is more narrowly focused on how ROC forces will defend against threats to Taiwan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the strategy's overarching theme-"resolute defense, credible deterrence"-is not well defined. MND's 2013 National Defense Report describes "resolute defense" thusly: "A defense force that is only used when attacked by the enemy, and is the minimal force required only for defense. The defense force is also limited to protecting territorial integrity, and thus adopts a passive defense strategy."17 The 2013 QDR's description is somewhat more specific, describing a requirement "to be able to conduct fortified defense, reinforce and support, and recapture operations," but the emphasis remains defensive in nature.18

Here, there may be tension with the "credible deterrence" aspect of Taiwan's military strategy. As with "resolute defense," the QDR's definition of "credible deterrence" is problematic:

The ROC Armed Forces should continue force training and combat preparation, effectively integrate the interoperability of weapon systems, enhance joint operational performance, and exert overall warfighting capabilities, forcing the enemy to consider the costs and risks of war, thereby deterring any hostile intention to launch an invasion.19

First, it is unclear what Taiwan's military intends to hold at risk that would effectively deter China. In contemplating an invasion, Beijing can be expected as a matter of course to "consider the costs and risks of war." The QDR fails to explain how Taiwan will raise those costs and deepen those risks. Second, the military presumably wants to deter not only a full-scale invasion but also a missile barrage, blockade, or other coercive use of force. The omission is curious.

"The Obama administration's decision to upgrade Taiwan's F-16s while refusing to discuss new jets reflected a split-the-baby calculus."Looking beyond the "resolute defense, credible deterrence" slogan, however, the QDR offers more concrete plans for contending with the PLA. In particular, the QDR describes requirements to counter a blockade of the sea or air lines of communication, for joint interdiction of forces approaching from mainland China, and for ground forces capable of denying Chinese forces from establishing a beachhead.

The QDR goes on to emphasize the need for the continued development of "joint warfighting capabilities" based on the military's "innovative and asymmetric" concept, which recognizes that Taiwan cannot compete with China on quantitative grounds and should develop capabilities to target China's weaknesses. Even so, the QDR describes a force that can contend with PLA forces in the air, at sea, on the ground, and in the cyber and electronic domains.

Enabling all activities in the future will be effective joint command, control, communication, computers, and ISR. According to the QDR, the military "must strengthen battlespace management, command, control, intelligence and early warning capabilities to accurately monitor enemy activities and flexibly execute force maneuver."20

What Taiwan requires, in short, is a highly skilled, innovative, high-tech force. But it is questionable whether Taiwan can successfully create this defense force given resource and manpower constraints and shortcomings in US-Taiwan defense cooperation.

Shifting Force Structure

Over the past 15 years, Taiwan has been shifting to a smaller, more high-tech force. In 1999, its armed forces consisted of 370,000 active-duty members; that number dropped to 290,000 in the first half of the last decade. While Taiwan's military has pursued modernization across all three services, the largest force-structure changes have occurred in the navy.

On the whole, the fleet has shrunk, both in numbers of ships and in average ship size. At the beginning of the century, Taiwan's navy had a traditional surface-warfare emphasis. The fleet included 12 destroyers, which constituted more than a third of Taiwan's principal surface combatants.

Since that time, the navy has retired all of those ships, replacing them with just four Keelung-class destroyers. The Keelungs, former American Kidd-class destroyers, are the largest warships the ROC Navy has ever operated. Equipped with SM-2 Block IIIA and RGM-84L Block II Harpoon missiles, the ships provided the navy with enhanced modern air defense and antisurface warfare capabilities.

The navy has also focused on recapitalizing its fleet of small missile boats. Since 2005, it has retired all 48 of its 1970s-era Hai Ou-class ships, replacing them with 31 Kwang Hua VI-class vessels. The larger but stealthier Kwang Huas carry a slightly larger, more modern armament of anti-ship cruise missiles. In March 2014, the navy received the Tuo River, the first of up to 12 new fast-attack missile boats that have been dubbed "carrier killers" in Taiwan. Also described as corvettes, the craft will be stealthy and armed with eight anti-ship cruise missiles.21

Taiwan's navy continues to prioritize modernizing its undersea force as well. It has two Dutch submarines built in the 1980s and two World War II-era, US GUPPY-class submarines, all four of which are in need of replacement. (The GUPPY-class submarines are now used only for training.)

In 2000, George W. Bush agreed to sell Taiwan eight new diesel-electric submarines. For a variety of reasons, none of them have been built or sold. While the Taiwanese navy continues to insist that acquiring new submarines is a priority-they would be particularly useful for counterblockade and antisurface warfare missions-it has continued to upgrade munitions for its two deployable Dutch boats. Last year, the navy received 32 submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles from the United States, which may also allow for strikes on Chinese coastal targets.22

The navy has been upgrading not only its fleet but also its maritime air capabilities. Most notable in this regard is the purchase of 12 P-3C Orion patrol aircraft from the United States. The navy received the first 4 of these planes in 2013; 5 more are set for delivery in 2014, with the remainder arriving in Taiwan by the end of 2015. With China enhancing its under-sea force, the Orions will provide the ROC Navy with a proven antisubmarine war-fare capability.

The military has likewise pursued army aviation upgrades, though new capabilities have only just begun to enter the force. In November 2013, Taiwan received the first batch of an expected 30 total AH-65E Apache Guardian attack helicopters from the United States, becoming the first foreign operator of the updated chopper. The helicopters, which will be a marked improvement over Taiwan's current AH-1W Cobras, will enhance Taiwan's ability to counter a cross-Strait invasion force and to prevent an enemy from establishing a beachhead.

The first delivery of UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters will occur later this year; Washington has approved the sale of a total of 60 Black Hawks to Taipei. These aircraft, which will replace 1950s-designed UH-1H choppers, will provide the army with greater mobility. They will be key assets for an army expected to play a greater role in responding to natural disasters-to which Taiwan is prone-and will provide the ability to move quickly around the mountainous island in the event of Chinese aggression.

One of the army's most important acquisitions in recent years has been the PAC-3 ground-based missile defense system. Taiwan currently operates one battery on the northern end of the island and has plans to add three more to the south.23 PAC-3 missiles provide defense against cruise and ballistic missiles and enemy aircraft.

Although the army and navy have been successfully upgrading their aerospace capabilities, the air force has had difficulty doing so. The air force has been able to secure from the United States munitions and upgrades for its current fleet of F-16A/B fighter jets, but those upgrades are now at risk.

In its 2015 budget request, the US Air Force deleted funding for the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite, which was meant to "replace the avionics and radars for 300 US F-16s" and for Taiwan's 146 F-16A/Bs.24 Upgrades will remain available for Taiwan's planes, but likely at an additional cost of "tens of millions of dollars." Whether those estimates grow and whether the Legislative Yuan will approve the additional expenditure remain open questions.25

Just as troubling, Taiwan has been unsuccessful in securing new aircraft that must replace old F-5s and Dassault Mirage 2000s that must be retired. As a result, Taiwan will continue flying legacy aircraft at least over the next decade. Without upgrades to those aircraft, a cross-Strait air-power capability gap will continually grow in China's favor (see figure 2).

Taiwan's Missile Program. Taiwan has an active indigenous cruise missile program. While US officials have at times expressed unease with the program, Taiwan has been undeterred in producing weapons it believes are necessary for the island's defense. In recent years, Taiwan has fielded two new cruise missiles: the Hsiung Feng IIE (HF-2E) and the Hsiung Feng III (HF-3).

The less controversial of the two is the HF-3, an anti-ship cruise missile that can be fired from land-based and seaborne platforms. Many of the navy's ships are already outfitted with the missile; a mural at the 2011 Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition depicted the HF-3 sinking China's sole aircraft carrier. And at last year's exhibition, the navy unveiled a prototype of a road-mobile launcher carrier for the HF-3.26

The HF-2E, on the other hand, is a surface-to-surface cruise missile designed to strike the Chinese mainland. It has a reported range of 600 kilometers. As recently as November 2012, Taiwan's former deputy defense minister Andrew Yang told Defense News that "the US is concerned about the development [of the HF-2E]. They are encouraging [China and Taiwan] to discuss the problem."27 Even so, the HF-2E has entered active service and is deployed on road-mobile launchers.

There are conflicting reports on a possible new missile known as the Cloud Peak. Initial reports indicated that the missile would be supersonic, with a 1200-kilometer range allowing it to reach Shanghai and, perhaps, Chinese naval bases at Qingdao and Hainan island.28 More recent reports described the Cloud Peak as a new land-based anti-ship cruise missile with a longer range than the HF-3.29  Regardless of the precise nature of the Cloud Peak, Taiwan's missile program clearly remains a priority for the armed forces.

Taiwan's missile program flows in part from the MND's effort to develop "innovative and asymmetric" weapons and strategies to deal with the Chinese threat. As China knows, cruise missiles are a relatively low-cost capability against which it is costly and technologically difficult to defend. They are attractive to Taiwan's military for a number of reasons including the fact that in the event of a conflict, cruise missiles might be more likely than manned fighters to reach targets on the mainland. Strikes on critical Chinese command-and-control nodes could significantly impede PLA operations.

In addition, in fielding modern cruise missiles, Taipei conveys to Beijing that a war would not be confined to the island and surrounding waters. Cruise missiles allow Taipei to inflict costs on China, both by striking PLA targets and by bringing the war home for Chinese citizens. Deterrence, Taiwan believes, is enhanced as a result.

ISR. To make effective use of all of these assets, Taiwan requires a suite of ISR systems. The pride of Taiwan's ISR is the military's new ultra-high-frequency (UHF) radar, which can track ballistic and cruise missiles and peer deep into China. A US defense industry source told Defense News that "it's more of an intelligence collection system than a ballistic missile defense warning system" and that "Taiwan can see almost all of China's significant Air Force sorties and exercises from this radar." The radar is reportedly "capable of tracking 1,000 targets simultaneously."30

The new UHF radar, however, is just one piece of a larger picture. During the first decade of the 2000s, Taiwan made a concerted effort to develop its Po Sheng (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) system. According to Mark Stokes, "the original Po Sheng concept . . . envisioned the installation of more than 750 data link terminals on most major weapons platforms that are integrated with joint [MND], army, air force, and naval operations centers." These links would provide for a common operating picture (COP), common operating environment, and enhanced command and control. Although resource limitations later restricted the scope of the system, one US defense analyst has suggested that "Taiwan has the best common tactical picture in the world today, outside of the United States."31

Going forward, however, Stokes argues that Taiwan needs a "survivable network of sensors" for "pervasive and persistent surveillance," which might include earth observation satellites, "manned or unoccupied airborne sensors," and passive and active ground- and maritime-based sensors.32 The MND shares a similar vision for its ISR capabilities. According to the most recent QDR, to enhance ISR, Taiwan will "effectively employ mid- and long-range electronic surveillance systems, extend ground, sea and air surveillance capabilities, integrate C2 systems, establish COP, and share battlefield information to enhance early warning capacity and battlefield transparency."33

An Uncertain Future

Setting aside Taipei's difficulties in meeting its own defense spending targets, Taiwan faces two other significant obstacles to fielding the kind of force it envisions. First, the military's transition to an all-volunteer force faces major implementation problems and threatens to consume too many of the defense dollars that Taiwan does spend. Second, Taiwan continues to rely on defense articles from the United States at a time when Washington has a decreasing appetite for selling Taiwan the weapons it most needs and has an increasingly different vision than Taipei of Taiwan's optimal defensive strategy.

The All-Volunteer Force. On its face, the rationale behind Taiwan's transition to an all-volunteer force makes sense. With Taiwan's low birthrate leading over time to a smaller labor force, and considering the pull of the island's vibrant private sector on the smaller labor pool, a smaller active-duty force has become increasingly attractive.

The MND has moreover reasoned that the development of high-tech weaponry allows for such a smaller force but does require a more highly trained one. Yet as the Legislative Yuan continued to reduce the amount of time that conscripts were required to serve in the military, maintaining such a highly trained force became increasingly difficult.

"Only when Taiwan is secure can it, over the long run, engage China with confidence."Taiwan is accordingly in the process of shrinking its military, which will come down from the current 215,000 personnel to between 170,000 and 190,000 by the end of 2019.34 But the shift from a conscription system to a voluntary system is not going as well as hoped. For the first 11 months of 2013, recruitment levels were at only 30 percent of the target; "in infantry and armored units, the recruitment rates are even lower, at just 4 percent and 16 percent, respectively."35

The MND had planned on having an all-volunteer force in place by January 1, 2015, but that has now been postponed to 2017.36 To boost recruitment, the ministry has plans to raise the starting monthly salary by more than 25 percent and to provide retirement benefits after 4 years of service rather than 10.37

In 2011, spending on personnel was at its highest since 2000. Moreover, after several years in which spending on personnel as a share of the total defense budget was well under 50 percent, that share was moving up again, hitting 45.36 percent in 2010 and 47.52 percent in 2011.38 According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), the rise in personnel costs is already "diverting funds from foreign and indigenous acquisition programs, as well as near-term training and readiness."39

Not only will Taiwan's transition to an all-volunteer force affect its ability to invest in new capabilities, but it also may negatively affect Taiwan's ability to defend against the most stressing of scenarios: an invasion by the PLA. The MND places an understandable emphasis on mobilizing reserves during such a scenario. The military's concept of "active duty force for strike and attack, reserve force for homeland defense" highlights the importance of the reserves, which is tasked with carrying out (alongside the active force) a key piece of Taiwan's defense strategy.

But maintaining an effective reserve force and promoting what the MND calls "all-out defense" is likely to become a greater challenge. Although all men of military age will continue to receive rudimentary training, the reserve force will be less well trained than it was when all conscripts were required to serve on active duty.40 And while military personnel will serve in the reserves following their active-duty service, these experienced servicemen and servicewomen will make up a smaller share of the reserve force as the active-duty force shrinks.

Not only does this look insufficient for building a force able to contend with a Chinese invasion, but it would also seem inadequate in the vein of MND's efforts to "accumulate all-out defense capabilities." The QDR lists "all-out defense" as an important piece of the defense strategy's homeland defense mission:

Continue to promote all-out defense education, cultivate the public's patriotism and support for national defense; coordinate interagency efforts to establish a robust all-out defense system; maintain capabilities of reserve force through mobilization and training to ensure rapid mobilization during peacetime and wartime.41

"All-out defense" includes an effort to improve civil-military relations, encourage an esprit de corps in the reserves, and promote willingness among the general population to support defense initiatives (and spending) and to actively contribute to defending the homeland

in an emergency. Rather than achieving these goals, however, switching to an all-volunteer force and providing a bare minimum of reserve training may put these goals further out of reach.

US-Taiwan Defense Relations. From 1983 until spring 2001, when the United States held its last annual arms sales talks, American and Taiwan defense officials met once a year to discuss Taiwan's requirements and opportunities to acquire defense articles from the United States. The talks were halted during the first months of the George W. Bush administration, which had described China as a "strategic competitor" and wanted to put America's relationship with Taiwan on firmer footing. The end of the annual talks was envisioned as embodying an upgrade in US-Taiwan relations.

The effect, however, was to remove the institutional impetus for regular arms sales to the island. Relieved of the requirement to formally discuss Taiwan's defense needs on an annual basis, the US government has frequently neglected to discuss them at all. The upshot is that since the last round of talks, new US approvals of arms sales to Taiwan have been infrequent. In effect, the arms sales process has broken down over the last 13 years, and Taiwan has found it more difficult to purchase the defense articles it requires from the United States.

Taiwan's quest for new F-16 C/D fighter jets is illustrative. Taiwan first broached the subject with the George W. Bush administration in 2006. In what was then an unprecedented move, the administration refused to accept Taiwan's letter of request. Rather than approve or deny the request, the Bush administration would not even consider it. The Obama administration has adopted the same approach to Taiwan's F-16 C/D request, with the letter of request continuing to sit unopened in some Foggy Bottom inbox.

In 2011, President Obama did approve the sale of retrofits for Taiwan's existing F-16 A/B fighters, which the MND saw as a necessary complement to the acquisition of new fighters. But the decision to do so, while continuing to essentially ignore the question of new C/Ds for the island, demonstrated with surprising clarity a troubling development.

Under the Obama administration, the US-China relationship has become, at the expense of Taiwan's defense needs, an increasingly central factor in decisions on US arms sales to the island. The Obama administration's decision to upgrade Taiwan's F-16s while refusing to discuss new jets reflected a split-the-baby calculus: Washington would do the minimum for Taiwan while keeping China happy. This sets a troubling precedent for future arms sales to the island.

Not only has the arms sales process largely broken down, but Taiwanese and American defense establishments are also disagreeing over the optimal strategy for Taipei to pursue and thus over what arms the island needs most. The provenance of this division appears to be, or is at least related to, US Naval War College Professor William Murray's journal article recommending that Taiwan adopt a porcupine strategy. The article, which has been read widely at DoD, argues:

Rather than trying to destroy incoming ballistic missiles with costly PAC-3 SAMs, Taiwan should harden key facilities and build redundancies into critical infrastructure and processes so that it could absorb and survive a long-range precision bombardment. Rather than relying on its navy and air force (neither of which is likely to survive such an attack) to destroy an invasion force, Taiwan should concentrate on development of a professional standing army armed with mobile, short-range, defensive weapons. To withstand a prolonged blockade, Taiwan should stockpile critical supplies and build infrastructure that would allow it to attend to the needs of its citizens unassisted for an extended period. Finally, Taiwan should eschew destabilizing offensive capabi- lities, which could include, in their extreme form, tactical nuclear weapons employed in a countervalue manner, or less alarmingly, long-rang conventional weapons aimed against such iconic targets as the Three Gorges Dam.42

The strategy, which DoD has apparently endorsed in a less extreme form, calls for Taiwan to eschew expensive conventional capabilities-such as major surface and undersea combatants, fighter jets, and missile defenses-in favor of a ground-based, survivable, relatively inexpensive defensive force. The armed forces would focus on repelling an invasion and on homeland defense, to the exclusion of other missions such as counterblockade. Therefore, Taiwan would achieve deterrence through demonstrating to China that Taiwan would be a bitter pill to swallow, rather than through doing so in addition to holding at risk anything of value on the Chinese mainland.

While the argument for a porcupine strategy is not without merit, adopting it would severely limit Taiwan's options in the event of a crisis. It would also require Taiwan to outsource the job of countering coercive uses of force short of invasion, when no other country (including the United States) has made a binding commitment to assume that responsibility.

Taiwan's own strategy, explicated in its QDR and biennial national defense reports, is less narrowly focused. Taiwan's armed forces have identified a need to counter China across the possible spectrum of coercive scenarios and in all domains of warfare. The MND argues that it can adopt innovative asymmetric approaches to doing so, but it does not consider hunkering down during a blockade or missile barrage to be a realistic option, for reasons of deterrence or domestic politics.

Is Security within Reach?

Taiwan faces significant impediments to fielding a force capable of carrying out its stated military strategy and, thus, to ensuring its security. The challenges are few but significant: declining budgets, questions about the viability of an all-volunteer force, uneven and uncertain relations with the United States, and, of course, the existence of an increasingly imposing military force across the Taiwan Strait.

But no less an issue is the political-rhetorical problem that Taiwan finds itself in. To please Washington-Taiwan's only real security partner-and to claim success in managing cross-Strait relations, Taipei has had to argue that those relations are better than they have ever been. Of course, in some respects that is accurate. However, it has not lessened the actual military threat posed by mainland China to Taiwan.

Simply put, Taiwan's government must do a better job of explaining that its policy of engaging with the mainland does not eliminate the need to provide the island with an effective defense; indeed, only when Taiwan is secure can it, over the long run, engage China with confidence. Given China's assertive actions in the East and South China Seas and the more forceful and ambitious leadership of China's new president, Xi Jinping, addressing this shortcoming is more urgent than ever.


1. Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96–8, 96th Cong. (April 10, 1979).
2. Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China, National Defense Report 2013, 66, http://report.mnd.gov.tw/en /pdf/all.pdf.
3. Ibid., 58; 60; 61.
4. Ibid., 62.
5. Michael O’Hanlon, “Why China Cannot Conquer Taiwan,” International Security 25, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 82.
6. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Military Expenditure Database, www.sipri.org/research/armaments /milex/milex_database.
7. Shirley Kan, Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2014), 34, www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30957.pdf.
8. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Military Expenditure Database.
9. Kan, Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990, 33–34.
10. Anti-Secession Law, 10th National People’s Cong., 3d sess. (March 14, 2005), www.china.org.cn/english/2005lh/122724.htm.
11. Executive Yuan, Republic of China Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics, Statistical Yearbook of the Republic of China 2012 (Taipei, Taiwan,  October 2013), http://ebook.dgbas.gov.tw/public/Data/3117141132EDNZ45LR.pdf.
12. Cindy Sui, “Changing Times Force Taiwan to Raise Welfare Spending,” BBC News, April 24, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk /news/business-22243977.
13. Kan, Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990, 57–58.
14. Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China, National Defense Report 2013, 68.
15. Ibid., 83.
16. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of China, Quadrennial Defense Review 2013, 36, http://qdr.mnd.gov.tw/file/2013QDR-en.pdf.
17. Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China, National Defense Report 2013, 274.
18. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of China, Quadrennial Defense Review 2013, 38.
19. Ibid., 39.
20. Ibid., 38.
21. Zachary Keck, “Taiwan Receives First ‘Carrier Killer’ Ship,” The Diplomat, March 14, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/taiwan-receives-first-carrier-killer-ship/.
22. Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan’s Sub-Launched Harpoons Pose New Challenge to China’s Invasion Plans,” Defense News, January 6, 2014, www.defensenews.com/article/20140106/DEFREG03 /301060013/Taiwan-s-Sub-launched-Harpoons-Pose-New-Challenge-China-s-Invasion-Plans.
23. Want China Times, “Taiwan to Deploy 3 More PAC-3 Antimissile Batteries,” April 26, 2013, www.wantchinatimes.com /news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20130426000077&cid=1101.
24. Aaron Mehta and Wendell Minnick, “F-176 Upgrade Dropped From US  Budget Proposal, Sources Say,” Defense News, January 27, 2014, www.defensenews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID =2014301270023; and Wendell Minnick and Aaron Mehta, “Taiwan Faces Tough Choices after US Cancels F-16 Upgrade,” Defense News, March 8, 2014, www.defensenews.com/article/20140308 /DEFREG03/303080020/Taiwan-Faces-Tough-Choices-After-US-Cancels-F-16-Upgrade.
25. Wendell Minnick and Aaron Mehta, “US Reassures Taiwan on Funding for F-16 Radar Upgrade,” Defense News, March 23, 2013, www.defensenews.com/article/20140323/DEFREG03/303230008/US-Reassures-Taiwan-Funding-F-16-Radar-Upgrade.
26. Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan Displays New Missile Launch Vehicle,” Defense News, August 14, 2013, www.defensenews.com /article/20130814/DEFREG03/308140013/Taiwan-Displays-New-Missile-Launch-Vehicle.
27. Wendell Minnick, “Q&A with Nien-Dzu Yang,” Defense News, November 14, 2012, www.defensenews.com
/article /20121114/DEFREG03/311140011/Q-Nien-Dzu-Yang
28. Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan Working on New ‘Cloud Peak’ Missile,” Defense News, January 18, 2014, www.defensenews.com/article/20130118/DEFREG03/301180021/Taiwan-Working-New-8216-Cloud-Peak-8217-Missile.
29. Wendell Minnick and Paul Kallender-Umezu, “Japan, Taiwan Upgrade Strike Capability,” Defense News, May 7, 2013, www.defensenews.com/article/20130507/DEFREG03/305060016/Japan-Taiwan-Upgrade-Strike-Capability.
30. Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan’s BMD Radar Gives Unique Data on China,” Defense News, November 26, 2013, www.defensenews.com/article/20131126/DEFREG03/311260013/Taiwan-s-BMD-Radar-Gives-Unique-Data-China.
31. Mark A. Stokes, Revolutionizing Taiwan’s Security: Leveraging C4ISR for Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges (Arlington, VA: Project 2049 Institute, February 19, 2010),  www.project2049.net /documents/revolutionizing_taiwans_security_leveraging_c4isr_for_traditional_and_non_traditional_challenges.pdf.
32. Ibid.
33. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of China, Quadrennial Defense Review 2013, 53.
34. Focus Taiwan, “Size of Taiwan’s Armed Forces to Be Cut Further,” January 20, 2014, http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/2014 01200030.aspx.
35. Shang-su Wu, “Taiwan’s All-Volunteer Military,” The Diplomat, December 25, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12
36. Joseph Yeh, “MND Postpones Full Voluntary System to 2017,” China Post, September 13, 2013, www.chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/national/national-news/2013/09/13/388793/MND-postpones.htm.
37. Cindy Sui, “Can Taiwan’s Military Become a Voluntary Force?”  BBC News, December 30, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news /world-asia-25085323.
38.  Joachim Hofbauer, Priscilla Hermann, and Sneha Raghavan, Asian Defense Spending, 2000–2011 (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, October 2012), http://csis.org/files/publication/121005 _Berteau_AsianDefenseSpending_Web.pdf.
39. US Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013 (Washington, DC, May 7, 2013), www.defense.gov/pubs/2013_china_report_final.pdf.
40. Once the transition is completed, there will continue to be universal training for young men of service age, but that training will last only four months. Beyond that, MND plans to provide five to seven days of reserve force training twice yearly.
41. Ministry of Defense of the Republic of China, Quadrennial Defense Review 2013, 34.
42. William Murray, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,” Naval War College Review 61, no. 3 (Summer 2008), www.usnwc.edu /getattachment/ae650b06-a5e4-4b64-b4fd-2bcc8665c399/Revisiting-Taiwan-s-Defense-Strategy---William-S--.aspx


Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29
  • 30
  • 31
Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

Please join AEI for a panel discussion exploring these and other questions about this crucial case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

Please join AEI for a book forum moderated by Last and featuring five of these leading conservative voices. By the time the forum is over, attendees may be on their way to discovering an entirely different — and better — moral universe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.