As China Advances, Taiwan's Military Strategy Changes

7 MINS READMay 4, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Taiwanese naval personnel walk past a Tuo Chiang-class missile boat in southern Kaohsiung on March 31.
Taiwanese naval personnel walk past a Tuo Chiang-class missile boat in southern Kaohsiung on March 31.
(SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)
Key Takeaways

  • Taiwan's strategic position will weaken relative to China as Beijing's military spending and capabilities continue to increase.
  • China's growing power will compel Taiwan's military to make a strategic shift toward area denial.
  • Taipei will be constrained by its growing economic ties with the mainland, the monetary cost of changing its military strategy and the need to garner public support.

In response to an unstable security situation in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei is transforming its naval and military strategy. Taiwan's navy received the first of 12 Tuo Chiang-class catamaran missile boats in December 2014. Though small, these modern vessels are stealthy and come equipped with numerous anti-ship missiles, outclassing all the fast missile boats currently in Taiwan's fleet. The Tuo Chiang, however, is just the most visible manifestation of a broad military shift. The Taiwanese navy has traditionally used large surface warships to dominate the ocean and surrounding airspace. Yet, Taiwan's future military doctrine emphasizes flexible, stealthy and heavily armed vessels that can deny the enemy freedom of movement.

China, however, has already implemented many elements of a similar anti-access and area denial strategy to counter the U.S. in the Pacific region. This asymmetric approach is usually adopted by a weaker power. Instead of challenging the opponent directly in a conventional manner, the defender opts to disrupt and deny access through guerrilla or unconventional actions by air, sea and — to a lesser extent — land. The goal is to deter an attack, inflict unsustainable losses, or simply gain time for allies to intervene. China is adopting this strategy because of its relative weakness compared to the United States. Taiwan is shifting out of necessity, because of its military vulnerability to China, though not without a political and economic cost.

In recent years, Taiwan's military planners have watched China increase its military capabilities in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has harnessed its economic power to rapidly expand its military capabilities. Moreover, China's defense budget continues to consistently grow by more than ten percent annually, with the current official allotment slated at $142 billion — 13 times that of Taiwan. However, the actual Chinese military budget is significantly higher, meaning that Taiwan's disparity is even more extensive than it appears. In 2000, the Taiwanese military could still claim superiority in the Taiwan Strait but, 15 years on, the Chinese military outmatches Taiwan and will continue the trend as time goes on.

Taiwan is aware of this widening gap and has reacted by shedding its traditional force structure in order to move toward an anti-access and area denial strategy. This change, though necessary, requires the training of new specialized troops, adequate funding and appropriate weaponry. These are not easy changes. But Taiwan's military will pursue them, even if they are delayed or imperfectly implemented.

An All-Volunteer Force

An anti-access and area denial strategy depends first and foremost on highly qualified, committed and well-trained troops. The necessary troops include specialized missile battery operators, submarine personnel as well as elite special operations forces. The time investment and dedication needed to train these troops will require a transition away from the current conscription system to one that uses an all-volunteer force along the lines of the U.S. system. At the moment, most of Taiwan's troops do not serve long enough to reach sophisticated levels of training. Volunteers, by contrast, would be dedicated to serving in the military and stay long enough to become proficient in their specialized tasks.

Taiwan is already pursuing the goal of an all-volunteer military through a massive recruitment drive. But these efforts have encountered considerable obstacles. Military salaries are simply not competitive compared to the civilian market. Public perception of military service is generally negative as well. A lack of prestige, partly a holdover from the days when the military belonged to the Kuomintang state, make many in Taiwan view the military as a regressive institution with authoritarian sympathies.

In response, Taiwan's government postponed the full implementation of the all-volunteer force from the original date of 2015 to 2017. The military has also downgraded its forecast from 215,000 active duty personnel to between 170,000 and 180,000. Even reaching these numbers may be a challenge for Taiwan, but a transition to an all-volunteer force nevertheless would be one of the key steps it would have to take to ensure the foundation for its anti-access strategy.

Procuring Weapons and Funds

Transitioning to a volunteer force, however, is not Taiwan's only hurdle. It will also need to procure and deploy the weaponry needed for an anti-access strategy, relying less on traditional combat weapons such as tanks and large warships that take and occupy physical space. Instead, the new model would focus on highly precise, flexible and stealthier weapons such as submarines, anti-ship missiles and air defense missiles.

But acquiring these weapons is challenging, especially because foreign powers have become unwilling to risk upsetting Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. The United States, for example, has already essentially refused to sell newly built F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, choosing instead to modernize Taiwan's current F-16 fleet.

As a result, Taiwan has turned to its domestic defense industry. However, the industry is not yet sophisticated enough to fulfill Taiwan's military needs, especially for its anti-access strategy. Taiwan's industry has proven competent and able enough to deliver certain weapons — the Tuo Chiang-class catamaran missile boats among them. Despite this success and success in providing land-attack missiles and surface-to-air missiles, domestic industry will find it extremely difficult to manufacture weapons such as anti-ballistic missile systems and submarines.

Finally, Taiwan's military will need to procure funds, a major obstacle in itself. A transition to an anti-access military strategy — as with all fundamental shifts in military doctrine — will be costly. This cost includes not only weapons but also funding for the new all-volunteer force. Taiwan will need to mobilize substantial resources to turn its military into a specialized, well-equipped, flexible and motivated force able to face China in an extremely fast-paced, networked and complex battle to limit China's access to Taiwanese waters and airspace.

Beijing's political strategizing is at odds with the military's mandate to plan — not only based on immediate issues but also on potential long-term contingencies. Consequently, the Chinese military will continue to find difficulty obtaining necessary finances.

These funds, however, have not been forthcoming. Over the past decade, military allocations have hovered around 2 percent of GDP, in part due to the slowing pace of Taiwan's economic growth. In addition, the public has not prioritized military over domestic and social spending, considering an armed conflict with China as remote and unlikely. While Taiwan is still concerned with security, the government has not prioritized defense in recent years, especially since President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang took office in October 2009 and proceeded to greatly improve relations with China.

Political Considerations

Still, neither the Kuomintang nor the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has publicly highlighted the growing threat from China. For its part, the Kuomintang's platform calls for closer economic ties with China to promote growth. Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party worries that promoting fear of China would hurt its electoral chances because, in spite of recent anti-mainland protests, much of the public supports moving closer to China. Massive defense spending might also require a tax increase or decrease in social spending — both unpopular moves. Even if it took power, the Democratic Progressive Party would have little option but to continue the Kuomintang's basic approach toward China.

This political strategizing, however, is at odds with the military's mandate to plan not only based on immediate issues but also on potential long-term contingencies. Consequently, the military will continue to find difficulty obtaining the necessary finances.

In the end, Taiwan has no choice but to continue its transition to a military strategy to respond to the strengthening Chinese military. An anti-access strategy gives Taiwan's forces the best chance to mount a credible enough threat to Chinese forces to deter Beijing from attacking in all but the most extreme circumstances. Even in the worst-case scenario, the new posture would afford Taiwan the chance of holding out while awaiting assistance from friendly forces such as the United States. It is for these reasons that Taiwan will continue to pursue the transformation despite considerable obstacles.

Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani

Production Editor: Evan Rees

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