Given the substantial expenditures associated with the IDS program and all-volunteer force (see below), added to economic factors that militate against major increases in annual defense spending and the high vulnerability of Taiwan’s air bases to missile/air strikes, it is unlikely that the Tsai administration will embark on a program to acquire or develop a 4.5/5-generation aircraft (e.g., F-35). For the time being, the major programs for the Air Force will therefore likely be limited to the midlife upgrade for its fleet of F-16A/Bs and IDFs.
While China’s willingness—and ability—to use force against Taiwan remain uncertain, one area where escalation in the wake of Tsai Ing-wen’s election is likely is in the realm of propaganda, united front work and political warfare. Aware that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Taiwan Strait, with support for unification among Taiwanese dipping to single-digit territory last year, and facing the prospect of greater resistance in official and semiofficial channels in Taipei, China will conceivably intensify its efforts to isolate Taiwan, undermine its morale and shape the international discourse in its favor. To achieve its objectives, China will continue to rely on the constellation of media, PLA-linked political warfare units, United Front Work organizations, think tanks, academic institutions, NGOs and businesses it has at its disposal. Using an “onion layer” strategy to deceive its opponents, many of the activities in which these “dual-use” bodies engage have a veneer of respectability and legitimacy. Chinese firms with ostensible links to the PLA have also been expanding their influence abroad through acquisitions and appointments; in many cases, such activities have supported Beijing’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan, among other issues. Think tanks affiliated with those organizations have also become more proactive in the West and have organized conferences where pro-Beijing views (e.g., “abandonment” of Taiwan) have been reinforced.
While there is nothing illegal in such endeavors, they nevertheless constitute an orchestrated effort to limit Taiwan’s room to maneuver and to discourage its potential allies through the repetition of threats and insistence on the “inevitability” of unification. Often this is achieved through the cultivation of foreign “experts” who may have traded their principles for the sake of favorable access to Chinese officials and academic institutions.
Given this, the Tsai administration will have to come up with a robust counterpropaganda strategy to ensure that Taiwan’s position is not drowned out by Chinese perspectives. It will have to invest in public diplomacy and strengthen its relationship with international media, which historically hasn’t been a strong point of the DPP. This will necessitate greater investment in individuals who have the language skills to interact with a foreign audience and vision on the part of the Tsai administration to empower organizations that operate on the peripheries of government, where they can shape the environment in its favor. Taiwan’s representative offices and embassies abroad, as well as government-organized NGOs such as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, must also up their game so as to better situate Taiwan within the community of liberal democracies.
Domestically, Taiwan will have to intensify its counterintelligence and law-enforcement measures to detect pro-Beijing elements, from Chinese “dual-use” companies engaged in legitimate and extracurricular activities to triad organizations that have ties with the Chinese apparatus. While legal expressions of one’s political views does not constitute an infraction and should be countenanced in democracy, such permissiveness should not allow for illegal activities that are meant to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions or endanger the safety of its citizens.
Lastly, Taiwan must continue to adjust salaries, training and its structure to achieve the objective of creating an all-volunteer force, a struggling program launched by Tsai’s predecessor whose implementation has once again been delayed by another year. Recruitment campaigns must be adjusted to meet current realities in Taiwan and appeal to the right candidates. Much greater emphasis must be placed on recruiting female soldiers, who are just as capable as men to defend their country in a high-tech environment. A public diplomacy strategy must also be implemented, along with major reforms, to counter the view that a career in the armed forces is disgraceful or a dead end. MND will also have to take a closer look at the physical condition of its soldiers and make the necessary adjustments to ensure their health.
Finally, the training of reserve forces, which would play a crucial role during an amphibious assault by the PLA, must improve and be more regular so as to ensure readiness; local police stations could also be stocked with firearms, kept well under lock, which could be distributed to a properly trained “civil guard” in case of a national emergency.
Given the alarm caused by Chinese assertiveness in recent years, added to the possibility that Beijing may adopt a more threatening posture vis-à-vis Taipei, it should not be too difficult for the Tsai administration to appeal to the patriotism of its citizens to create a readier force.
Ultimately, Taiwan’s security will be contingent on the Tsai administration’s ability to reassure Beijing and the international community while answering to her people’s democratic aspirations. Doing so will require statesmanship, creativity and a high degree of coordination among the different agencies in Taiwan, from the National Security Council to the Mainland Affairs Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to MND—coordination that has been found to be lacking in the past. President Tsai will also need to consolidate her base as much as possible to avoid fighting “rear battles” with the KMT and/or civil society that could distract her from the challenge of countering Beijing’s ambitions regarding Taiwan.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and an associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC). He recently retired from the Thinking Taiwan Foundation and is a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). He has a master’s degree from the Royal Military College of Canada.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force