Big changes are underway in Taiwan. Earlier this year, the country’s political landscape was significantly reshaped, as Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to victory in the combined presidential and legislative elections, defeating the incumbent Kuomintang party. Even as the first female president-elect of the Chinese-speaking world assured voters that she would maintain a “consistent, predictable, and sustainable” relationship with Mainland China, a mere 110 miles away, the DPP’s landslide victory is likely to cause major ripples in already tenuous cross-strait relations. In sharp contrast to the Kuomintang party (KMT), which engaged in a policy of political, economic and cultural rapprochement with Mainland China, the newly elected DPP has tended to be more assertive of a distinct Taiwanese national identity and advocates greater independence from the Mainland. New leadership in the Presidential Palace will likely mean a revised defense strategy and new attitude in the region. Under the DPP’s leadership, Taiwan will need to avoid head-on conflict while still drawing contrast with the previous administration’s relationship with the mainland.
Of course, independence was not the only issue that shaped the elections. In fact, the electorate’s main complaints were on socioeconomic and domestic issues, including volatile property prices in urban areas, stagnant wages, and reduced worker benefits. Nonetheless, for a nation haunted by memories of the 1940s Chinese Civil War and under the persistent military dominance from the Communist government in the mainland, cross-strait issues remain an indelible area of concern. This is especially true for many of Taiwan’s politically engaged youth, who feel disenfranchised with the KMT. Many young people feel the KMT has sacrificed Taiwanese interests and cultural identity to strengthen ties with Mainland China. This sentiment was a driving factor for the DPP’s success among young voters. A burgeoning sense of Taiwanese identity is prevalent among the general population: a new poll conducted by think tank named Taiwan Braintrust show that nearly 90 percent of Taiwan’s population would identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese given the two choices.
As for president-elect Tsai, the soft-spoken, Cornell-educated lawyer has remained ambiguous about her stance on the so-called 1992 consensus, a term used to describe the mutual cross-strait agreement of the One-China principle. When her party, was last in power from 2000-2008, the DPP officially rejected the agreement, leading Mainland China to denounce then-president Chen Shui-bian as a “troublemaker and saboteur of cross-strait ties.”
For many academics studying the region, the DPP’s renewed electoral success comes as no surprise. During the election campaign, Richard C. Bush, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, outlined various possible cross-strait scenarios. Because presidential elections in Taiwan “produce new leaders, and often, new policies towards China,” Bush believes these elections are the main variable in the level of cross-strait tension.
Just last week, the Ministry of National Defense of Taiwan (MND) reported Chinese deployment of advanced surface-to-air missile system in Woody Island in the South China Sea. In addition to the short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, the PRC continues to gain military presence in the South China Sea. However, according to Bush, a direct military confrontation seems unlikely since Taiwan’s national security is backed up largely by the US State Department. State’s commitment to Taiwan’s security has continually been shown through events like the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 1990s and the US supply of arms to Taiwan. In light of the recent election, Mainland cross-strait policies showed reduced Mainland tourism and “stopping preferential treatment for Taiwan agricultural products,” yet at the same time Beijing is held from initiating any aggression. While it seeks to strengthen the military capacities of Taiwan, whose defense budget is less than ten percent of the Mainland’s, the US is also intent on preventing any form of escalation that could destabilize the region and refuses to support Taiwan independence.
In his analysis of cross-strait relations, Bush advises the use of dual deterrence. This policy, also known as strategic ambiguity, focuses on accountability for either side of the Strait if either intends to provoke political strife. The purpose of dual deterrence is to “exercise restraint and flexibility and warning against a unilateral change in the status quo by either side”.
However, dual deterrence only works if Taiwan can establish its own credible deterrence. The most important task is to boost the public image of Taiwanese armed forces, especially in the eyes of able-bodied Taiwanese youth, many of which do not view joining the armed forces as a viable career path; to many, the armed forces lead to a life of limited social mobility and reduced educational opportunities. Currently, the armed forces have a sort of dual military. Part of it is made up of conscripted young men, born before 1993, who serve mandatory terms in the military. The other part is made up of volunteers who choose to go into the armed services. Currently, there are efforts underway to raise the salary of servicemen and improve the prospects for careers after the military. In essence, the government is trying to make the military more enticing to volunteers so that it can transition to a voluntary-only military. However, efforts of doing so have been met with due obstacle. President Ma announced last August that the implementation of all-voluntary military plan will be postponed due to not meeting recruitment targets. When Tsai takes office in May, she will face similar challenges of moving towards phasing out conscription and ensure recruitments target are met in a timely manner to prevent another postponement.
Apart from the logistics of military defense, Tsai must realign action and mission. The previous administration’s focus on economic cooperation between Taiwan and the Mainland has led to a lack of attention to defense strategy and equipment. Taiwan’s defense strategy draws heavily upon its navy and air leaving its army and marines a withered force. Moreover, the military’s amphibious capabilities are too “mechanized, and not particularly mobile.” In terms of defense doctrine, Taiwan needs to adopt defense strategies instead of control strategies; the military is currently heavily focused on seeking to control areas rather than to defend them. This concentration of troops leaves them vulnerable across the board, and even where there are troops, evidence suggests that the Chinese could easily overwhelm them. Taiwan must also make an effort to be able to target Chinese military weak points by purchasing anti-surface and anti-submarine aircrafts. In essence, a denial-of-offense strategy is more fiscally viable and realistic than conventional defense.
In the rare incident of war, deterrence through protraction may be Taiwan most salient choice. A recent study headed by the Vice President of Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments suggests the MND adopts Hard ROC 2.0 where Taiwan must deflect incoming attacks by gaining a good sense of the maritime and airspace environment in the event of war. Novel operational approaches based on this principle which place premiums of “delay, resiliency, furtiveness and deception” will buy time for the international community to punish Beijing for the provocation. This punishment will likely come from the US, which codified de facto protection for Taiwan in 1979 with the Taiwan Relations Act.
Tsai’s balancing of the internal pressures from the now powerful pan-Green coalition and a sensible rethink on defense strategies is key to Taiwan’s standing up to her biggest bully. Even with the ostensible improvements of Taiwan-China relations by the Ma’s administration, six decades of enmity may be a greater challenge for Tsai, whose party is stereotyped as separatist and mercurial. But as the party leader whose political values are distinct from DPP’s early days, her engagement with Taiwan’s international allies begins with self-reform.