VOTE 2016: How Much Should Candidates Say About Defense?

Talking defense is hardly a vote catcher, but we need to know how the next commander-in-chief intends to defend the nation against external aggression
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Michal Thim

The aftershocks of the Nov. 29 nine-in-one election earthquake that delivered a spectacular defeat to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are still being felt, and already another campaign is about to take full swing: The combined presidential and legislative elections, which will be held on Jan. 16 next year. For better or worse, cross-strait relations will figure prominently in the campaign. Will defense be an issue as well? Should it?

For the average voter, defense is likely an issue that invokes rather negative emotions. Anxiety stemming from the threat of war or for unpopular spending of public funds to prevent what is often regarded as a hypothetical danger — especially if this means cutting subsidies elsewhere, closer to voters’ daily needs — certainly contributes to those emotions. However, in Taiwan’s particular case, it is about addressing issues that are at core of Taiwan’s interest to preserve its sovereignty, its young democracy, and way of life in more general terms.

But there’s a caveat. Defense should not be at the forefront of electoral debates. For one thing, it may not be entirely conducive to healthy debate. Some defense-related subjects are inherently difficult to talk about. For example, the concept of deterrence, a cornerstone of Taiwan’s defense policy and military strategy, is closely associated with possession of nuclear weapons, a capability that Taiwan does not, and arguably should not, have. Asymmetry, another term that is closely related to Taiwan’s current defense posture, is difficult to define even among specialists.

Capabilities is another murky ground for candidates to step on, as advocating for the purchase of potentially expensive defense systems may expose them to criticism: Why use taxpayer money to buy weapons when we should be investing in education and healthcare? is a question that is bound to arise in such a context.

Indeed, talking about defense is hardly an excellent vote catcher. However, the next president will also be the next commander-in-chief and as such should be expected to outline his or her ideas about national defense. After all, the submission of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) to the Legislative Yuan is tied to presidential mandate and it is understood that the QDR should contain a president’s vision for Taiwan’s defense for the next four years.

If and when candidates do raise national defense as a campaign issue, what should they talk about without getting bogged down by scholarly debates? For starters, there are three ways to look at defense as an issue with a broader impact: (1) in terms of spending; (2) as a foreign policy issue in a narrow sense; and, last but not least, (3) the actual concept for national defense policy and military strategy. What follows is a brief look at all three angles.

First, when it comes to defense and election campaigns, money is the most important issue. It is rather self-evident that national defense and the defense budget cannot be separated from other issues. If a defense budget is to increase, the money must come from elsewhere. To this end, increasing defense spending may increase costs of some utilities or costs of national health insurance, to name a few possible examples. However, it is far from a zero-sum game and should not be perceived as such. Military research and development (R&D) often has civilian applications. In many ways and increasingly so, the civilian and military sectors cannot be really separated. Is defense of Taiwan’s cyberspace an issue for the military, civilian law enforcement agencies, or the private sector? Military R&D also serves to keep talented engineers at home, and investment in the domestic defense sector is an investment with much broader implications. The recent MND display at the annual TADTE exhibition was a testimony of taxpayers’ money well spent. Conversely, investment in education, for example, is not a purely civilian matter either, as modern armies require highly skilled personnel to handle ever more complex weapon systems. In addition, resources that are part of defense budget are not just investments for a worst-case hypothetical scenario of an amphibious assault by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Militaries nowadays perform the entire spectrum of missions that used to be assigned to civilian actors. Taiwan’s military is no exception, and it is regularly deployed to assist with disaster relief operations.

Beyond setting the appropriate level of funding, the other important short-term issue is to prevent possible political deadlock affecting the procurement of major combat platforms. The divided executive and legislative branches during the two terms of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the KMT-held legislature blocked the resources necessary to acquire weapons whose purchase had already been approved in 2001. The KMT kept doing so until Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was elected president in March 2008. Should the 2016 elections produce a similar division, the specter of paralyzing fights between the executive and legislative branches could re-emerge. The situation could become even worse due to rising personnel costs related to the transition to an all-volunteer force, a pillar program initiated by President Ma, increasing maintenance costs as well as plans to build submarines domestically. These programs will require substantial additional funding, and they are not the only ones. If the legislative-executive deadlock were to return, the impediments for Taiwan’s ability to maintain a credible deterrent would be seriously constrained. That much should be clear. It is also clear that the president is an important player in defense policy making. However, not much can be accomplished with a rebellious legislature.

Second, related to spending, defense policy is also a foreign policy issue. Defense posturing not only sends signals to a potential aggressor but also to Taiwan’s allies. Taiwan’s defense spending has been well below past pledges of 3% of GDP, and critics have regarded this as evidence of a preference for social policy expenditures over defense. Some detractors have even argued that this is evidence of a lack of will among the Taiwanese to defend their country and of overreliance on the U.S. for assistance. This is of course unfair and oversimplifies the matter. Defense spending is not the only factor shaping a country’s defense posture, and focusing exclusively on the amount of money spent on defense tells little about how well the money is used. However, the 3% of GDP allocated to national defense is deeply rooted in the discourse on Taiwan’s defense and is frequently used by supporters and detractors alike as a benchmark. To a considerable extent, Taiwanese political leaders have only themselves to blame for previously committing to 3% while in reality never delivering on their pledge. For better or worse, the next president will have to be prepared to deal with the issue not only as a domestic problem, but as a foreign policy question as well.

Last but not least, the next president’s ideas on defense have to be taken seriously, as they have the potential to shape the direction of national defense for years to come. Prior to the 2000 election, President Chen argued for capabilities that would enable Taiwan to inflict damage on Chinese forces before they reach Taiwan’s coastline. His approach was one of active (or offensive) defense, and was subject to criticism for being overly “provocative” and of encouraging a preemptive strike by China. However, it is often forgotten that during the 2000 election campaign, all three main candidates (Chen, James Soong [宋楚瑜] and Lien Chan [連戰]) proposed active defense in one way or another, or that Chen’s idea rested upon a decades-old four-step strategy wherein the first layer involved engaging PLA forces during the assembly stage near the enemy’s coast. In 2008, President Ma seemingly turned around the military strategy with his Hard ROC proposal, which touted a return to the concept of “pure defense” that rejected preemptive defense and suggested a return to an army-centric posture. However, this change was essentially skin-deep, as under President Ma Taiwan has maintained and strengthened its offshore strike capability, and the demand for joint operations among the military’s main branches has made singling out one particular branch as the most responsible for Taiwan’s defense a meaningless effort. The requirement for asymmetry and innovation embedded in the latest policy documents serve as a vehicle for continuity in indigenous military programs and the tailoring of new weapons to changing defense requirements.

Where do the individual candidates in next year’s elections stand on defense? As there is no incumbent president who will seek to defend his track record, new ideas should be expected on a whole range of issues, defense included, by the three main contenders and their respective parties.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a considerable head start. During the past two years under former chairman Su Tsen-chang (蘇貞昌) and current chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the DPP released a total of 12 blue defense papers tackling a broad range of defense-related issues, including the fundamentals of the DPP’s defense agenda, projections on the military threat posed by China in 2025, and projected Taiwanese defense capabilities in 2025. The collection contains several hints about what the defense policy would look like if the DPP wins next year and how the 2017 QDR could differ from current edition. Measures proposed by the DPP include 3% of GDP for defense spending, strengthening the indigenous defense sector, building-up asymmetrical capabilities, and many others. It is very likely that the contents of the blue papers will, in shorter form, be presented as Tsai’s defense program.

The other two candidates have yet to reveal their positions on national defense. It is quite possible that KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) will stick to President Ma’s defense policy as expressed in the latest QDR. That would be a reasonable and legitimate position to adopt. However, if this were Hung’s platform, then something more would be needed. Hung’s idea of appropriate defense spending (President Ma himself pledged no less than 3% of GDP in 2008, be in reality defense spending was below 2.5% throughout his presidency) and what Taiwan’s defense posture should look like in 2020 would be good starting points.

Soong of the People First Party has only recently joined the election and little is known about his election platform, unless we regard capitalizing on a split within the KMT as one. In 2012, Soong advocated the development of asymmetrical capabilities and a mixed volunteer and conscription force, with the latter acting as a backup. Such a policy was a diversion from the KMT’s position and was closer to that espoused by the DPP.

Defense certainly won’t be the major topic of this election. But ignoring it would also be highly problematic, if not irresponsible. Let’s hope we get constructive debate on the matter.


Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of The Center for International Maritime Security, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.

2 Responses to “VOTE 2016: How Much Should Candidates Say About Defense?”

August 22, 2015 at 1:37 pm, K Ma said:

A key part of Taiwan’s defense plan should be developing the capability to destroy extensive parts of Chinese cities like Shanghai.The purpose would be to make potential PRC pain too great to justify an attack.It would probably involve massive numbers of missiles with the nastiest possible warheads.That would speak a language the CCP understands.The ROC should speak sweetly but have the mother of all sticks.


August 25, 2015 at 1:58 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“If a defense budget is to increase, the money must come from elsewhere. To this end, increasing defense spending may increase costs of some utilities… However, it is far from a zero-sum game and should not be perceived as such.”

This is an important point, but not because of the author’s argument as to the “positive externalities” of tech research and development for military applications, which is highly contingent and thus unpersuasive. It is important because the zero-sum scenario is exactly how the issue of defense spending is perceived, and this is unlikely to change.

It is unlikely to change to the extent that most people still believe, against all evidence, that educational and healthcare institutions can neither function, nor be financed independently of the coercive control of government. This belief is false, and yet it is replicated throughout the media by non-thinking individuals in positions of responsibility. There is every reason to believe that education and healthcare institutions would actually function better if they were independent. Yet because people have this false belief, they are thus put into a false bind of choosing between public spending on defense and public spending on education and healthcare.

An enterprising candidate would state the opposite argument: that removing State responsibility for education and healthcare would be the right thing to do. First, it is the right thing to do in moral terms because neither should be an instrument of social control, democratic or otherwise. Second, it is the right thing to do in terms of allowing for the freedom of choice and innovation necessary to stop wasting everyone’s time and money. Finally, it is the right thing to do because it removes – at a stroke – the most important instruments of social control that any Chinese annexation of Taiwan would require.

There is every reason to think that an entirely privatized market for education for example, as part of a more general strategy of depoliticization, would lead to new consumer choices and habits that would accelerate the cultural escape from confucian ideals of unconditional obedience. Obedience would come to be seen as contingent upon rationality, not authority. For a Chinese puppet government, the task of reinstating a by-now outdated system of “national education” would be particularly difficult to achieve because it would immediately be seen and understood for what it is: nothing more than a coercive means of social control, pretending to be something else.


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