Written by Michal Thim.

National security and defence is not usually a major concern in local elections but that should change during the presidential and legislative elections which come next in the election cycle, in 2016. During the next few months, both major political parties will nominate their presidential candidates, and both major contenders will have to address issues of cross-Strait relations, including controversial follow-up agreements to ECFA, regional economic integration and Taiwan’s energy policy. Although these issues have security implications, Taiwan’s defence strategy and comprehensive national security strategy need to be part of public debate on its own merits.

China is the major factor in Taiwan’s defence and security planning and economic exchange between the two sides should be included in that. The major issue in the cross-Strait equation is that China’s engagement with Taiwan is not there to prevent conflict, but rather to force Taiwan into a corner and force it to accept unification on its own conditions and Beijing is unambiguous about its intentions. In the face of the failed One Country, Two Systems experiment in Hong Kong, Beijing still sticks to it as a model for Taiwan’s unification. There is a clear asymmetry of expectations. Proponents of the economic integration on Taiwan’s side argue that it stabilizes relations with Beijing and opens access for Taiwan to agreements with other countries. However, there is an acknowledgment that the latter is possible only with Beijing’s consent. It does not appear to be the most prudent policy making to push for a closer relationship with a state that represents Taiwan’s principal security threat (and that much is acknowledged by the Ma administration itself in the Quadrennial Defense Review and related documents) on the pretext that China may or may not ‘allow’ Taiwan to enter similar arrangements with other countries. That certainly should ring a warning bell.

Security and defence policy making ought to work with worst-case scenarios in mind. In Taiwan’s case, it is that China cares little about whether it benefits economically from cross-Strait trade as long as Taiwan eventually surrenders to its will. It is a matter of fact that economic integration has had no impact whatsoever on the continuous deployment of advanced weaponry on the Chinese side. Moreover, while the waters in the Strait remain relatively calm, the situation has deteriorated almost everywhere else, almost as if with Ma in power in Taipei, Beijing stopped worrying about Taiwan slipping away and turned its attention elsewhere. This is not to say that government in Taipei should deliberately rock the boat, merely to point out that rapprochement in the Taiwan Strait is not happening in a vacuum.

The Pan-Blue and pan-Green camps may not be best friends, but they should be able to find consensus on the matters of national security and defence, although for different reasons. Both parties’ ultimate goal may differ but neither wants the conditions to be dictated from Zhongnanhai. Thus, having a national consensus on a matter of national security should be high on the agenda and part of it is acknowledgement that increasing economic exchange with Beijing, while inevitable to a degree, may seriously undermine Taiwan’s national interests, including its ability to maintain a credible military deterrent.

If we have a closer look at the QDR 2009 and 2013 and the series of defense blue papers issued by the Democratic Progressive Party, there is remarkable similarity between the two views. As I noted earlier on this blog, the KMT and DPP’s visions for Taiwan’s defence have never really been fundamentally different. Perhaps the only major sticking point is the transition to all-volunteer force (AVF), but even there the difference may not be that fundamental. Moreover, even under full AVF mode, every able-bodied man would still be required to undergo 4-months long basic training. That is certainly a sensible arrangement. Full transition to AVF will need to be slowed down anyway due to low recruiting rates.

To stimulate public discussion and awareness of the government’s broader plans for national security, Taiwan is missing a more comprehensive security policy document; its own version of U.S National Security Strategy (NSS) or the UK’s National Security Strategy. Why is there a need for such document? QDR is prepared by the Ministry of National Defense and its focus is narrowly on defence matters. However, national security should be understood more broadly, including economic, energy, or food security. Taiwan’s NSS would also need to assess the pros and cons of economic engagement with China. It would need to be an outcome of inter-agency cooperation coordinated by National Security Council. The agencies involved in drafting the document would need to include the Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Mainland Affairs Council. As a result, a Taiwanese NSS would complement the QDR as a broader way of understanding Taiwan’s security predicaments, outlining ends, ways and means.

One minor measure that could be implemented is dropping political education in the military, which is an incongruous reminder of the quasi-Leninist structure adopted by the KMT upon its founding. It should not be necessary, in a democratic society, to educate soldiers about ‘politically correct views’. If they do not know by now what they are standing against, what is the threat and what they are defending, no time in classroom will change it. What seems to be more urgent is to tackle the negative image that the military has among Taiwan’s citizens, which is one of the factors behind the low rate of enrolled volunteers. Other than that, the military is correct to require administrative neutrality (although there should be some space for expressing personal views). In any case, the requirement for politically neutral military is another point to argue for abandonment of political education because it undermines the very notion of administrative neutrality, posing a danger of being instrument for promotion of ruling party views.

The most important short-term issue is to prevent possible political deadlock affecting the procurement of major combat platforms (as witnessed during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency). Under conditions of divided government, the KMT held legislature blocked the necessary resources for acquiring weapons already approved by George W. Bush’s first administration. Should the 2016 elections return the DPP to the Presidential office (a distinct possibility), and should the KMT retain its legislative majority (a likely outcome), the spectre of paralysing fights between the executive and legislative branches will emerge again. In coming years, rising personnel costs related to the transition to an AVF, increasing maintenance costs as well as plans to build submarines domestically, will require substantial additional funding. Should the deadlock return, the impediments for Taiwan’s capacity to preserve a credible deterrent would be seriously undermined. That much should be clear.

Time and political capital need to be spent by all relevant parties ahead of the 2016 elections to signal pledge that where there is existing consensus among the parties, cooperation will not be blocked. As a warning sign of short-sightedness of a polarized partisan environment, Taiwanese lawmakers may not only like to review their own track record from 2000-2008 period, but also look at the current situation in the US. In the meantime, the connection between local elections and security debate should not be carelessly brushed off the table. When it comes to bases or military exercises the concerns of citizens living in the proximity of military infrastructure cannot be simply ignored. Thus, national security shall, after all, have some place in the election debates, no matter how local they appear to be.

Michal Thim is a PhD student with the TSP, and a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar. Michal tweets @michalthim. Image Credit: CC by Shugo Nozaki/Flickr.