By Michal Thim.
The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of the Republic of China is a major defence policy document that has to be updated every four years and prepared by the Ministry of National Defence (MND) within 10 months of the Presidential inauguration. The first QDR was published in 2009, and its revised 2013 edition became available on 12 March. Unsurprisingly, yet not always in line with the current stable cross-Strait relations mantra, China (PRC) is identified as Taiwan’s major security threat.
The days when military planners in Taipei were preparing to “retake the Mainland” are naturally long gone. Plans that were quietly scrapped in mid-1960s were replaced by territorial defence of Taiwan-proper and adjacent islands under the Republic of China’s (hereafter Taiwan) control. Subsequently, Taiwan has moved from strategic requirement to impose crushing defeat of the People’s Liberation Army to the concept of the “Hard ROC” promoted by President Ma Ying-jeou and incorporated into relevant defence policy documents. At the centre of the “Hard ROC” idea is the transformation of a conscript army to an all-volunteer professional military force. Rather than defeating the PLA, the primary mission of Taiwan’s armed forces is now to prevent it from winning, forestalling any form of attack from PRC forces and holding out long enough to allow U.S. intervention in the worst case scenario. A Taiwan-centric defence posture is a natural reflection of political developments in Taiwan, including the popularization of Taiwanese identities and the marginal position of that part of population that identifies itself as Chinese-only.
Although “Hard ROC” might imply a more inward-looking or passive defence posture, it does not differ that significantly from the “active deterrence” promoted by previous DPP administrations as some analysts have pointed out. The KMT government may evince a more positive view towards the PRC, yet it continues to develop weapon systems that push the defence line away from Taiwan’s coastline. One example is Taiwan’s indigenous cruise missile program that plans to introduce Cloud Peak missiles with a range of 1200-2000 km, another is the development and introduction of Kuang Hua VI-class fast missile boats and a new 500-ton corvette with stealth capabilities expected to enter service in 2014.
Differences aside, any policy document that realistically reflects the growing military imbalance between Taiwan and China is an important step forward. Taiwan’s defence planning has suffered from domestic political bickering for the most of the previous decade, and is partly responsible for substantial difficulties with arms sales from the U.S.
The current QDR correctly prioritizes key areas of focus and improvement, including a whole range of joint warfare capabilities and natural disaster relief operations. The latter has been given greater priority in the overall scheme of things, especially after typhoon Morakot devastated large areas of Taiwan in August 2009. The QDR also notes other disturbing developments in the region, e.g. the DPRK’s nuclear program, the East and South China Sea territorial disputes and frictions associated with the U.S. “pivot” towards Asia.
However, one of the issues that is not explicitly mentioned among security threats is Taiwan’s economic reliance on the PRC. It has become conventional wisdom and one of the most Taiwan-associated catch-phrases to note the evolution of peaceful relations between Taiwan and China since Ma Ying-jeou was first elected in 2008. However, trade with China increased approximately ten times between 2000 and 2008, i.e. during a period characterized by “hostile” relations. Yet, if the QDR identifies the PRC as the main security threat and establishes that the military’s most important mission is to prevent an amphibious invasion by the PLA, it is surprising that it does not elaborate on the possible downsides of booming cross-Strait trade for Taiwan. Instead, recent developments are lauded in vague terms such as “gradually heading towards rapprochement” (p. 17). Arguably, the diversification of trade partners is not the prerogative of the MND, nor is it a primarily military-related issue. However, the QDR does not mention only traditionally defined security threats. In the same section it states following:
In addition, Mainland China has integrated its “three-front war” strategy of legal, public opinion and psychological warfare, using propaganda and cross-Strait exchange activities to confuse the public’s awareness of friend/foe and disunite the people. It attempts to influence the media and infiltrating public opinion in Taiwan and friendly countries (p. 18).
Apparently, non-military activities related to cross-Strait exchange activities are considered as potentially threatening. It seems prudent that possible risks stemming from excessive economic reliance on China should be included as well in that case.
There are other challenges too. Transformation to an all-volunteer defence force will be costly and the military will face difficulties competing with the private sector to attract highly-skilled individuals urgently needed for modern 21st century armed forces. That simply cannot be achieved without a significant increase in defence spending, such that would cover both personnel costs and arms procurement. To date there has been more talk than action on this point. As James Holmes recently noted: “with defense spending hovering at just over 2 percent of GDP, Taipei barely meets the standard set by NATO — an alliance whose members face no threat. This bespeaks a society in denial about the dangers it confronts.” Sooner or later, Taipei will have to face up to these challenges.
Michal Thim is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. He also owns the blog Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim