Don't Belittle Taiwan's Effort To Defend Itself
By Dan Blumenthal & Gary Schmitt
Asian Wall Street Journal
September 2, 2005

Time and again, in meeting after meeting, one hears the following refrain from American policy experts when talking about Taiwan: "If they aren't serious about defending themselves, why should we risk our blood and treasure to help them fend off a Chinese attack?" The proximate cause for this and similar remarks is that Taiwan has not yet purchased a major package of military systems offered in 2001 by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. That package includes eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 submarine-hunting planes, and several batteries of PAC-3 anti-missile missiles. The delay is all too often used to convey the impression that Taiwan is free riding, counting on U.S. carriers and jets (and of course American sailors and airmen) to deter China rather than relying on its own efforts.

The truth about Taiwan's defense effort, when examined more closely, is very different. From 1996 to 2003, for instance, Taiwan was the second largest recipient of arms purchased from the U.S. Nor did the spending stop when Chen Shui-bian became president in 2001. Among the major purchases his government has made since then are the American-built Kidd class destroyers, an advanced early-warning radar, upgraded Hawk anti-air missile systems, and the Joint Tactical Information Distribution system, a system designed to upgrade Taiwan's command, control and communication capabilities between military services and platforms.

Nor has his government ignored the software side of military modernization. It has spent tens of millions to send hundreds of Taiwanese officers to the U.S. for training and exchanges with the Pentagon and defense experts to update its military planning and strategy. At the same time, the Chen administration successfully implemented a legislative package of defense reforms designed to ensure civilian control of the military, establish a joint staff, and create a civilian strategic-planning department that would rationalize defense decision making and make it less service parochial.

When it comes to the Bush administration's big-ticket arms offers, the story is more complicated. While there is plenty of blame to go around, the least guilty party in finalizing the purchase has been the Chen administration. Although the Bush team should be lauded for approving the sale of systems that had been denied by the Clinton administration, it was always unrealistic to think Taiwan could absorb $30 billion worth of new weapon systems in a short period when its procurement and acquisition budget has historically averaged $400-500 million a year.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the biggest of the big-ticket items -- the eight submarines -- was an unknown quantity. The U.S. no longer produces diesel-powered submarines and potential European partners were too intimidated by China to partner openly with U.S. contractors to fill the order. As a result, the Pentagon went through a time-consuming process of developing a price for a notional submarine that fits Taiwan's specifications. This resulted in Taiwan not getting any estimate of the cost of the submarines until early 2003. Similar problems plagued the purchase of the P-3s, causing further delays. With no high-level champion in the U.S. government to oversee the implementation of the sale, there was little bureaucratic urgency to move the programs along.

But, since the end of 2003, the main cause of the delay has come from within Taiwan. The Chen administration inherited a defense and military establishment whose elite had come up through a system in which Kuomintang party indoctrination was the norm and who, for its own political reasons, favored ground forces. A good number of senior officers were not only openly hostile to President's Chen's political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, but also lukewarm about a new defense strategy that would emphasize air and sea power. One consequence was that, for a short period, key figures in Taiwan's defense establishment slowed the procurement process -- a problem President Chen fixed when he changed defense chiefs the day after he was sworn in for his second term in May 2004.

By far the biggest problem has been the effort by the coalition of opposition parties -- led by the KMT -- to block legislative consideration of the special budget put forward by the government to purchase the systems being offered by Washington. On more than two dozen occasions, the pan-Blue coalition has prevented the measure from even being taken up by the relevant defense committee of Legislative Yuan.

Say what you want about the Chen's administration's handling of any number of issues, but the blame for not acting on the weapons package lies squarely with the opposition. Although it is true that defense spending as a percentage of Taiwan's GDP has declined over the past decade, the largest decline took place in the years when the KMT was still in charge. In any case, Taiwan's defense burden as a percentage of GDP -- at 2.4% -- is still greater than virtually all other American allies, and may increase with the recent call by President Chen for the government to spend at least of 3% of the country's GDP on its defenses by 2008.

Taiwan could certainly do more. But the idea that the Chen administration is not serious about defending Taiwan is largely a tale told by sinologists and American government officials who would like an excuse for the problem of Taiwan to just go away.

But the problem is not going away precisely because Beijing continues to increase its military capability to coerce democratic Taiwan into unification with the mainland. Rather than constantly belittling Taiwan's effort to defend itself, it would be better to focus on the real issue, which is how to work more closely with Taiwan to address the unprecedented military build-up taking place across the Strait.

Mr. Blumenthal is resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense. Mr. Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century.