Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan’s New President


After a landslide victory, Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) face no shortage of hurdles ahead. The Taiwanese electorate hopes to see presidential priority given to boosting a lagging economy and mitigating societal pressures springing from volatile property prices. The decisions made by the Tsai administration in managing Taiwan’s economy will undoubtedly spill over into the security realm and management of the island’s relationship with mainland China. While Tsai has said that she intends to safeguard stability, continue communication with the mainland, and avoid both provocation and surprises, the specifics of her policy toward the mainland — not to mention Beijing’s reaction — remain largely undetermined.

Last week at War on the Rocks, Jennifer Turner outlined six strategic options the DPP will likely be weighing as it looks to formulate the defense strategy of a new administration. She cautiously concludes that no single strategic paradigm is a panacea to the threat posed by China, pressure from the United States to do more on defense, and downward domestic pressure on Taiwanese defense spending. Turner is right. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all remedy amid these competing interests and challenges. None of Turner’s suggested strategies are mutually exclusive, nor should they be perceived as such. What stems from these strategic options is a demand for Taiwan to focus first and foremost on strengthening indigenous elements of national strength as the most reliable strategy for a continued deterrent posture. A stronger Taiwan can only be the product of a society that believes in the value of deterrence and defense posture, as well as a government that is willing to lead the electorate in steps necessary to enhance both hard and soft power capabilities. More importantly, a stronger Taiwan does not have to come at the cost of closer ties with mainland China.

The good news: Tsai and her team already have a starting point from which to begin rethinking and revising the island’s defense strategy. Strategic guidelines and frameworks have been delineated in the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense’s 2015 National Defense Report and DPP Defense Blue Papers. These reports offer good reason to believe that Tsai has a tentative vision for balancing economic reforms with the demands of Taiwan’s active deterrent posture, all while avoiding inciting Chinese aggression. The question is whether Tsai’s defense vision, when taken out of policy documents and put into practice, will sufficiently account for the threat environment Taiwan currently faces.

Regardless of which strategic paradigm Tsai ultimately subscribes to, her administration’s defense policy will likely build upon the MND report’s identification of six core security challenges facing Taiwan: the rapid expansion of mainland China’s military strength; maritime rights and sovereignty claims over disputed islands; defense resource constraints; the military recruitment challenge of a decreasing proportion of able-bodied individuals within the Taiwanese population; network attacks; and challenges to the will to fight (or, what is translated “defense consciousness”). Of these challenges, the most concerning in the minds of Taiwanese defense strategists is the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). If defense spending statistics are not convincing enough, the reality of China’s diversifying military capabilities was demonstrated in the PLA’s September 2015 parade to commemorate its World War II victory over Japan, recent announcements of Su-35 purchases, a second aircraft carrier in development, and ongoing PLA organizational reforms.

The threat environment created by China’s military modernization requires a special sort of policy response from Taiwan: Taiwanese defense must grow increasingly asymmetric. Each and every policy point and military capability must have an inherent capacity to deter. As much as deterrence rests upon hardware with the aims of both denying and punishing an opponent, Patrick Morgan aptly notes that deterrence is also a complex psychological phenomenon. Deterrence allows decision-makers to restructure the set of alternatives available to their rivals, a restructuring that aims to exclude the use of force from consideration. For Tsai and her administration, the basis for defense decisions and policy guidelines should be investments and reforms that bolster the island’s deterrence capacities and alter mainland China’s perception of the Taiwanese military. Investments in enhancing Taiwan’s security that do not come at the cost of the status quo would naturally foster the continued support of “big brother” Washington, as Turner noted.

Tsai will have to formulate her defense policy in the face of increased difficulties stemming from the current state of Taiwan’s armed forces. She will not abandon Taiwan’s ongoing transition from a conscript military to an all-volunteer force (AVF). Yet the combination of slow economic growth and a shrinking labor pool resulting from Taiwan’s low birthrate and public disdain for the Taiwanese military establishment dissuades many able-bodied youth from service in uniform. Add to this mix the current antiquated state of much of Taiwan’s armed forces: Even with the boost in platforms and capabilities brought by a recent U.S. weapons sale, the Taiwanese military establishment is equipped with aging Dutch-built Zwaardvis submarines, ex-World War II-era U.S. Navy submarines, and a mixture of indigenous fighter jets, French Mirage 2000-5s, and U.S. F-5s and F-16s. To provide credible offensive and defensive capabilities, the Taiwanese military will have to embark upon a long-overdue modernization.

Additionally, even with the support of her constituents and majority in the island’s parliament, funding shortfalls may hinder any updates to defensive capabilities under Tsai. Taiwan’s $10.7 billion defense budget in 2015 saw a 2.6 percent actual increase from the prior year, but remained short of the minimum 3 percent mark of total GDP that President Ma Ying-jeou had promised to maintain. Additional budget strains stem from the transition to an AVF; personnel costs have increased to around 45 percent of the defense budget. This has forced a reallocation of funding away from operations and investments. Even as the Taiwan military downsizes its active duty force to fewer than 200,000 servicemembers, the budgetary shifts further reflect the demand of covering higher salaries and recruitment/retention costs inherent in an AVF. An expansion of government welfare programs has also left less money for enhanced national security. Taken in sum, these current trends suggest that the Taiwanese military will continue to be plagued by shrinking numbers, rising personnel costs, and a tight budget well into Tsai’s first term.

Addressing the need to urgently mend flaws caused by President Ma’s defense policies — aging capabilities, rising costs, and declining numbers of personnel — the defense agenda for the DPP focuses broadly on three themes: (a) larger investments in Taiwan’s defense; (b) better equipment and training; and (c) a greater peacetime presence. The DPP envisions combining cyber and electronic warfare capabilities from the civilian sector with existing military capabilities to form an information technology corps, or “cyber army,” a proposal that strikingly resembles U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “cyber warriors” plan. Tsai ambitiously plans to decrease reliance on foreign arms exports through stronger domestic procurement. According to Taiwan Institute of Economic Research deputy director Kung Ming-hsin, this shift would generate $12.17 billion through an inter-linking of defense industries and 8,000 jobs. What Kung fails to acknowledge, however, is the likely resulting increase of the relative expense of weapons procured in Taiwan. Tsai further envisions strengthening missile defense, developing hardened capabilities that can survive missile attacks, increasing asymmetric capabilities, preserving strike capabilities, and establishing a rapid response ground force. Even achieving these planned security updates for Taiwan in the next four to eight years of DPP leadership will be a tall order for the Taipei government and its defense budget. Given such far-reaching demands upon the island’s defense policy, the task ahead for Tsai involves defining immediate priorities and working within existing defense constraints.

An Action Plan for Tsai’s Defense Policy

Though the 2015 report issued by the Ministry of National Defense has set an important foundation, the change of administration signals an important juncture for the DPP to re-conceptualize Taiwan’s defense policy. Defense policy under Tsai must place renewed emphasis on credible deterrence first, with securing continued “big brother” support from the United States as an ancillary objective. War is in no one’s interest, but weakness will never placate a bullying, reunification-driven China. Taiwan must adopt a defense policy that truly changes Beijing’s decision matrix. While these decisions ultimately rest in the hands of the Taiwanese people and government, a few proposals merit immediate consideration by the incoming Tsai administration.

Procure, purchase, and upgrade where realistic.

As argued in a 2014 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Taiwan must “focus on capabilities that allow it to raise the military costs of aggression while … expanding conflict to exact maximum economic and political costs.” Asymmetry should dominate the agenda of Taiwanese strategists as a necessary building block in both deterrence and defense. Taipei’s persistent focus on costly indigenous submarine development may fast be rendered inconsequential by developments on the mainland, such as improved anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the Gaoxin-6 patrol aircraft and growing numbers of Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvettes. Instead, Taiwan could consider platforms that would specifically target weaknesses of existing Chinese capabilities. As a start, these could include other anti-surface warfare capabilities (such as midget submarines and stronger ISR capabilities) and anti-submarine capabilities (such as maritime patrol aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters). All such efforts would further allow Taiwan to show the United States that it is serious about its own defense and ready to support the rebalance.

Avoid unrealistic shopping lists.

Now that U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan appear to have resumed after a four-year hiatus, the Tsai administration may well be back on the market each year looking to buy U.S. platforms. Long before drawing up a wish list of platforms, officials at the Ministry of National Defense and the Tsai team should scrutinize how desired systems integrate with existing Taiwanese capabilities and training. Possessing a capability and using it properly are two entirely different things. Equally important, the Taiwanese legislature would be wise to appropriate the necessary funds for purchasing the requested quantity of U.S. arms. Sincerity of commitment is requisite from Taiwan before foreign nations — the United States or others — see talks on arms sales through to completion.

Evaluate existing doctrine.

Ma’s rapprochement with the mainland damaged the military’s core mission of national defense. As a result, Tsai’s defense policy agenda is quite simple, on the surface: She must realign actions and mission. Since Taiwan’s military power will never match the growing might of mainland China, the island must reinvigorate an effective defense strategy and train and equip its armed forces to support that strategy. Defense policy has focused heavily upon the Taiwanese navy and air force as the first line of defense, which came at the expense of the readiness of the Taiwanese army and marine corps. As a retired U.S. Army officer recently wrote, Taiwan’s army is organized conventionally and ill-prepared in its current state to fight a war of attrition. Meanwhile, the self-destruction of Taiwan’s marine corps creates an equally dangerous gap in defense doctrine. With only 9,000 personnel — down from 16,000 just a few years ago — today’s Taiwanese marine corps is “heavy, mechanized, and not particularly mobile.” Additionally, the Taiwanese navy must continue transitioning from a sea-control to a sea-denial fleet, a change matching the reality of a Chinese navy that is no longer a paltry match for the Taiwanese. Finally, the air force must deepen anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities by continuing to distribute its fighter fleet across as much of the island as possible.

Boost public opinion of the Taiwanese armed forces.

The DPP Defense Blue Papers acknowledged one of the most important elements of comprehensive national defense: the mutual support of civil society and the military. A necessary element of boosting how the Taiwanese think about servicemembers entails an examination of personnel and manpower policies. The DPP has outlined, albeit vaguely, an intent to “refine” Taiwan’s veterans affairs policies by boosting support for servicemember education, offering civil-military dual employable jobs at the Ministry of National Defense, and integrating veterans hospitals, homes, and care facilities into an overarching network. But what the DPP has failed to discuss is how to repair the military’s image so that able-bodied Taiwanese consider the armed forces as suitable career paths. As in the ongoing debates surrounding the U.S. military, limited career mobility and few educational or career opportunities dissuade young Taiwanese. The challenge is to strike a balance between the costs of transitioning to an AVF — including higher salaries for servicemembers — and the costs of offering better benefits amid other demands on the already limited defense budget.

The Future of Taiwan Depends on Deterrence

Tsai has reassured constituents that, compared with the defense policy under Ma, her administration will offer a cohesive, unified view of the requisite steps toward an “obstacle-free environment.” Taipei must necessarily maintain an ability to deter and deny Chinese access to the spaces surrounding Taiwan in addition to the island itself. Cross-Strait crisis stability depends upon reconstructing psychological considerations in Beijing and eliminating any perceived incentives for a preemptive strike. To be sure, some of Taiwan’s ability to strengthen and bolster credible deterrent capabilities also depends upon the support of the United States. Given the island’s location in the first island chain, the United States has a strong interest in a robust Taiwanese defense. Yet without priority given to building Taiwan’s indigenous defense capabilities, the island will lack a back-up plan should Washington’s commitment waver. It is up to the new administration to ensure policy, procurement, and planning reflect the demands of making Taiwan stronger and enhancing powers of both deterrence and denial while avoiding any moves that would threaten the political status quo.


Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between mainland China and Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.


Photo credit: 中岑 范姜