The victory of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential elections on Jan. 11 represents a resounding repudiation of Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan. But with attempts to politically subvert Taiwan frustrated, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now far more likely to turn to forced unification via military means. Although it’s always difficult to distinguish rhetoric from intention, the Chinese press has stepped up war talk.
Tackling this means rethinking Taiwan’s approach to its defense. The Taiwanese armed forces have adopted a limited “porcupine” asymmetric defense strategy in the face of the superior size and capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By prepositioning weapons around the island and training its forces to attack invading PLA troops at every turn, Taiwan’s military hopes to make the island indigestible, like a porcupine to any would-be predator. However, it remains dependent on the procurement and deterrence of conventional weapons systems. If Tsai is to maximize the deterrence effect of Taiwan’s limited military resources, she will have to usher in a difficult national discussion about the increased role Taiwan’s society must play in national defense.
In the future, deterring a PLA invasion will require delaying conquest as long as possible in order to allow international military assistance to arrive, which will be difficult to do without a strong presence in urban areas. Taiwan’s military is largely based outside of the urban areas in which 79 percent of Taiwan’s population lives, which would be the focus of any PLA invasion. Delaying the PLA in Taiwan’s cities will in turn require willing Taiwanese citizens to prepare for and resist those attacks.
While the need for such an asymmetric defense is obvious, the present political prospects of reforming Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) and enlisting public support are weak. The MND has adopted a stubbornly resistant institutional position. Criticism of the MND’s approach has not resulted in major change, in part because these alterations require public discussion that would refute the MND’s claims that its strategy and structure are already optimal. If Taiwan hopes to implement the reforms needed to give the PLA second thoughts in coming years, Tsai should initiate a difficult public conversation about the threat of war and what ordinary Taiwanese can do to deter it.
Tsai’s challenge is that there is little precedent for legitimate public discourse about the effectiveness of Taiwan’s military. In most democracies, major change is driven by public discourse and demand for action that in turn incites action by elected leaders. But historically, such discourse has been difficult to incite in Taiwan for multiple reasons. The MND has projected an “all is well” image for decades, and peacetime operations do not expose combat failures that would undermine that message. Unlike the United States, Taiwan does not have well-respected and fully independent think tanks that can openly question Taiwan’s generals, testify to opposing views in the Legislative Yuan, or write op-eds that expose misleading statements by military leaders and highlight gaps in strategy. (Taiwan’s most prominent security think tank is led by a military general and funded by its government, which makes it practically subordinate to the MND leadership.)