As 2017 drew to a close the current leadership in Taipei quashed any hopes it would soon reconcile with Beijing. A new white paper released by the defense ministry on December 26 examined options for successfully defending the country from a full-scale assault. The document came out just days before President Tsai Ing-wen warned of the threat posed to regional peace by a more aggressive China. The pro-independence head of state also announced she is raising the defense budget.
But President Tsai’s prepared remarks didn’t reveal the scale of China’s frequent and unannounced incursions around Taiwan. The previous year had multiple instances when PLA combat aircraft either skirted or entered the island’s air defense identification zone or ADIZ.
Taiwan’s defense ministry released its 2017 National Defense Report as a text-and-graphics heavy booklet together with a more accessible comic adaptation featuring a female soldier surrounded by different high tech weapons on its cover art. Anyone who observes “cross-strait” politics must consider it essential reading but the English language version won’t be out until January.
The two important takeaways from the National Defense Report is the Taiwanese military’s shift in doctrine and the subsequent plans to localize all kinds of arms manufacturing.
It’s now apparent the PLA’s broad modernization since the 1990s has made it superior to Taiwan’s once vaunted armed forces.The National Defense Report acknowledges this and pushes for “asymmetric” warfare contingencies that can eliminate an invasion force before it reaches the country’s shores. This is achievable by “multilayered deterrence”–a term that’s become fashionable since President Tsai took office.
What this means in practice is the acquisition of aircraft, missiles, submarines, and warships to create a battlespace outside Taiwan’s vulnerable coastline. The report suggests taking advantage of the country’s manufacturing sector, rather than buying from abroad, as the best option for achieving “multilayered deterrence” at this point. While US arms sales have provided a lifeline for decades, these have shrunk in the last 20 years. One consequence is Taiwan can no longer protect itself if the entire island is blockaded by air and sea.
Taiwan already builds a variety of unique weapon systems, including an air-launched cruise missile, a MALE UAV, and a world class wheeled personnel carrier. During the 1990s it managed to assemble its own twin engine multirole fighter jet and it now plans on a domestic submarine building program for closing a gap in its naval defenses.
But the Taiwanese military still needs a broader arsenal and imported hardware from the US remains a critical part of its force structure. This is why the annual defense budget is going to be raised by a few percentage points each year. The current estimate puts military spending at 2% of nominal GDP that equaled to $10.5 billion in 2016. Under President Tsai, the total figure would rise by single digit percentages to accommodate US arms sales.