Why Taiwan's Defense Strategy Calls for a Reassessment of Priorities
Taiwan’s maritime strategy risks falling behind the times even as strongman Xi and other communist chieftains rattle their sabers.
Here's What You Need to Remember: To evaluate Taiwan’s defenses, ask whether Taipei is asking too much of the armed forces—and whether the armed forces are remaking themselves adequately to cope with today’s brave new world.
Chinese president Xi Jinping issued yet another threat to Taiwan during what the BBC artfully called “a speech marking 40 years since the start of improving ties” between the communist-ruled mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. Xi exhorted Taiwanese to accept that they “must and will be” unified with the mainland. Sheesh. If forty years of improving ties culminate in threats to wipe out your negotiating partner’s political existence, I’d shudder to think how forty years of deteriorating ties across the Taiwan Strait would have turned out.
But Xi’s remarks do warrant taking stock of Taiwan’s defense afresh. To measure the adequacy of Taiwan’s defense, first, survey its overall strategic posture and then the state of its land, air and sea power. If the ROC armed forces are sufficient to discharge the tasks entrusted to them by the political leadership in Taipei, then the island is in sound shape to uphold its independence. If Taipei has assigned the military more to do than it can reasonably do, then trouble looms: missions must be cut or capabilities expanded until ends and means are in sync.
First, strategy. Few—and by “few” I mean “no”—nations boast the diplomatic, economic and military resources and political artistry to get everything they want. That being the case, they survey the surroundings and devise a strategy for a world of many goals and scarce resources. At its most fundamental, strategy is the art and science of setting and enforcing priorities among things or purposes the nation values, and apportioning resources to attain the priorities it cherishes most. You can’t have it all.
The Republic of China—an island state under the shadow of a continental giant bent on absorbing it by means peaceful or violent—must be more ruthless with itself than most when setting and enforcing priorities.
Self-discipline hasn’t always been the Taiwanese way. For example, strategists on the island have a habit of placing inordinate importance on defending outlying possessions, islands hard aboard the China coast and in the South China Sea. It strains credulity to think the ROC armed forces could defend the main island of Formosa while also holding offshore islands deep within waters and skies dominated by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Taiwanese military would scatter air and sea assets all over the map in an attempt to do so, at a time when they are heavily outnumbered by increasingly capable PLA counterparts.
For political reasons, Taipei probably cannot publicly write off the islands—few leaders get away with forfeiting sovereign territory—but President Tsai Ing-wen and her lieutenants should tacitly demote them on the ROC’s list of priorities. Successfully defend Formosa and preserve your national life, then you can worry about recovering lost peripheral territories. The commitment to national integrity would remain, but Taipei would have accepted it may have to fulfill that commitment in phases rather than all at once.
This is not a palatable way of doing things, but it is reality when trying to survive amid moral danger. So to estimate whether Taiwanese strategy comports with reality, gauge whether Taipei is taking a gimlet-eyed approach to fixing priorities or is trying to do everything, everywhere, with a slender inventory of diplomatic, economic and military resources. Small states under duress must decide what they want most, apply themselves single-mindedly to obtain it, and downgrade or triage the rest.
Second, military power. The ROC armed forces are undergoing a cultural revolution and are moving in the right direction, if not at the pace friends of Taiwan might like. The cultural revolution is this. During the Cold War, the Taiwanese Navy and Air Force planned to rule the seas and skies adjoining Taiwanese territory. ROC ships and warplanes were fewer in number than those deployed by the lumbering PLA Navy and Air Force. But they were more technologically sophisticated than their Chinese nemeses, and ROC seamanship and airmanship were better to boot.
Superior quality—both material and human—offset inferior quantity. The culture of command of the sea and sky was imprinted on Taiwan’s military culture over the course of many decades of strategic competition with the mainland. That the ROC military worked closely with the U.S. military, a force steeped in command of the common, did little to disabuse ROC warriors of their ingrained assumptions about how to wage combat.
The notion that a few doughty ROC ships and planes would take to the sea and air and beat back the PLA has been under strain since the 1970s when the United States withdrew formal diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China. No longer could Taipei count on that allied support when the chips were down. The strain intensified during the 1990s when the PLA set out to reinvent itself as a modern high-tech force. As a force more like the ROC and U.S. militaries, in other words.
Chinese shipbuilding, aviation technology, and weapons design have made steady inroads for the past twenty years—cutting into Taiwan’s edge in quality while calling into question the conceit that ROC quality will beat PLA quantity. In short, the PLA has narrowed if not abolished the Taiwanese military’s technological advantage while also remaining far superior in brute numbers. The islanders may still hold an edge in tactical skill and élan, but, at some point, mainland forces will prevail by weight of numbers amplified by gee-whiz technology.
What does this have to do with culture and a cultural revolution? Think about what military folk and their institutions are. As scientist Richard Dawkins teaches, human beings are susceptible to “memes.” We think of memes as jokes or snark that go “viral” online, attracting massive readership or viewership, and that is one example of it. But a meme is something more basic. Dawkins sometimes refers to a meme as a “mind virus.” It is an idea or image that spreads to person to person by a kind of mental contagion, capturing the fancy of those exposed to it.
Dawkins takes an upbeat view of how memes work, contending that they emerge from a kind of evolutionary process: ideas are tried out and the fittest survive, becoming memes. A new idea may eventually emerge, natural selection resumes, and either the new idea becomes the meme or the old one outlasts it and remains in force.
But now take a group of individuals susceptible to memes, put them in a bureaucratic organization, and put some of them in authority over the organization. What happens if a mental virus about how the institution should conduct its affairs goes viral among the leadership?
Well, a bureaucracy is a sort of machine that mass-produces routine tasks. It runs on standard rules, regulations and procedures. If a meme captures its leaders’ minds, they’re apt to reshape those rules, regulations and procedures in keeping with it. In effect they incorporate the viral idea into the programming that governs how the machine functions. Once encoded in the bureaucratic workings, a meme is hard to dislodge; the leadership does what leaders do and punishes those who flout bureaucratic routine while rewarding those who comply and keep the machinery running smoothly.
The process of natural selection among ideas slows down or grinds to a halt—leaving the machine set in its ways. It resists trying to reinvent itself as the surroundings change around it, as they will in strategic affairs. Something dramatic if not traumatic may have to happen to jolt the institution out of its meme-driven way of transacting business. In the case of martial institutions, a catastrophic defeat has a way of clearing out ideas that have outlived their usefulness. Sufficiently hardheaded leadership might do so as well.
Some of the memes impelling ROC military routine are the ones listed here: command the sea, command the sky, make quality overpower quantity. These were fitting for their times, but times have changed. ROC officialdom seems to understand this, but no shock to the system has discredited the old memes. That being the case, the machine tends to adapt by increments. For example, the Taiwanese Navy has begun acquiring small, stealthy patrol craft more suitable for denying the PLA Navy access to the waters adjoining Formosa than for fighting a major fleet battle for maritime command. It has armed them with indigenous anti-ship missiles able to give Chinese invaders a bad day. Wonderful!
But the navy is only procuring a dozen such craft—hardly a swarm capable of descending on and defeating a PLA invasion force. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese Navy also maintains a legacy force of destroyers, frigates and amphibious warships best suited to fighting major surface engagements and projecting power onto foreign shores. The ROC battle fleet is visibly and increasingly out of step with the tactical and operational setting in East Asia. It also consumes resources that could go to the sea-denial fleet.