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#46 - Taiwan: Strategic Drift
The Currents of Taiwan's Strategic Thought
The strategic direction of Taiwan’s national defense is currently drifting erratically down a lazy river, caught in the ebb and flow of four interlocking currents. The first tumultuous current is the interservice rivalry of competing military bureaucracies. The second, an inexperienced civilian administration and political party lacking in familiarity with the levers of national defense. Third, a civil society that vacillates between national security apathy and the contemplation of the horrors of Hong Kong and Ukraine. And finally, Washington’s de jure ambiguous pledge to defend Taiwan. Ironically, these currents are converging at a time when the US has initiated a marked increase in support to the country.
It is essential that successive Taiwan political administrations reach a consensus in order to harmonize the above currents into an effective and comprehensive defense strategy. To accomplish this, Taipei requires high quality leadership to bury past grudges, promote nationwide reforms, and forge a way ahead that Taiwan citizens want to buy into.
The Overall Defense Concept
In 2017 Taiwan unveiled its “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC), a plan that focused on force preservation and conventional as well as asymmetric capabilities. ODC’s general scheme of maneuver was to prioritize Taiwan force preservation during initial long-range PLA strikes and then “resist the enemy on the other shore, attack the enemy on the sea, destroy the enemy in the littoral area, and annihilate the enemy on the beachhead.” In an era of skepticism over the new Tsai administration’s military know-how, the ODC marked a brief moment of hope that deviated from the steep decline in the quality of Taiwan’s strategic thought relative to the PLA. Additionally, the ODC enjoyed wide-based support in Washington. With Taiwan’s defense strategy defined, the domestic political debate moved towards questions of resourcing the ODC.
Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, the Chief of the General Staff of the Republic of China between 2017 and 2019, was the key driver behind the ODC (he is still in full support). To bolster asymmetric capabilities, Lee advocated acquiring automated fast minelaying ships, unmanned helicopters, air-delivered sea mines, fast attack missile boats, mobile anti-ship missile systems, and greater numbers of man portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). These capabilities sought to increase Taiwan’s survivable firepower while dispersing this capability across more platforms/units. In 2018 the ODC was full steam ahead. The Republic of China Navy budgeted over US $1 billion for the construction of 50-ton fast attack missile boats (Even lighter than the US Navy’s relatively new 75-ton Mark VI Patrol Boats) and President Tsai Ing-wen voiced full support for the plan. In a speech commemorating the Taiwan Relations Act, she stated:
“Since 2016, part of my primary goals is to strengthen our defense capabilities. Already we have increased our defense budget over the past two years in a row. These funds will go into strategies, techniques, and capabilities that make our fighting force more nimble, agile, and survivable. These ideas are encompassed by the overall defense concept, which has my support 100 percent.”
This moment of clarity was fleeting. In 2019, Admiral Lee Hsi-ming was succeeded by Air Force General Shen Yi-ming. General Shen was a major proponent of modernizing the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) and at the outset of his tenure, he received approval to purchase 66 F-16s from the United States. He was also believed to largely support the ODC and was reported to be close with military counterparts in the United States. Unfortunately for Taiwan and its national defense apparatus, less than six months after taking over the position of Chief of the General Staff, General Shen died in a helicopter crash that killed him and several other key Taiwanese military leaders. This tragedy set in motion a shift that would derail Taiwan’s strategic direction.
After General Shen died he was quickly replaced by Admiral Huang Shu-kuang. Admiral Huang was personally against the ODC and immediately halted the reforms. His sentiments influenced the Legislative Yuan (the unicameral legislature of Taiwan) and it subsequently froze part of the defense budget that funded ODC programs. The fast attack missile boat procurement program was cut and the military shifted towards a strategy of sea control rather than sea denial as promoted by the ODC. The idea that the Taiwan Navy would be able to wrest sea control from Beijing is prima facie highly doubtful. Regardless, this new direction focused on building large surface vessels (a single 4,500 ton frigate), doubling down on indigenous submarines, and acquiring MH-60 Seahawks as well as other high visibility platforms.
The killing blow was delivered when Taiwan unveiled its 2021 Quadrennial Defense Review. The review focused on “fundamental capabilities” (i.e. symmetric and conventional approaches) and fleshed out this approach by again doubling down on sea control. While the authors dedicated a section of the review to asymmetric capabilities, implementation was vague and framed in the context of complementing fundamental capabilities rather than being a core aspect of national defense. All references to the ODC were cut.
While Admiral Huang’s term as Chief of the General Staff was short, his changes galvanized opponents of the ODC within the Ministry of National Defense. Then Minister of National Defense, Yen Teh-Fa (嚴德發), was against the procurement changes in the ODC and further gutted the plan while maintaining the position that Taiwan’s military would be postured for “defense” and “deterrence.” Huang’s military experience, reputation, and political stance gave Yen the means to push through his ideas. Admiral Huang and Yen were both replaced in 2021, but it is unknown how their successors have influenced policy. Based on the lack of changes in late 2021 and 2022, it is likely they are either pro-Huang or are placeholders holding office until the civilian administration can decide on a way forward.
In April 2023 Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced that Admiral Mei Chia-shu (梅家樹) will take over as Chief of the General Staff. The appointment was unexpected, as Admiral Mei is young relative to previous incumbents. Many observers believed that current Republic of China Army (ROCA) commander, General Xu Yan-pu, would be picked for the role. It is unknown how Admiral Mei will direct Taiwan’s defense strategy, but it is generally believed that he will shift back towards the ODC approach while maintaining an emphasis on indigenous submarine development.
These transitions may paint a picture of incompetent leadership within Taiwan, but this is far from the case. There are a multitude of additional challenges that inhibit Taipei’s ability to develop a consistent long term strategy.
Washington’s Strategic Ambiguity
Proponents of the ODC have closer ties with US military counterparts and it is likely that these individuals believe that the ODC will better enable Taiwan’s military to delay the PLA and allow for US reinforcement of Taiwan. Opponents of the ODC likely believe that Taiwan needs to be able to defend itself without any assistance from the US and Allies. Based on relative economic and military trajectories, it is increasingly unlikely that Taiwan is capable of standing alone by relying on a symmetric defense.
The US is still wrangling with its policy of “strategic ambiguity,” and is even less clear about what strategic clarity might look like. A hydra of problems stems from this lack of clarity. This gray area gives rise to issues with Taiwan’s military acquisitions (symmetric vs asymmetric capabilities), strategic and operational level planning and assumptions, and making each defense dollar worth less than it would be otherwise. Strategic ambiguity is not credibly communicating a deterrent capability, and is causing a logjam between Taiwan and US military commanders and headquarters.
If the US were to provide clear strategic guidance on what Washington would do to defend Taiwan, deterrence would be enhanced and capabilities at the military operational level would gain a significant boost at a time when decision makers on both sides of the Pacific feel constrained by time horizons for conflict that may be significantly shorter than planned for.
Military Legacy and Civil-Military Distrust
More so than in the US, there is the potential for high levels of friction between Taiwan’s civilian and military leadership. Taiwan was ruled by a KMT military dictatorship until the early 1990s which planned and executed the White Terror. This was a period of martial law from 1949 to 1992 that saw thousands killed and over 100,000 jailed for actions the KMT deemed subversive. This created a massive amount of distrust for the military within Taiwanese society that still exists to this day (vaguely similar to Japan).
The current leadership, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was initially formed in opposition to the KMT in the late 1980s. This was around the same time all the current military leadership within Taiwan was attending Command and Staff College at the National Defense University. While perspectives can change, this means it is likely that many general officers within the Taiwan military are influenced by the old-school orthodox KMT China-centric historical narrative. This is in direct conflict with the DPP and while there is room for negotiation, it does not help when the current Minister of National Defense, a retired army general, supports rewriting the events of a significant massacre that took place in 1987 (Lieyu Massacre).
Slow Military Acquisitions
The PRC has gone to great lengths in order to diplomatically isolate Taiwan while simultaneously attempting to punish nations that cooperate with Taipei. This has led to the current situation where Taiwan is reliant on the US for major arms purchases. This lifeline is kept alive through the protection of the US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Through the TRA, there is a commonly used mechanism for the US to sell and finance weapons to Taiwan. The problem is that these sales are now typically backlogged by years with the Ukraine War compounding the situation. The backlogs need to be cleared and the arms sales process simplified as well as synchronized with an effective defense strategy.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
In order for Taiwan to adequately resource a defense strategy, Taiwan’s civilian and military leadership need to come to a meeting of the minds on how to most effectively defend the country. This will require setting aside political differences and overcoming bad blood all in the name of securing Taiwan’s future. It is unlikely that a strategy will be ironed out until after Taiwan's presidential election in 2024, and until then the country is in a state of heightened strategic vulnerability while lacking an effective defense strategy.