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Taiwan referendum = big military challenges
By Stephen Blank

Taiwan's referendum on China's menacing missile deployment ended inconclusively and did not give authoritative direction to the government - although 87 percent of those who voted opposed China's deployment of nearly 500 missiles and supported acquisition of advanced anti-missile technology to counter the mainland threat. Still, not enough voters cast ballots - less than the required 50 percent of all registered voters - for the referendum to be considered valid.

So, the referendum failed to give either the Taiwanese government or the people a clear sense of how the nation views the ever-rising threat of Chinese missiles deployed across the Taiwan Strait. Nor did it give Taipei any clear basis for taking appropriate military action to deter this or other threats. Thus Taiwan's government and armed forces are obliged to counter this and other threats without any dependable mandate or guide to action.

(The Ministry of National Defense had said that it intends to go through with its purchase of United States-made Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems - whatever the result of the referendum. The deal has already been agreed with the US. But that's only part of what Taiwan needs and will need.)

Taiwan faces such a difficult strategic environment that many observers both inside and outside of Taiwan are now talking about the need for a strategy of so-called "active defense" that entails both defensive and offensive actions. This could mean taking the battle to the mainland, either through air strikes or attacks on the missile sites in particular. This scenario is fraught with risk and is still in the think-tank stage, observers say.

Indeed, Taiwan confronts an increasingly intolerable military situation. In general, as China's power and wealth grows, it is increasingly able to isolate Taiwan diplomatically throughout the world.

China's 11.6% hike in defense spending
Further, China announced at its recent National Peoples' Congress an increase of 11.6 percent in its annual defense spending for this year. Moreover, this figure does not increase the costs either of procurement of weapons or of research and development, leading analysts to believe that real spending is four times higher than what is openly announced.

China can thus register double-digit increases in military spending annually and close the gap that had hitherto existed between its capabilities and those of Taiwan. Therefore most military analysts believe that China will acquire a discernible military superiority over Taiwan some time this decade, assuming all things remain equal.

Taiwan's economy continues to sputter, its military reforms are proceeding slowly and encountering considerable internal resistance, and it appears to be somewhat adrift in its strategic planning. Given the growing range of Chinese military threats it confronts and its unenviable strategic situation, this is not surprising. But continuation of these trends risks creating a volatile situation around Taiwan because the one certain result of its close and disputed election on March 20 is its people's passion for democracy - a passion and a goal unacceptable to Beijing and at the root of the crisis over Taiwan's future.

China's military is the leading edge of the government's pressure against Taiwan. Taiwan faces threats that go far beyond the danger posed by the annual addition of some 50-75 conventionally armed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles on the Chinese side. Those missiles now total approximately 500, including modified M11A and M9A missiles that have a range of 600 and 500 kilometers respectively and can strike any area of Taiwan from their bases in the Nanjing military region encompassing Fujian, Jiangsi, Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces.

China's government and armed forces are undertaking a comprehensive buildup of naval, air and ground forces, space capabilities, and general capabilities for waging information warfare. The objective: not only to intimidate Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, but also to deter the US from coming to Taiwan's defense. China has never renounced the use of force as a last resort in order to reunify the island with the mainland. Beijing's representatives in Washington had urged members of the US Congress to urge Taiwan to vote against the referendum's questions. Because of Beijing's and Washington's pressure, the referendum questions were watered-down, but still deeply troubling to Beijing, which rejects the notion that the people of the island have any right to referendum.

China's amphibious, aerial and missile maneuvers
It staged amphibious and aerial maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait in February, and also conducted missile maneuvers last month - annual exercises that took on greater significance given Taiwan's presidential election and referendum. China also staged joint military exercises with France this month in the Taiwan Strait - a reminder to voters on the eve of the Taiwan presidential election and defense referendum.

Taiwan thus faces serious challenges from conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, surface vessels and China's air force. China also is steadily upgrading its amphibious force's capability, suggesting an effort to at least acquire the option of actually invading the island.

China not only has been materially assisted by acquisition of Russian arms and technology, it also is increasingly able to produce its own weapons using indigenous, Russian or other foreign technologies, enabling it to put a man into space and undertake an extensive shipbuilding program. Increasingly, China is buying technologies rather than weapons from Russia and other sources. It also is now fielding new indigenous jets like the Jian-10, which boasts semi-stealth capabilities

All these actions indicate that Beijing's rising confidence in its ability to use power to restrain Taiwan and its rising concerns over Taiwan's democratization and independence impulses.

While this may be a paradoxical development - increasing Chinese power and increasing anxiety over Taiwan - it is no less a real phenomenon, and a highly dangerous one, given developments on the island.

Taiwan's military reform is urgent
The evolving strategic context puts enormous pressure on Taiwan's leaders and strategic planners who face an uncertain public - threatened by China and the political opposition to oppose the defense referendum - a sputtering economy, and a military machine that has admittedly not fully awakened to the need for reform of its strategy, operations, missions, force structure and still lacks a full appreciation of the range and diversity of threats that it faces.

It is difficult for Taiwan policymakers to discern just what is the priority threat posed by China and to respond accordingly, given that any military budgetary process must make decisions based on priorities and cannot cover all contingencies. As the range and sophistication of China's capabilities grows, and it presents an increasingly diverse and highly visible "menu" of threats, Taiwan's strategic planners must undertake military reforms under pressure and accept the possibility that they might have to fight without US support for an extended period of time.

It is a sign of the difficult strategic environment that many observers both inside and outside Taiwan are now talking about the need for a strategy of "active defense" calling for both defensive and offensive actions. This could mean taking the battle to the mainland, either through air strikes or attacks on missile sites. Some strategists say that even floating such an idea might have a deterrent effect.

So far, this is think-tank talk. Obviously such a strategy, whatever its merits as a strategy of deterrence, also raises the possibility of a much more dangerous and wider battle. Obviously no government in Beijing would be prepared to accept such strikes on its assets or territory and such a strategy could therefore precipitate an all-out war. This is also because no Beijing government that goes to war can then afford to lose the war over Taiwan. That outcome certainly spells the end of its and the Communist Party's power.

Preemptive strikes dangerous and far-fetched
The calls for a strategy based on taking the battle to the mainland at least under certain conditions, also invokes the necessity of preemptive strikes or of preventive war, which are not the same thing. But in either case, they mean that in this scenario Taiwan's leaders would see a materializing threat that they would have to strike at before it struck at Taiwan. Again such doctrines are fraught with the most dangerous unpredictability whatever value they may have as deterrents to a Chinese attack.

Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that Taiwan's US friends are urging it to undertake ever deeper and more systematic military reforms, to bring its military more fully into the 21st century, to spend more on defense and not to cut the armed forces. Moreover, they want Taiwan to make better use of its existing weapons and capabilities and potential American support in the form of arms sales.

These actions to strengthen the military require strong political leadership, a clear threat assessment by Taiwan's strategic leadership and a growing public commitment to meet the Chinese threat - in dollars, not referendums. Many foreign observers remain dubious that this can happen or is happening with sufficient urgency and some have expressed concern in policy circles over the risk inherent in the active defense scenario or the idea of taking the battle to the mainland.

The uncertainty and failure of the referendum on defense will likely make it harder to push for such comprehensive military reforms and rethinking of Taiwan's strategic challenges or of its opportunities, which are by no means negligible. But the failure to undertake such reforms and rethinking will only heighten the already high tension around the island, especially as China realizes its expected military superiority.

In other words, despite the inconclusive outcome of the referendum and the extremely close presidential election, for Taiwan's leadership the future is now. If the leaders hope to preserve the island's hard-won virtual independence, liberty, democracy and prosperity, they must take vigorous strategic military and political action - now before their options narrow to the point that others might have to make those decisions for them.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Mar 24, 2004

China has credible Taiwan attack options: US (Mar 2, '04)

China-Taiwan arms race quickens (Feb 24, '04)

Ignore the rhetoric, China won't attack Taiwan (Feb 11, '04)


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