Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fiddling while Taipei burns

Taiwan lowers its defenses
by Jonathan Adams
Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2007

Shortly after China announced an 18% hike in military spending last month, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense promptly protested: The rising spending, it said, was a clear sign of China's provocative military threat—not just to Taiwan, but to overall peace in the region. Then it repeated long-standing calls for approval of the purchase of arms from the United States that have been on offer by the Bush administration since 2001.

Key items on the military's shopping list include an upgrade of Taiwan's existing Patriot antimissile batteries and the purchase of even more advanced Patriots, to counter the threat of over 1,000 Chinese short-range missiles bristling across the Strait. Also coveted are Orion submarine-hunting aircraft to neutralize China's rapidly growing submarine force and a new fleet of 12 submarines to bolster Taiwan's meager force of four—two of which are the outdated Guppy-class subs. The Taiwanese air force also wants to buy more than 60 U.S.-made F-16 fighters to preserve its shaky dominance in the skies over the Strait. But Washington has made it clear it's not likely to release the fighters until Taiwan first moves on the other items on offer.

Taiwan has purchased some of these other items already, most notably four destroyers, which went into service in 2005 and last year. And, just recently, it unveiled an upgrade to its homemade fighter jet. To help fund further acquisitions, Taipei has requested a much-larger 2007 defense budget of NT$320 billion ($9.6 billion)—2.85% of GDP—and hopes to boost that further, to 3% of GDP, in 2008. But the opposition continues to block the completion of the purchase—along with the government's entire 2007 budget—amid fierce political wrangling in the legislature.

No wonder some experts think the island's politicians are fiddling while Taipei burns. "[The situation] is quite urgent because there's a tip-over of the military balance in the Strait to China's side," says Andrew Yang, a security expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "Consolidating Taiwan's defense is indispensable, because without a strong defense, Taiwan will be in no position to negotiate with Beijing." On a range of measures, analysts say China is developing a decisive edge, while Taiwan remains mired in partisan bickering over how best to respond. And in areas where Taiwan still competes—such as air power—China is catching up fast. That leaves Taiwan increasingly dependent on the U.S. as its only de facto military ally and sole weapons supplier.

But China has been focusing its military spending precisely on an "antiaccess" strategy aimed at keeping the U.S. out of a fight: Russian-built submarines and potent Sunburn antiship missiles to take out or hinder U.S. aircraft carrier groups that might come to Taiwan's defense, and antisatellite capabilities to eliminate the American military's eyes and ears in a conflict.

Meanwhile, urgent U.S. voices have been warning that the American commitment to help protect Taiwan is not absolute, and is premised on Taiwan actively taking responsibility for its own defense. The artfully worded Taiwan Relations Act legally binds the U.S. government to offer arms to help Taiwan's defense, but leaves unclear exactly how the U.S. would respond if the cold war in the Strait became hot. "We have been very patient," said Stephen Young, the top U.S. representative in Taiwan, at a dinner last month. "Let me now be straightforward... . The time has come for all political parties [in Taiwan] to realize that security is too important to be treated in this fashion."

To be sure, Taiwan has not been standing completely still. In 2002 it redefined its overall strategy as one of "active defense." Resources have been shifting away from the army and to the air force and navy, with the point of moving a potential battle off the island and into the air and seas of the Taiwan Strait. Military command has been streamlined, with a focus on improving communication and coordination between battle units. The aim is to maintain Taiwan's edge as a nimble, high-tech David to the People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s lumbering Goliath.

Early warning radar, signals intelligence and satellite capabilities have all been enhanced—as have anti-cyber-warfare units designed to thwart increasingly sophisticated hacker attacks suspected to originate from PLA installations in Fujian province. In recent years, cyber-warfare and special operations were incorporated into Taiwan's annual military exercises in anticipation of China's battle plan for a lightning-quick offensive designed to paralyze and seize the island.

Still, that's a far cry from all that Taipei should be doing, experts say. There's a long list of laments: Basic munitions are under-stocked, training isn't sufficiently rigorous, morale is low, conscript turnover is high, military service isn't taken seriously enough, top military posts have been reshuffled too often and promotions have become too politicized, hurting the island's attempt to professionalize its forces.

Broadly speaking, military spending is seen as simply inadequate to the China challenge. In the past few decades, the island has seen a massive spending shift from guns to butter, even as China's arms buildup has accelerated. Defense spending accounted for almost half of government outlays in the 1950s; that declined to about 25% by 1995; and around 16% between 2001 and 2004. The 2006 military budget was nominally 2.2 percentage points lower than it was 10 years earlier, and far lower in real terms. "In Taipei, domestic politics dominate. Strategic thought is lacking," writes Shirley Kan, a cross-Strait security expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., in a recent essay. "There is no sense of urgency when it comes to Taiwan's self-defense."

Meanwhile, the government has passed generous social benefits such as national health-care and pension plans. That has stretched coffers to the limit: The government originally put the big-ticket U.S. weapons purchases in a "special budget," isolating them in part to dodge a legal ceiling on public debt. Such maneuvers have given the opposition easy ammunition for calling the government fiscally irresponsible—a potent charge, as real incomes continue to stagnate for all but the wealthiest few.

The opposition has also made an argument that resonates with the business-savvy, pragmatic public: The U.S. is giving the island a raw deal, offering them overpriced weapons they don't need and can't afford—all to benefit arms dealers who don't have Taiwan's welfare at heart. The opposition is thus harking back to a far-reaching scandal involving alleged kickbacks in the purchase of French frigates in the early 1990s—still a sore memory for many Taiwanese.

Beyond the public's cynicism about large arms deals, there's also a more fundamental debate on how to view China, and how best to shore up the island's security. When Taiwanese peer across the Strait, some see an estranged brother, while others see an implacable enemy. The former tend to vote for the Kuomintang led opposition, which itself has roots in the mainland. They emphasize China's economic opportunity as well as its military threat, and argue that the best way to deal with Beijing is with wisdom, not weapons. Even the hundreds of short-range missiles aimed squarely at the island don't look as threatening from this perspective: The weapons are only there to deter a push by independence hardliners who want to permanently break from China. In substance, that break would consist of the scrapping of the current "Republic of China" cherished by the KMT and its allies, and the establishment in some form of a new "Republic of Taiwan."

"If Taiwan wants independence, China is a threat, but if you give up independence, it's not. In fact, China is an asset, especially for Taiwan's future economic relations," says Chang Ya-chung, a professor at National Taiwan University and former chairman of an alliance that has opposed the big-ticket U.S. arms purchase. "And if Taiwan wants to go independent, how many weapons are enough?"

For pro-independence hardliners, though, trying to engage a hostile China is dangerously naïve. Having finally thrown off the yoke of the KMT's authoritarian rule, they're determined to prevent takeover by another undemocratic regime from the mainland. And they're indignant about the idea of allowing the PLA to have an effective veto over the island's democratic choices. Some not only want a robust defense; they even have hopes of building up an indigenous offensive deterrent against China to reduce the island's military dependence on the U.S., which frowns on their ambitions for all-out independence.

While a missile deterrent might boost morale on the island, some observers say it would heighten tension with China while doing little to alter Beijing's calculations. "If Beijing decides to use force against Taiwan, it will have to be willing to accept the prospect of war with the U.S., loss of access to the U.S. market, possible conflict with Japan, global condemnation and likely economic sanctions," writes Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia. "If China's leaders are not 'deterred' from using force by these potential consequences, it does not seem plausible that the prospect of a few Taiwanese cruise missiles landing in downtown Shanghai would make them change their minds."

In between the antiarms and "take the fight to China" crowds are moderate voices that tend to get drowned out. U.S. officials publicly insist they are not encouraging Taiwan to enter an unwinnable arms race with China, but merely want it to be able to enter any future talks with China from a position of strength.

That view is shared by Taiwanese and U.S. defense analysts, who say the island's own capabilities are becoming even more critical as China develops high-tech means to complicate any U.S. response to a cross-Strait conflict. "If China's military is able to execute its antiaccess strategy, then it will become more difficult for the U.S. to come to Taiwan's aid, and Taiwan will have to rely on itself," says Arthur Ding, a cross-Strait security expert at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "Arms sales will become more significant for Taiwan's military strategy, not just politically significant."

Given those trends, Taiwan's dithering on defense appears especially ill-timed. Still, there's some hope for relief. Legislative reforms enacted in 2005 are expected to gradually create a more stable two-party system, and reduce the outsized influence of fringe, personality-driven parties. An example: One small, hard-line pro-unification party has successfully blocked discussion of the U.S. arms purchases in committee for more than two years, preventing a floor debate on Taiwan's basic defense strategy. It is hoped that such examples of disproportionate politics will be eliminated through reform.

But there's plenty of blame to go around, and observers of all stripes have honest differences on whether the big-ticket items on the military wish list really serve Taiwan's security goals. Asked who was most to blame for the current impasse, security expert and former Taiwan defense official Lin Chong-pin said: "Perhaps it's our still-maturing democracy. We lack a political culture where people can agree to disagree, and where rational discussions can take place."

That's part of the growing pains faced by any young democracy. But if Taiwan intends to meet the challenge of China's rapid military buildup and protect its autonomy and hard-won democratic gains, it had better find a way to grow up fast.

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