Taiwanese Military Reform and PLA Political Warfare

Military transformation cannot ignore the human element
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
J. Michael Cole

Transforming Taiwan’s military to ensure that it can meet the many external challenges that lie ahead is an absolute necessity. However, platforms and reorganization alone — the issues that usually receive the greatest attention when terms like “reform” and “transformation” are involved — are insufficient. Without enough motivated men and women to fill the ranks, and without proper political and civilian support, all the “nuts and bolts” transformation in the world will amount to little. Consequently, as Taiwan’s military establishment ponders future capabilities and organizational requirements, just as importantly it must bolster the image of the armed forces and seek to counter the sustained propaganda/political warfare campaigns unleashed by Beijing to undermine morale in the troops, destroy the reputation of the military at home and abroad, and convince the Taiwanese population, as well as Taiwan’s allies, that resistance is futile. In other words, the people, not the Chinese military, might be Taiwan’s worst enemy.

The context

Over the past 10 or 15 years, security experts who make the Taiwan Strait their area of specialization have warned that the balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favor. Using quantitative and qualitative data points, analysts almost unanimously argue today that Taiwan can no longer hope to prevail in a major conventional armed conflict with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The situation has become such that the main question that is now being asked is not whether the Taiwanese side could prevail, but rather how long it could hold the fort before the Chinese take control of the country. The answer to that question ranges from three weeks to as little as two days, depending on the scenarios used and the people asked.

That said, the idea that the PLA would launch such major operations in the Taiwan Strait, though not entirely implausible, is highly unlikely at this point. Notwithstanding the advantage that it currently enjoys in terms of balance of power (an advantage that based on trend lines will continue to increase), the leadership in Beijing seems highly reluctant to escalate to such an extent as to launch all-out war against Taiwan, while other, more limited options (e.g., surgical strikes, decapitation attacks, et cetera) are arguably within Taiwan’s ability to counter. Although the PLA would be expected to prevail in such a conflict, the cost of doing so would be immense, not only in terms of material losses and casualties, but also for China’s international reputation and the risks of retaliation, sanctions, and so on. (We should also not underestimate the potential impact of China’s “one child” policy on public willingness to see a large number of their sons killed in a battle for real estate.)

Furthermore, the belief that Beijing is eager to unleash its increasingly powerful military against Taiwan fails to take into account two important and related components of Beijing’s military doctrine and strategy against the island-nation — political warfare and propaganda. Under current circumstances, Beijing’s strategy vis-à-vis Taiwan seems to be to win the battle without having to fire a single shot in anger, an approach to conflict that is deeply rooted in Chinese military traditions going back to Sun Tzu. To do so, it must effectively convince Taiwanese of the futility of resistance and the inevitability of unification, as well as Taiwan’s allies internationally that the island is not only indefensible, but in fact not worth defending.


The first component of Beijing’s strategy to win a war against Taiwan without a fight is propaganda. This multifaceted effort aims to undermine morale in Taiwan by convincing its society that resisting China is the surest path to failure and that unification is not only desirable, but also an inevitable outcome of China’s increasing national power, as Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, recently argued in an op-ed in the Straits Times. The propaganda apparatus cultivates the perception that Taiwanese would not fight, or that doing so would be too costly to the island. Even if economic determinism has already been largely discredited in China’s “peripheries” — Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang — Chinese propaganda nevertheless fosters the idea that Taiwanese can simply be bought, a theme that has been repeated ad nauseam in recent years. Lastly, the propaganda apparatus also endeavors to reinforce the cultural, social, linguistic, “ethnic” and historical commonalities between the peoples on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, while papering over the fundamental — and possibly irreconcilable — differences that exist between the two political systems and societies.

When successful, China’s propaganda efforts can convince the target of the futility of resisting. Why fight one’s brother? Why risk one’s life defending one’s nation against something that is less than aggression? And why, for Taiwan’s allies, meddle in China’s “internal affairs” if the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree to the above propositions, a view that is propagated via Chinese media, academics, Confucius Institutes, and so on, and which maintains that only a “small group” of (irrational and anti-China) “splittists” is opposed to? Needless to say, such efforts can have a negative impact on a nation’s ability to recruit soldiers.

For the most part, Chinese propaganda is an exercise in positive reinforcement of the idea of “one China,” and of its supposed appeal and logic. Its success to date is debatable but by no means insignificant, even if most of it is rooted in a false interpretation of history and contemporary conditions.

Political warfare

Although political warfare also has is positive reinforcement aspects — e.g., cross-strait conferences on culture organized by groups and individuals with direct ties to the PLA’s General Political Department Liaison Department (GPD/LD) — this effort has as its principal objective the undermining of Taiwan’s reputation as a responsible security partner. This is accomplished by PLA GPD officers at international conferences (if they speak good English, they are likely political warfare officers) and through comments to the media (including specialized publications such as Defense News) portraying the Taiwanese military apparatus as incompetent, careless, and/or entirely penetrated by Chinese intelligence.

Despite the détente that has occurred in the Taiwan Strait under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), PLA intelligence collection against Taiwan has been relentless. In fact, it appears to have accelerated. By saturating the island with espionage operations, Beijing has met its objectives in two ways. Firstly, by overwhelming Taiwan’s finite counter-intelligence (CI) apparatus, the PLA likely has collected useful intelligence about Taiwan’s arms acquisition programs, C4ISR architecture, air defense systems, preparedness, and hydrographic data, among others, though the extent of the damage done to national security remains in dispute.

Secondly, the large number of cases of Chinese espionage that were exposed, though constituting a success in terms of CI efforts, nevertheless fuels the perception that Taiwan is completely penetrated by Chinese intelligence, which severely undermines morale, affects public support, and threatens Taiwan’s image with its allies overseas. In fact — and admittedly at this point this is speculation — Beijing may have seen advantages in having some of its espionage operations in Taiwan blown simply because of the bad optics that result from the exposure and arrests. Assuming the gradualism that is usually involved in a standard recruitment operation, many cases in recent years have involved Taiwanese soldiers, active and retired, as well as businessmen who were caught while still ostensibly in the early stages of recruitment. While the damage in terms of classified information accessed by the Chinese side was probably low, such nuance tends to be lost in the media and with the public, which tend to regard the incidents as more evidence of the unreliability of the military and the unstoppable powers of the Chinese intelligence apparatus. This therefore puts the armed forces in a “lose-lose” situation, where even successful CI operations generate bad publicity for the military. Knowing this, and given Beijing’s strategy of undermining the reputation of Taiwan’s military to a point where war can be won without a fight, it is difficult to imagine that the PLA would not have launched a series of operations that are purely symbolic and whose goal is not to collect sensitive information but rather to contribute to the slow erosion of morale on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. At the very least, this is a possibility that should be kept in mind when the decision is made whether to make public the latest arrest in a Chinese spy ring.

The Taiwan side: Issues and recommendations

As if the challenges enumerated in the previous section were not enough, Taiwanese authorities have often compounded the problem with their own behavior. Here are some areas of concern.


With a few exceptions, spies who were caught red-handed have received minor punishments for their acts of treason, which contributes to public perceptions, in Taiwan and overseas, that the military, court system and political apparatus do not take the matter seriously. (According to sources who raised the issue with the Taiwanese government and warned that the situation risked causing serious damage to Taipei’s relations with the U.S., President Ma does not seem to fully appreciate or particularly care for the deleterious impact of those cases.) Homegrown incidents, such as the recent controversy over civilian visits to the AH-64E “Guardian” Apache hangar at an Army base in Taoyuan, or the controversy surrounding the death of Army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) in 2013, have also fanned the flames of discontent. Even though the Apache incident was arguably blown out of proportion by a sensationalist media and opportunist legislators whose grasp of military affairs is often tenuous at best, the case likely would not have turned into a major controversy were it not for the military’s already bad reputation. In other words, its image problem makes cases look worse than they actually are, which in turn further erodes the armed forces’ credibility. If public perceptions of the military and its handling of security matters were positive, isolated incidents would be treated as such and would not result in overreaction on the part of the military leadership, which in the Apache scandal took action based on political considerations rather than as the result of a rational assessment of the situation.

What’s the mission?

The lack of a sense of mission and perceptions within the ranks that the political leadership is not committed to national defense, or that it is reluctant to name the enemy (China) for political considerations (rapprochement as President Ma’s legacy), is problematic and will need to be addressed. Failing that, potential recruits will have every reason to hesitate to join the military. As such, a clear sense of mission and clear objectives — including providing a definition of what constitutes “victory” in a war scenario involving the PLA — would bolster confidence in the armed forces. Few are the would-be soldiers who want to join the military to defend the nation against “mother nature,” which President Ma identified as the nation’s No. 1 enemy a few years ago.

Clearly defining what the military can and cannot do would go a long way in convincing potential recruits that they would be joining an organization that knows what it is doing. The notion that all is lost can be countered by emphasizing that the Taiwanese military already has the ability to meet a number of contingencies, such as surgical missile strikes and limited PLA operations. Reinforcing the notion of deterrence as a strategy of war avoidance — that is, the Taiwanese military as an instrument that promises severe pain to those who would seek to intrude upon its sovereignty — would also be beneficial. A lot more could also be done to position the Taiwan military as a key participant in the U.S.’ “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. Demonstrating to young soldiers that their efforts and sacrifices can contribute to regional security would also increase the military’s appeal by giving it a raison d’être.


Poor training and preparedness, as well as maintenance issues and high “cannibalism” rates, are also problematic and need to be addressed. Soldiers who put their lives on the line need to know that they are doing so with the best possible equipment at their disposal and that they stand a chance of leaving the battlefield on their feet. In other words, Taiwan must dispel the notion that joining the military is akin to joining a suicide unit. Providing proper training would not only make better soldiers; it would also quiet rampant speculation that Taiwanese do not have what it takes to counter an invading force. Live-fire drills must be increased and issues of absenteeism and boredom plugged. Training for the reserve force — which would play a key role during an invasion — must also be improved upon and intensified. Though several factors militate against the emergence of a martial spirit among the Taiwanese, a lot can be done to generate pride in the armed forces. Providing solid basic training is one way to start. A clearer sense of mission, as discussed above, should help increase appeal.


The military’s image itself must be repaired so that joining the armed forces is regarded as a viable career option for young men and women. Salaries have been increased, but much more needs to be done, and such efforts need to be complemented by educational and career assistance to help soldiers find jobs after their term of service, something that the U.S. military does rather well and is worth emulating. One transformation for which former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has not, in my opinion, received enough credit is turning the military into an instrument that answers to and serves the nation rather than a specific political party, as it did in the past (admittedly this is a process that began under president Lee Teng-hui). Part of the effort was meant to help dispel associations of the military with the repressive instrument that it was during the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) eras. Unfortunately, the Ma administration has undone some of those successes by once again over-emphasizing the military’s role in the War of Resistance against the Japanese and celebrating other milestones that have little, if any, emotional appeal among younger Taiwanese — the very group of people the military must appeal to if its struggling all-volunteer force (AVF) program is to succeed. This isn’t to downplay the immense sacrifices that were made by Nationalist soldiers during World War II; but for young people in Taiwan, this is ancient history. More significantly, those developments took place in another country and as such the celebrations and planned book series and documentaries, while interesting from a historical viewpoint, are extremely poor tools for recruitment and the development of a sense of nationalism among future combatants.

Repositioning the military in its contemporary context, one in which it is focused on the defense of Taiwan proper and surrounding islands, would also increase appeal with young recruits. The military would greatly improve its image by abandoning historical legacies — tied to an antiquated constitution — such as the “defense” of the Senkaku/Diaoyutais in the East China Sea and various islets in the South China Sea, for which the majority of Taiwanese, it must be said, could not care less, and which are certainly not worth the loss of a single Taiwanese life.

Countering China

Lastly, the Taiwanese side must do a lot more domestically and overseas to bust the myths that are created through Chinese propaganda and political warfare. Re-emphasizing Taiwan’s value as a democratic ally in the Asia-Pacific and as a willing security partner would be advisable and would involve not only its own political warfare officers but also its diplomatic corps. Taiwan must debunk the idea, which certainly has some currency overseas, that it is “weak” on defense, unwilling to defend itself, and that it has given up, a message that understandably leads its potential allies to ask, Why should my son get in the line of fire against China if Taiwanese themselves aren’t willing to put their lives on the line to defend their country? By proving that Taiwanese would rally around the flag and that they are prepared to do what is necessary to protect their home, Taiwan would increase the chances that other countries will step in to ensure its defense against an external aggressor whose rise, we should add, is now causing serious concerns within the region and thus new opportunities for partnerships.


This article is based on a talk given by the author at the “The Future of Taiwan’s Defense Policy and Military Transformation” conference at National Tsing Hua University’s (NTHU) Center for Asia Policy on April 16, 2015.

2 Responses to “Taiwanese Military Reform and PLA Political Warfare”

April 17, 2015 at 12:59 pm, Mike Fagan said:

I think all of the suggestions here are worthwhile, but this one in particular…

“Reinforcing the notion of deterrence as a strategy of war avoidance — that is, the Taiwanese military as an instrument that promises severe pain to those who would seek to intrude upon its sovereignty — would also be beneficial.”

… might be the most important one. The assumption of U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf is a luxury, and one that should not be relied upon – not simply by military planners, but by the public at large. Taiwan simply must have deterrence strategies of its’ own that do not require U.S. help, and at least some of these should be alluded to in public if not exhibited and explained to the public. However, deterrence strategies based on the ability to strike targets in China itself require a vast increase in the military budget (most obviously for AIP submarines) which would almost certainly mean budget cuts elsewhere.

Yet what sign is there that either Tsai Ing-wen herself, or the support base from which the DPP draws, are actually prepared and willing to try to implement the necessary budget changes? The outside observer could surely be forgiven for thinking that they have few horizons beyond spending yet more money on bicycle paths, solar panels and other luxuries.


April 18, 2015 at 1:22 am, Colonel FOG said:

I suggest that the MND should make a dedicated effort to generate frequent Joint Military Operations with the ASEAN Member States, and with Japan. China keeps punching holes in the regions around it, carving it up piecemeal. In one-on-one scenarios, there is certainly no means for smaller countries to defend themselves against the behemoth, China. “A house divided cannot stand.”

The nations facing China’s aggression need to link arms and make a firm statement that “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” A joint air-and-sea blockade of China’s military facilities that were created as “Acts of War” in the South China Sea is in order. The intent to engage in such action should be presented by an ASEAN representive in front of the UN Assembly. It is time to plead for an acknowledgement by the UN General Assembly that the PRC is engaging in hostile and aggressive activities that are in violation of the UN Charter. It must be publicly recognized and declared by all that the PRC is an Aggressor Nation, and as such should have its position on the UN Security Council revoked.

“United we stand. Divided we fall.”


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