The Challenges and Imperatives in Taiwan's Defense

Report Asia

The Challenges and Imperatives in Taiwan's Defense

February 3, 2003 11 min read
Peter Brookes
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.

It is both a pleasure and an honor to have been asked to present some opening remarks at this meeting. I want to commend the Taiwanese, American, and British organizers for putting together this important conference.

As I look around the room, I see that I am speaking to an audience of key decision-makers, public opinion leaders, and true experts on national security affairs. You surely face a complex set of variables, influences, and political pressures in debating Taiwan's security. Your deliberations are critical to the future of Taiwan and for democracy in the Western Pacific.

The Taiwan Strait is certainly one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world, and perhaps--in its complexity--the most challenging in the Asia-Pacific region. It is arguably more complex than the current situation with North Korea.

The prospects for stability over the next several years are uncertain. The United States maintains a strong interest in assisting the democratically elected government of Taiwan to deter the People's Republic of China's use of force and in ensuring Taiwan has a sufficient self-defense capability to defeat PRC efforts should deterrence fail.

Beijing can have no illusions with regard to America's commitments to Taiwan's security since they are embedded in United States law in the form of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. To this end, the United States also has an interest in ensuring that Taiwan develops a rational, civilian-controlled defense establishment and a highly capable military that is able to function effectively in deterring and defending against aggression.


It is difficult to overstate the incredible array of challenges that Taiwan faces in the years ahead. I would like to stress five in particular: (1) an ambitious PRC force modernization program; (2) Taiwan's continued international isolation; (3) elements resistant to reform within Taiwan's defense establishment; (4) a stovepiped bureaucracy; and (5) a restrictive economic environment.

PRC Military Modernization
The first and foremost challenge that Taiwan faces is a concerted PRC program to gain the ability to use force decisively sooner rather than later. China is working toward multiple options for coercion or physical occupation of the island. The United States stands by the fact that Taiwan's future must be settled in a peaceful and mutually agreeable manner.

The PRC's force modernization appears to be outpacing Taiwan's. The dynamic equilibrium in the military balance of power is shifting toward the PRC. Moreover, the People's Liberation Army is striving to be able to press home their attack before American forces can intervene. This places a new series of requirements upon Taiwan's military.

China's modernization is focused on exploiting vulnerabilities in Taiwan's national and operational level command and control system, its integrated air defense system, and its reliance on sea lines of communication as an island nation. We must expect that if Beijing does choose a military option, the PRC will make every effort to deter, delay, and deny U.S. intervention and military operations.

International Isolation
Taiwan is challenged by its isolated status in the international community. The United States stands alone among major countries in its declared willingness to assist and help defend Taiwan's democracy.

But while our commitment is strong, Taiwan should nevertheless seek avenues in defense diplomacy with other countries. Despite U.S. efforts and support, Taiwan's isolation from the rest of the international community impedes its ability to benefit from the knowledge and experience that are derived from interaction with foreign military establishments.

Its isolation also limits choices on procurement and force modernization, and limits its ability to exploit technological, organizational, and doctrinal aspects of the ongoing revolution in military affairs. Uncertainties with regard to procurement of foreign weapon systems complicate development of a long-term coherent force modernization strategy.

Military Conservatism
Taiwan's isolation may be related to a third challenge--elements within Taiwan's defense establishment that appear reluctant to make the requisite changes in order to improve Taiwan's fighting efficiency and effectiveness and ensure its ability to deter and counter PRC coercion and other forms of aggression. This must be overcome.

While "transformation" appears to be the buzzword of the moment in military circles, almost every organization, including many in the United States, resists change--yet change is necessary. Initiative, innovation, and evolution are critical.

Stovepiped Bureaucracy
Another challenge is a defense establishment, including the military, that operates in relative isolation from the rest of Taiwan's governmental bureaucracy.

A greater degree of cooperation between military and other departments within the government would enhance Taiwan's ability to react rapidly and efficiently to crisis situations and other natural disasters. A unity of purpose and synergy of effort is needed and, indeed, required.

Economic Pressures
The Administration of Chen Shui-bian also faces challenges stemming from the island's economic downturn. Taiwan's economic challenges have created a constrained budget environment that requires Taiwan to think more innovatively about its defense needs and develop a more efficient, rational acquisition process that marries strategy and defense system development and procurement.

Furthermore, I would caution Taiwan's leadership, both civilian and military, to weigh the dramatic growth in China's offensive capabilities. Taiwan's indecision on key defense needs such as increasing the defense budget, C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], naval power and maritime surveillance, an integrated air defense and personnel, equipment, and logistics readiness is giving some the impression that Taiwan does not take its self-defense seriously.

Taiwan's defense budget must reflect its commitment to its own security.


These challenges are serious, but fortunately they are not insurmountable. To overcome these challenges, Taiwan must be committed to fundamental reform and willing to commit the necessary financial resources to maintain a rough parity in the cross-Strait balance of power. The ability to withstand any PRC attempt at military coercion, at least until friendly forces can intervene, is key to your national security.

There are at least four imperatives that should guide Taiwan's approach to self-defense. Many of these imperatives already are being addressed through implementation of Taiwan's National and Defense Reorganization Laws. If faithfully executed, these laws may hold the key to Taiwan's ability to ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait. I commend the progress that has already been achieved.

Among the most important imperatives are (1) greater focus on coercive scenarios; (2) prioritization and rationality in Taiwan's defense planning; (3) force modernization; and (4) the enhancement of civil-military relations.

Greater Focus on Coercive Scenarios
I believe that Taiwan should place greater emphasis on preparing for coercive uses of force, short of a full-scale amphibious invasion by the PRC. In coercive uses of force, the strategic center of gravity is Taiwan's political and military authorities. PRC coercion or compellance would seek to undermine national will, morale, and resolve.

The PRC may seek to affect Taiwan's national resolve in a number of ways, including targeting its international support, undercutting or denying its military capabilities, attempting to provoke a severe downturn in the economy, sowing dissent within the domestic polity, or "decapitating" Taiwan's political leadership. Coercive uses of force could take many forms, including information warfare attacks, air and missile strikes, or a naval blockade.

In fact, there is a school of thought that says that the PRC's ability to successfully coerce Taiwan is dependent upon its ability to mount a credible threat of invasion. But while holding this threat over Taiwan, other coercive scenarios, short of a full-scale invasion, can be just as dangerous and even more likely.

Greater focus on limited uses of force in a coercive context does not mean Taiwan shouldn't be prepared for a worst-case scenario--the amphibious invasion. But Taiwan must be ready for a wide range of military scenarios and pursue a comprehensive defense posture able to deal with the full spectrum of military threats presented by Beijing.

Prioritization and Rationalization in Defense Planning
I believe that the Ministry of National Defense must prioritize efficient defense planning, acquisition, programming, and budgeting. The establishment of offices, subordinate to your Minister of Defense, responsible for strategic planning, integrated analysis, and the acquisition function is a positive step in this direction.

A top-down approach to strategy and force planning normally involves development of a coherent national security strategy and, by extension, should facilitate the drafting of a viable national military strategy. These national strategies in turn will be supported by the necessary acquisition programs to allow national command authorities to execute defense plans.

Force Modernization
National strategies should guide Taiwan's force modernization. In light of PRC military modernization, certain requirements should be readily apparent. I will list just a few:

  • First, it is imperative that Taiwan has a survivable national command and control system with sufficient strategic and tactical warning of hostile action, and survivable national and defense information infrastructures. The island must be able to withstand initial strikes and regain an operational capability quickly and efficiently.
  • Taiwan's three services must be interoperable and able to function as a team. Joint operations are vital.
  • Taiwan must be able to protect its critical civil infrastructure and ensure continuity of services to the government, military, and general populace. The island must be able to maintain access to sea and air lines of communication. And the military must be able to defend against an amphibious invasion.
  • Taiwan must be able to defend against a PRC air and missile campaign. Taiwan must understand that an integrated approach to air defense is critical, and Taiwan should begin now to develop an autonomous missile defense to defend against the growing PRC missile threat.
  • However, while active missile defenses are important, there should be no misconception that it is the perfect solution. Missile defenses are most effective if they are part of an integrated, layered approach to defending against air and missile threats.
  • A number of trends should encourage Taiwan toward a defensive strategy that contains a limited offensive element to deter the PRC use of force and, if necessary, deny or at least complicate execution of a PRC campaign against the island.
  • In the years ahead, effective self-defense, particularly against the growing PRC threat, may require strikes against PRC offensive forces offshore. Such actions would be intended to disrupt the pace and scope of military operations. To be effective, considerable training and practice are essential.
  • In order to effectively operate its weapon systems and execute its defense plans, Taiwan must foster a highly competent, professional officer and non-commissioned officer corps and enlisted forces. Taiwan also requires a progressive military education system that ensures professionalism and encourages innovation. You must begin to develop future leaders today.

Enhancement of Civil-Military Relations
Finally, Taiwan should enhance civil-military relations. Taiwan's military no longer can operate in isolation. Political considerations will define the nature of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, to include its scope, intensity, and duration.

Taiwan needs a transparent and accountable military that is responsive to its democratically elected political leadership. Unity of purpose, maintenance of discipline within the leadership, and the seamless interplay between the political and military leadership is critical for resisting PRC coercion or aggression.

I am confident that the Taiwan military would obey the direction of its democratically elected leadership. Problems in civil-military relations, thus, are not only questions about civilian control of the military, but questions about civilian participation in the defense policy process.

Taiwan must invest in a cadre of qualified civilians experienced in the management of defense affairs. The argument often heard in Taiwan that civilian defense specialists are not qualified to comment on defense matters does not hold much water in the U.S., Japan, and other countries, all of which rely heavily on the expertise of civilian defense experts.

In addition, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense must be capable of executing combined operations with civil agencies and law enforcement authorities. It also must be responsive to media scrutiny and legislative oversight.

Lastly, it is essential that Taiwan also develop laws that will establish a common means of protecting classified information. Frequent leaks of sensitive defense information can undermine your national security as well as any relationship with current or future defense partners.


The United States has a strong interest in Taiwan's overcoming the challenges to its national security. The United States should continue to provide necessary defense articles and services, and to help Taiwan along in reforming its defense establishment.

However, the main responsibility for this task lies with Taiwan. The United States should continue to assist you to deter PRC use of force and maintain a robust defense capability.

Washington does so because it is in the U.S. interest, Taiwan's interest, and in the best interest of the entire region. But in any actual wartime scenario, the initial combat burden necessarily must be borne by Taiwan's fighting forces. Taiwan's armed forces must be ready.

There is much work to be done, but I am confident the people, the armed forces, and the political leadership of Taiwan have the wherewithal to get it done and get it done right.

Peter Brookes is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered at the Taiwan Security and Air Power Conference held in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 9, 2003.


Peter Brookes
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs