Written by Alex Calvo.
Local elections in many countries present voters with conflicting messages and pressures. On the one hand, they are called to choose those responsible for the management of local affairs. On the other, they may be urged, or feel tempted, to pass judgement on those in office at higher levels of government. In one extreme we may have local elections where purely matters within the remit of local councils are discussed, while in the other a local election may become a de facto referendum on some greater issue. The coming local elections in Taiwan are of great importance. They involve nine separate elections and more than 11,000 seats. At the same time they come at a symbolic moment, with events in Hong Kong having dealt a deathblow to fantasies of democracy under Beijing but with a wide consensus yet to emerge on how to defend Taiwan’s freedoms given the worsening conventional military balance. Therefore, we should not be surprised if the elections, as is often the rule in other democracies, have a mixed nature, focused on local government but related to and having an impact on wider national policies.
There is another reason to expect this, namely the strong connection between some local government powers and national-level policies, meaning that the line between the local and the national is not that clear. One of these powers concerns civil defence, essential at times of war, and with the advent of the ‘Internet of Things‘ also in this age where words like ‘war’ and ‘peace’ lose any clear meaning and merge into a continuum where democracies must constantly wage battle without fully mobilizing. Thus the successful candidates in Taiwan’s cities will be tasked, over the next four years, with a very important job: ensuring that civil protection is a core local government function, with the ensuing political attention and effort at continued training and improvement.
First of all, a civil defence culture must take root, going beyond existing practices and doctrines, including the air raid drills that periodically take place. For this to happen, a number of changes must be implemented. First of all, a political consensus must be reached whereby defence comes to be seen as a bipartisan policy underpinning Taiwan’s democracy and making it possible for her people to choose. Whatever one’s preferences for the future of the Island, the only guarantee that one will be able to choose that preferred future is to be strong enough to withstand any attempt at coercion, blockade, or invasion. Only the strong can choose, and to be strong does not only require military assets but a broad spectrum of security capabilities, among them civil defence. This consensus must bring together those wishing to join China and those in favour of independence, united by their common belief in democracy.
Second, we need to understand that the centre of gravity in a scenario where force was used against Taiwan would be her population. Rather than a straight invasion, it is more realistic to expect a limited amount of force being used to coerce the people of the Island into seeing defeat as inevitable, at which point it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A successful defence strategy must thus rest on three legs: inflicting unacceptable pain on enemy forces while retaining the confidence and loyalty of the civilian population and internationalizing the conflict.
While local government is not directly concerned with the first and third legs, its powers in civil defence, among others, means that it has a paramount role in contributing to the second. This fits with the concept of defence as a joint effort by the administration and civil society, and within the former by different agencies and levels. In undertaking to strengthen civil defence, mayors are not only reinforcing this essential pillar but more generally helping develop the necessary culture of security and resilience, which is essential to guarantee a credible deterrent and if aggression takes place nevertheless a chance to prevail. While this goal is attainable, it requires overcoming a number of psychological and cultural obstacles. One, already discussed when dealing with the need for consensus, is the view of defence as a tool to further any particular political ideology or national identity, instead it must be seen as a guarantee of democracy, the foundation on which voters’ freedom to choose rests. Another one is the misguided, even if well meaning, perception that war is a distant possibility, that the peace, even if of the “cold” variety, enjoyed over the last few decades and in particular following the more recent economic normalization with Beijing, is somehow magically guaranteed. Finally, we have the fatalistic view, held by more than a few in Taiwan, that there is no realistic way to resist Chinese force, once economic reforms have enabled Beijing to build a proper navy and significantly change the balance of conventional military power in the Taiwan Strait. A strong civil defence is a necessary condition, although by no means the only one, to overcome all these obstacles. More frequent and realistic drills, for example, could help overcome both the fantasy that the ravages of war will never again visit the Island, and the unnecessarily pessimistic view that if they do there will be no point in fighting.
What do we mean by more realistic? One of the answers to the question is embracing, in terms of doctrine, training, and equipment, the full spectrum of potential threats, going beyond classical concerns such as air raids. Not because air raids are not important, they are indeed, and furthermore can now more easily take place by means of cruise missiles and unmanned planes, just to mention two vectors. However, important as they are, they are by no means the only threat hanging over civilians’ heads in Taiwan. It is here that we must mention the growing threat of major disruptions from cyber attacks. As the real and cyber worlds gradually merge, in the so called ‘Internet of Things’, cyber attacks do not just involve the possibility of losing access to certain websites, but to essential services. This can easily cause not just major inconvenience but even threaten the life and property of citizens. The key concept is ‘resilience’. It is impossible to prevent each and every attack, but societies must be ready to minimize their impact and ensure that they do not destroy their will to fight, which as already explained is the centre of gravity in the kind of scenario we can expect in the Taiwan Strait. The duty to contribute to resilience falls on the shoulders of citizens, business, all sorts of public and private organizations, and the different levels of government. Municipalities, not only because of their powers and responsibilities in civil defence, but also because they are the level of government closest to the population, have a duty to lead by example and contribute to the spread of best practices.
Finally, this reinforced attention to civil defence should ideally also be reflected in greater international contacts, exchanges, and cooperation. This is already happening, but carrying it even further would not only benefit all participants, but also contribute to interoperability and to raising the visibility of Taiwan and the challenges she faces in surviving in the face of a determined attempt to Anschluss her.
To conclude, we can say that the coming local election will determine, among other powers, who will be to a large extent responsible for civil defence. This is a grave responsibility, and an essential component of a credible deterrence and resilience strategy, necessary for Taiwan’s democracy to survive in an increasingly harsher environment. In the coming battle for democracy, mayors will be in the front line.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor, tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.