Improving Readiness in the Military

Taiwan’s military readiness suffered greatly under the Ma presidency. One of the first priorities of a new government should be to carry out a thoroughgoing policy review aimed at defining ways to restore it
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Peter Enav

Since taking office some seven years ago, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has consistently undermined the ability of the Taiwan armed forces to defend the nation against the possibility of attack from the People’s Republic of China. The result of this policy has been to damage the forces’ morale and degrade their readiness. Just last month the Ministry of National Defense announced it would continue conscripting Taiwanese men born before the end of 1993 — another blow to its longstanding plan to develop a credible all-volunteer military. That plan is widely seen as the key to enabling the Taiwanese defense forces to meet the Chinese challenge going forward well into the 2020s. Ma is on record as supporting it but his actions belie his words.

The evidence for Ma’s neglect is almost everywhere. To begin with, he reneged on a much-bruited campaign promise to raise Taiwan’s military spending to three percent of Gross Domestic Product, which many experts say is the minimum for the military to operate effectively. Instead, he reduced it to the point where it now stands at only 2 percent of GDP, lower than it had ever been before; this compares with the more than 5 percent that Taiwan spent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One compelling effect of this has been to limit military compensation, which obviously deters men and women from signing up for military careers in the first place, and also makes it difficult for serving military personnel to extend their existing enlistments. It is no wonder that Taiwan’s all-volunteer force recruitment targets are now regarded as something of a national joke.

But even more damaging than signing off on reduced military spending, Ma has also muddled the military’s primary mission of national defense, this amid his headlong embrace of better relations with China. His abortive call for a Taiwan-China peace treaty during the early stages of his re-election campaign in 2011 was one of the many signals he sent that China was no longer a threat to Taiwanese sovereignty, for the simple reason that it would eventually be sacrificed anyway. He didn’t seem to mind that China continued to threaten the use of force against Taiwan, or even that the number of missiles it deployed against Taiwanese targets was growing annually. Rather he made it plain that military readiness was a waste of time, among other things by cutting back on the annual Han Kuang training exercises, a key component in ensuring the required level of air force-navy cooperation to interdict a Chinese invasion force before it arrived on Taiwan. His entire attitude reeked of deliberate appeasement toward China and seriously degraded the nation’s deterrent.

Ma’s muddling of national defense has had a major negative impact on Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in two key areas. To begin with, it was a leading factor in the epidemic of Chinese espionage operations that has washed over the island in recent years. In 2014 alone, 15 alleged spy cases surfaced, 90 percent of which involved either active or retired military personnel, according to a report presented to the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee by the National Security Bureau. In its aggregate, the spy epidemic has had a catastrophic effect on Taiwan’s military readiness. Not only did it seriously compromise the integrity of a number of crucial Taiwanese defense systems (including, according to the American China espionage operations expert Peter Mattis, U.S.-supplied command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure) but it may also have acted as a disincentive to future U.S. sales of military equipment to Taiwan because of well justified American fears that such equipment could eventually end up in Chinese hands. This is a major blow, not least because the U.S. is the only foreign supplier of important military equipment to Taiwan.

The second major consequence of Ma’s indifferent military policies also involves the U.S., specifically in terms of American willingness to consider intervening on Taiwan’s side in the event that China attacks it with impunity. Taiwan’s entire military doctrine is built on the expectation that Washington will come to it aid in such a circumstance, always providing Taiwan can demonstrate an ability to fend off the attack during its crucial early stages. But if Taiwan should fail to do this — if lack of military readiness makes it impossible — then all bets would be off, because the U.S. would conclude that there was no point in getting involved in a military effort in the first place. Barring a miracle of absolutely massive proportions this would guarantee Taiwan’s defeat and its forced integration into China. So the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Given those stakes — and given the large extent of the degradation of the Taiwanese military under Ma’s watch — the question now is, what, if anything, can a new government do to help redress the situation and begin to restore Taiwan’s military deterrent to the point where China would have second thoughts before attacking across the Taiwan Strait? This is an exceedingly complex problem, and one that requires a good deal of critical, long-range thinking. Accordingly, one of the first things that the new government should so — even before it takes office — is to undertake a thoroughgoing review of Taiwan’s defense and security architecture, with a view toward substantially raising military readiness and restoring Taiwan’s lost credibility with the United States. At the very least the review should concentrate on the following major issues:

1. Mission: The philosophical basis for Ma’s military neglect was his failure to embrace national defense as key priority. With this in mind, Taiwan’s new government should begin by changing the mission of the military and security community from the vague and purposefully ill-defined parameters of the Ma years to something far more concrete and far more consistent with the national will. Fortunately, the DPP seems to know precisely what that is: preserving the political status quo with China. This goal accords with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese population, and should also accord with the wishes of all key military and security personnel. The review should address specific ways of insuring that this is the case, by recommending specific parameters for personnel selection criteria, and other personnel modalities. They would be crucial for guaranteeing that the military and the government were on the same page on national defense.

2. Leadership: Taiwan’s military and security community requires first rate leadership, dedicated to carrying out the orders of the political echelon without alienating senior officers. Most of those senior officers identify politically with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), even if they may not have been particularly enthusiastic about Ma’s military policies. Accordingly, the new government should give serious consideration to nominating as Minister of National Defense an individual with a KMT background, as long as that background does not preclude total acceptance of the newly defined mission of the military community: maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Fortunately a number of Taiwanese defense intellectuals fit this template to a tee. One is former Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang (楊念祖), who served as Defense Minister for five days in 2013, before Ma unceremoniously threw him to the wolves, apparently under pressure from some senior officers. Another possibility is Andrew Hsia (夏立言), another former Deputy Defense Minister, who is currently the head of the Mainland Affairs Council. Neither has a uniformed military background, which in Taiwanese military tradition is a major detriment to acceptance by senior officers. A major goal of the military and security review would be to come up with ways of mitigating this problem. Otherwise it could possibly undermine the overall effort to raise military readiness.

3. Budget: Under a future government, Taiwan’s military budget will need to be at least 3 percent of GDP. The party has already agreed to this, so new funds will be available to the Ministry of National Defense, particularly if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins control of the legislature in January. The military review should, in general terms, make recommendations on how they should be spent. Almost certainly part of the funds should go for enhanced military salaries and benefits to advance the implementation of the all-volunteer armed forces concept, which in addition to everything else is facing a serious demographic challenge that limits its potential pool of recruits. Another part of the funding might well go for at least a modest expansion of reserve forces training, which at present is far too infrequent to sustain a credible ground forces deterrent to a possible Chinese attack. Bearing in mind the considerable political constraints implicit in any reserve training regime in Taiwan, the review should try to define its parameters. It should also seek to define the parameters for military procurement programs, particularly weapons systems from the U.S., which must be seen as an important part of Taiwan’s overall deterrent, and so be selected in line both with both prevailing Taiwan defense doctrine and American weapons sales policies. The review should help identify them.

4. Security Reform: The military review should include concrete recommendations for helping to mitigate China’s recent successes in procuring sensitive information from Taiwanese military personnel. To be sure, part of the problem will be solved by re-defining the mission of the Taiwan armed forces, and so raising the forces’ morale. But that is not enough. Beyond just counting on enhanced military morale, the review will also need to look at addressing a wide range of security issues that currently bedevil the Taiwanese military. These include security clearance modalities and procedures governing contacts between retired Taiwanese military officers and their Chinese counterparts. Only when thoroughgoing changes are implemented in these and other important security categories, will Taiwan be able to win back the full trust of the American military and security establishment, and so make itself eligible to acquire the American military systems so important to Taiwanese national defense. It should be a major role of the review to define those changes and to help to set them in motion.


Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

One Response to “Improving Readiness in the Military”

September 07, 2015 at 5:52 pm, Fuankio So said:

Also worth mentioning is the scandal of CM-32 Armoured Vehicle program, plagued by Chinese-made faulty parts that contractors purchased illegally from China at a fraction of the cost billed to Taiwanese taxpayers. The age-old doctrine or philosophy of anti-Taiwan Independence, devised top-down from US diplomats and policy makers, actually created a deadly cocktail of corruption plus espionage, a double whammy to Taiwan’s defence down to the level of nuts and bolts, literally.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.