What Does Taiwan's Election Mean for Defense Against China?

Taiwan ROC Air Force F-16

What Does Taiwan's Election Mean for Defense Against China?

Party splits in the Kuomintang over defense policy are illustrative of Taiwan's gaping military dilemmas.

Taiwanese Presidential candidate Hou You-yi’s defense policy announcement three weeks ago reiterated his party’s (the Kuomintang or KMT) commitment to protect Taiwan. The message: despite disagreeing with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Taiwan’s foreign and cross-strait policy, the KMT takes the military threat from China seriously and will deepen investment in Taiwan’s armed forces and U.S. security assistance accordingly. The recent exchange of barbs between representatives of the KMT and their rivals, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), over the KMT’s defense policy confirms the importance of national security ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election next week.

Yet Hou’s sensible pronouncements on defense highlight an ongoing identity challenge for the KMT. Statements of policy from the party and even from the presidential candidate throughout the campaign have brimmed with uncertainty because the Blues (the coalition of parties of which KMT is a part) are openly split on policy. The gulf between reformer and traditionalist parts of the KMT has caused turmoil for Hou since he was nominated over seven months ago and will give outside election watchers a good reason to wonder what comes next if the KMT prevails in the election. Taiwan’s politics go a long way in determining its defense policy, which would likely guide the course of any potential crisis and is thus no less important for peace than cross-strait policy.

What is Hou’s defense policy?

The KMT’s pitch on defense must be understood in the broader context of Taiwan’s politics. The party emphasizes Taiwan’s official identity as the Republic of China (ROC). This is more ameliorable to Beijing—which has promised to unify with Taiwan by forceful means if peaceful means do not work—than the position of the DPP that Taiwan is already independent, which has grown more popular over the last decade as time has marginalized the older voters who identify more strongly with Chinese identity and as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping has scared Taiwan with talk of unification and actions to back it up in Hong Kong. While the KMT remains committed to talking it out with the CCP—which the Tsai administration has not done because of Beijing’s preconditions—it has sought to appear tough enough on China, especially because the last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), cut defense spending and focused instead on cross-strait economic and diplomatic engagement.

With all this in mind, Hou’s announced defense policy has two themes: competence and continuity. For a party now having to defend itself against charges of weakness toward the military threat from across the strait, it is crucial to put “deterrence” first. The party line is a “3-D” strategy: “deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation.” And it is equally important to match the DPP’s recent interest in whole-of-society defense—witness the rise of outfits like Forward Alliance and Kuma Academy, especially since the war in Ukraine began—with Hou’s promise to make a ministerial-level All-Out Defense and Mobilization Council if elected.

The policy also matches the DPP’s embrace of greater defense spending under Tsai by proposing a pay increase of at least 10 billion NTD for servicemembers, including up to 10,000 NTD per month for combat-role servicemembers. This, along with the proposal to make “National Military Respect Day” a national holiday, appeals to patriotism and meshes with the Tsai administration’s lengthening mandatory conscription to one year from four months. This plays to the KMT’s traditional comfort with the military, as the DPP’s democratic opposition to the KMT dictatorship in the Cold War complicates its relationship with the armed forces.

The announced defense policy also assures onlookers that a Blue victory would not compromise two of the most critical elements of Taiwan’s preparation for a cross-strait war: military improvement and U.S. support. Hou proposes improving pay for conscripts assigned to the outer islands, increasing education and living standards for servicemembers, and continuing exchanges with the United States, which officially include arms sales of key defense capabilities and—unofficially—training. There is also a customary nod to “asymmetric” defense, though the fizzling out of the comprehensive asymmetric defense reform under Tsai (the “Overall Defense Concept”) after 2020 was due to bureaucratic and political factors—including traditional mission preferences of the armed forces and the unpopularity of defending Taiwan in the littorals and on the beaches—that would likely bind a KMT administration as well. 

Reformer-Traditionalist Split in the KMT

However, no number of assurances can change the fact that Hou’s party remains largely steered by traditionalists who are hostile to the notion that Taipei, with Uncle Sam behind it, can spurn Beijing’s calls for unification and stake out a claim as a sovereign nation. Just a few weeks before the release of Hou’s defense policy, unity ticket talks between Hou and third-party candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party imploded, and Hou went on to name media personality Jaw Shaw-kong as his running mate. Jaw’s political career and comments on cross-strait policy make clear his views: unification with the mainland, albeit under the ROC and not the CCP banner, should be Taipei’s ultimate goal. A United States bent on opposing unification risks leading Taiwan down the same primrose path to destruction that Ukraine is now on. Jaw is a reminder that much of the KMT still thinks a vigorous defense policy is unwise.

Even as the KMT’s losses to Tsai in 2016 and 2020 sparked calls within the party to moderate this position, traditionalists remain powerful in the party and media ecosystem. Bolstering their claims is a substantial “U.S.-skeptic” media discourse that warns of Washington using Taipei as a pawn in great-power competition (the origin of such specious stories as this summer’s allegation that Washington urged Taipei to build biological weapons in Taiwan). Traditionalists—including Ma and Jaw—emphasize that Taiwan is the Republic of China and cannot forsake its Chinese roots. They support the idea, rejected by the DPP, that there is one China that includes Taiwan and the mainland (known as the “1992 Consensus”). And, as my interviews in Taipei last year made clear, they generally see defense investments as futile due to deep pessimism about Taipei’s ability to fend off China—even with U.S. help.

In addition to boosting the DPP, China’s promises of unification have bolstered the ranks of the KMT’s reformers, who instead think they should adapt to stay politically viable. They criticized the party’s losses to Tsai in 2016 and 2020 as the result of too closely adhering to the 1992 Consensus, which turned off voters after Beijing grew more aggressive in its rhetoric on unification and in Hong Kong. The reformers’ case was strong enough that the party picked Hou, whose record lacked much cross-strait rhetoric, to lead its 2024 ticket. Hou pledged to support the 1992 Consensus but would only negotiate with Beijing consistent with “the Republic of China’s constitution and its laws,” softening the traditional party line in order to assuage U.S. concerns and position the KMT as a reasonable, Tsai-like partner.

Yet Jaw’s elevation as the KMT’s vice presidential candidate underscores traditionalists’ endurance in the party. They were likely empowered by the failure of Hou’s outreach to Ko in November—a deal that was only brokered due to Ma’s outsized if unofficial, leadership role in Blue politics. If these traditionalists ever become marginalized from the KMT, it will be a slow process. Ma has exerted incredible influence over the party for several years after his presidency, and the KMT is still led by people who came of political age before single-party rule ended. The power of more US-skeptic figures in the KMT is unsurprisingly less visible outside of Taiwan’s English-speaking (usually DPP-leaning) media, making it difficult to see for Americans.

Suspicion in the KMT of more openly aligning with the United States also has staying power because of certain military and social realities. It is difficult for Washington to credibly commit to defending Taiwan from a Chinese blockade or invasion when it walks back statements to that effect and, in a real crisis, would have to cross a vast ocean to reach Taiwan. Going all-in on an asymmetric strategy ideally suited to a joint Taiwan-U.S. resistance to a Chinese invasion is thus a hard sell. Challenges with increasing manpower and defense spending abound in a place where the image of national birth is civilian anti-authoritarian resistance, not war (as in the United States, South Korea, or Israel, for example).

Defense in the Upcoming Election

The KMT’s defense policy provides for enhancing Taiwan’s manpower, fighting spirit, and defense ties with Washington. These are all boxes Taipei should check as it tries to catch up with Beijing’s military advances and as appetite in Washington for arming and backing Taipei continues to grow, as evidenced by the deployment of U.S. military advisors to Taiwan and the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act’s provisions to enhance these efforts and speed up arms sales. Yet the deep divide in the KMT between reformers and traditionalists—clearly seen in Jaw’s ascension in the party—should qualify any guesses as to how a KMT presidency would affect Taiwan’s national security. A Hou foreign policy committed to cross-strait dialogue may erode the focus needed to increase defense spending and reform. Much rests not only on decisionmakers in Beijing and Washington but also on the political factions and actors that ultimately command power in Taipei.