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Taiwan: Vulnerable in ways it has not been before

Taiwan: Vulnerable in ways it has not been before
Published 10 Feb 2016 

Taiwan's incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration is about to come face to face with unprecedented vulnerabilities in national security, thanks to a variety of factors which the new government is likely to find difficult to alter in the near future.

For more than 30 years from 1949, the modernisation of Taipei's armed forces, particularly its air force and navy investments, followed the lead of Beijing, as Taiwan sought to keep pace with its primary security threat. Then, following the democratisation movement of the 1990s, the Kuomintang gave way to the DPP. However, the Chen Shui-bian Administration (in power from 2000 to 2008), lacked a congressional majority, and opposing parties repeatedly rejected budget measures, including new submarines and other major military projects. The subsequent Ma Ying-Jeou Administration, which had a policy of cross-Strait integration, did proceed with a narrow range of military build-ups but with a defence budget that never tracked above 3% of GDP. The major programs of recent years, such as new P-3C anti-submarine aircraft and Apache helicopters, were largely planned before 2008 (with the exception of upgrades for Taiwan's F-16A/Bs and the Navy's two Perry class frigates).

Taiwan's indigenous defence industry has provided some local designs such as the Tuo Chiang-class stealth corvette and the CM-32 armoured vehicle, but limited budgets and domestic technological capacity have constrained the internal supply of arms.

All three of Taiwan armed services need modernisation. Taiwan's air force receives the most investment but still there is no plan to upgrade or replace its fleet of Mirage 2000-5 and F-5E/F fighters, which are due to be phased out of service over the next four years. The upgrades to Taiwan's F-16s and the Indigenous Defence Fighter notwithstanding, the loss of Mirages and F-5s would put Taiwan's air power in an even worse position against China's air force, with its J-10s, J-11Bs, J-16s and other advanced fighters.

As for Taiwan's navy, China's anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capability, which deny the US and others militaries a maritime military presence in the western Pacific, have forced Taiwan to focus its  strategy on sea denial, most recently evidenced in launches of its stealth missile boats and corvettes. However, without any new submarines, Taiwan's small fleet, which includes two submarines that are more than 70 years old, Taiwan's sea denial capability is incomplete. Meanwhile, the the air/missile defence capability of the Navy's major surface combatants, unless improved, may not be adequate to match China's A2/AD capability.

Taiwan's army is most in need of modernisation. In addition to a range of World War II artillery pieces, its armoured vehicles, including tanks, lack modern protection such as reactive or layered armour, and would be vulnerable against most modern anti-tank weapons.

However, promises of economic development and social welfare made by Taiwan's newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen, especially when combined with the government's detoriating financial capacity, will not leave much room for increased military spending. Furthermore, most of the DPP's new legislators appear to have little interest in defence, which suggests it will be a low priority for the new administration. While the DPP Administration could begin some projects, such as the indigenous submarine and combat aircraft, these investments will take years to come to fruition. For the foreseeable future, it seems the mainstay of Taiwan's defence will remain its aging arsenal.

Taiwan is also exposed to the threat of irregular warfare. Through cross-Strait integration, the number of Chinese tourists, students and business travelers to Taiwan is growing. Chinese intelligence agencies can deploy agents under such covers. Chinese companies' extensive investments and business operations in Taiwan also provide opportunities to collect information and influence the local economy. Taipei has little capacity to respond to such threats, which would complicate a cross-Strait conflict. For example, Taiwan's air defence relies heavily on surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to compensate for quantitative weaknesses. But those SAM systems could be easily paralysed by sabotage or attacks from light weapons, especially during their movement to tactical positions. If Beijing deployed its special forces in advance of a conflict, Taipei's air defence capability could be considerably degraded, making it easier for China to conduct an air campaign or secure air superiority.

Taiwan's armed forces also have a human resources problem. Unlike most countries shifting from conscription to a volunteer force, Taiwan is under threat from the second-strongest military power in the world, with firepower that covers the entire island. It is arguably unrealistic to expect an all-volunteer force made up of just a small portion of the population to shoulder the island's defence. Despite repeated failures to recruit sufficient soldiers, however, the official policy of transforming to a volunteer force is still unchanged.

Of course, any discussion of a military confrontation between Taiwan and China has to consider the US, which has has been a key player in the Taiwan Strait since 1950. Its regional military presence ameliorates China's strategic pressure on Taiwan. However, as the cost of military intervention into the Taiwan Strait increases, America's willingness to take action may become uncertain, and military response times could become longer as Chinese military capability improves.

So while Taipei's own defence capability is more critical than ever before, there are significant obstacles in the way of much needed improvements.

Photo by Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket via Getty Images

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