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Tsai's Taiwan
Eyeing China, Taiwan Prepares Military Upgrade

Since she took office in May, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has made it clear there are changes in store for Taipei’s foreign policy. The question has been how extensive they will be, and whether they would involve openly splitting from mainland China. Ing-wen has so far steered a careful course towards a marginally more hawkish position, as this latest South China Morning Post report makes clear:

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen urged the island’s armed forces to change their culture and update their approach as the island carried out its annual military exercises.

She demanded that the island’s defence ministry submit a draft for the reforms by January.

“The challenges the military faces today come from two areas: limitations from outside and insufficiencies from inside,” Tsai told soldiers taking part in the four days of drills, known as the Han Kuang, in Pingtung county, southern Taiwan. “Every step the military takes should follow guidelines,” Tsai said.

Many experts agree that Taiwan’s military needs serious attention. Although Taiwan will never, on its own, be able to repel a full assault by China, in some areas the military is hobbled in more insidious ways. A former Taiwanese general quoted in the article explains:

“One of the characteristics of the [Taiwanese] army is, military leaders say something … their subordinates dare not say otherwise,” Lin said. “Sometimes subordinates even try to guess the top commander’s thinking, and do something to please him. That’s very dangerous.”

If this kind of institutional mindset is prevalent, even modest reforms will have measurable impacts on the armed forces’ readiness. But it’s going to take a lot more than this to make Taiwan a serious international player in the arena of East Asian hard power.

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  • Kev

    It’s very odd, given that the people of Taiwan and mainland China are basically the same people, that Taiwanese continue to insist on keeping their “independence”. You would think that as China is becoming more powerful and prosperous they would reconsider.

    It’s just like the Ukraine – artificially created country is becoming more real as time goes on.

    • Observe&Report

      Of course; it boggles the mind that the people of Taiwan (a rich and developed country in all but name), having enjoyed several decades of liberal democracy and individual rights wouldn’t want to give up that state of affairs to be subsumed by their increasingly powerful, not-as-prosperous, dictatorial neighbour across the water.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Don’t feed the trolls

        • Observe&Report

          Come on, we all do it once in a while.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Point well taken….grin…

        • Kev

          By ‘trolls’ you mean people with arguments you have no answer to?

      • Kev

        I know it seems counter-intuitive to deracinated Western liberals, but there is plenty of evidence that blood is in fact stronger than politics. For example, Russians in Latvia are enthusiastic about Putin and his foreign and domestic policies, despite all the advantages of liberal democracy that they supposedly enjoy in Latvia. For the people in Taiwan China is not some other country, it’s their kin, their fellow Chinese people.

        • Observe&Report
          • Kev

            From wikipedia:
            In a poll dated June 2009, 52.1% of Taiwan’s population consider
            themselves to be only Taiwanese while 39.2% consider themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese and 4.4% consider themselves to be Chinese only.

            The opinion of Taiwanese continues to change, reflecting the problem of national identity which is easily affected by political, social and economic circumstances.

            ^^Again, similarities with Ukraine are striking. Obviously, the regime, the elites in Taiwan would like to preserve their independence. But ordinary people seem seriously confused about who they are.

          • Observe&Report

            Notwithstanding your condescending suggestion that Taiwanese people “seem seriously confused about who they are”, the poll you cite shows that just over half of Taiwanese identify solely as Taiwanese in 2009; the 2016 poll that I cited shows that figure jumping to 80%.

            Furthermore, the 2016 poll also shows that 51.2% of Taiwanese favour independence at some point in the future. With only 14.9% supporting reunification, that leaves roughly 33% in favour of the status quo, i.e. de facto independence.

            Again, your claim that Chinese blood runs thicker than “politics”, i.e. Taiwanese public opinion, are not borne out by the facts.

        • Tom

          Heh. I would point out that the native Taiwanese consider themselves to be ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese mainlanders, so that point is invalid.
          Also, consider Canada vs. the United States.

          • Kev

            Look, I would be the first to admit that Chinese culture and politics are unfamiliar to me. I’m not even sure if the Chinese understand the concept of a nation and ethnicity the same way as Europeans do. But, genetically and culturally the islanders and the mainlanders are the same Chinese people. And polls do suggest that substantial portion of the islanders identify as Chinese.

            USA and Canada are “proposition nations”, not built around any particular ethnic group – at least that’s what any American/Canadian conservative would tell you. lol

          • Tom

            And yes. That was my point.

  • Blackbeard

    What we see here, and what we will see more and more in the coming decades, is the world adjusting to the retreat, and perhaps ultimately the collapse, of American power. In Europe I’m afraid the course is already clear: The Europeans will appease and appease as long as they can and then eventually surrender. But while Europe declines Asia rises. Perhaps some countervailing alliance will arise that can resist Chinese ascendency. I’m doubtful but perhaps.

  • Y.K.

    Taiwan has a known enemy in China, and the possibility of armed conflict is ever present. Yet its army is in a poor state. Why is that?

    Allow me to suggest that this is to an extent a _result_ of its alliance with the US, in particular the type of alliance in question. Indeed, quite a few (though not all) US allies and proxies show the same malaise: the European states definitely; US proxies are notoriously poor fighters compared to their opponents. Furthermore, I posit that a Taiwan which had ditchedits US alliance in the 70s-90s would have been poorer, but the military balance would have been such that an attack by China would have been unthinkable. If Taiwan hadn’t been able to do this conventionally, than Taiwan would easily developed a nuke (only reason it didn’t is due to US insistence).

    The type of military alliance in question is when the US has a military alliance (formal or informal) and is committed towards using its own soldiers to “protect” its ally, and its ally has very pro-American leanings.

    1) The ally in question has a direct reason not to invest in its military: the US will come in to protect.
    2) The US has strong reasons to prevent military investments by its ‘ally’ and limit these to ‘defensive’ weapons. First, if the ally gets overconfident and aggressive it could get the US involved against its will. Second, it increases ally dependency and therefor US leverage.
    3) Inasmuch as US military investments in the local forces are allowed, they will lead to the US’s military culture ‘infecting’ the local one, even though the challenges aren’t comparable at all. Aversion to casualties makes a lot of sense for an overwhelming superior force like the US army. It’s a bad horrible idea for a lightweight Afghan proxy.
    4) The local military balance will therefor get worse and worse.
    5) The US will concede its ally’s interests on everything not related to its core mission. Why get involved in everything else? So in the same manner the diplomatic position will get worse.
    6) Due to the above, the US will require ever greater investment and risk to compensate. Granted the investment may have come anyway (see MI complex), but the risk remains. US policymakers tend to react by an ever greater caution.
    7) Eventually, the US will get tired of the mess. Some ‘bold’ leader will come up and demand dissolving the alliance with the ‘ungrateful’ ally. The question mark over the alliance leads to greater enemy boldness which leads to greater risk and the entire cycle repeats.

    We can see this in full throttle in Taiwan, and to an extent in the EU. Not all are affected: South Korea, Japan and Turkey have to a large extent evaded this. The West European countries during the cold war weren’t so bad either. The main variables are how motivated the ally is to develop its own capabilities and how solid the alliance feels (the more solid it feels, the _worse_ the result is), Ironically, anti-Americanism actually helps the client here (it tends to distrust the US more). Taiwan is a young country with an apparently strong alliance with the US, and with an unusually strong enemy which has gotten closer to the US, so it got the worst of this scenario.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Perhaps the time has come to suggest that the Taiwanese acquire more significant defensive weapons….nukes perhaps? One or two would be more than sufficient to deter any Chinese invasion, and Taiwan has more than sufficient technological capability to build them pretty much immediately. A few quiet hints int he right place might be all that is necessary.

    Please note that the US doesn’t have to actually do this…in fact given the current fool in the White House, they would oppose it. It wouldn’t be difficult for Taiwan to undertake the steps quietly on their own, however, presenting the US and the Chinese with a fait accompli…

    • Y.K.

      This used to be quite possible, but the US under Carter and Reagan stopped the Taiwanese nuclear programme. By now, the military balance has shifted and any ‘quiet’ move towards nukes may lead to a preemptive Chinese attack.

      • f1b0nacc1

        It is a lot easier to build a nuke than it was 30 years ago, and there is no reason to assume that the Taiwanese would be ‘required’ to announce a program until they actually had a few nukes available to deter exactly the sort of attack you are discussing. The Chinese would certainly WISH to launch a preemptive strike, but given a sufficiently high cost for such a strike, they might easily be deterred from doing so…

        • Y.K.

          Of course I don’t assume the Taiwanese would announce such a program ever – there’s however a pretty good chance espionage will get it, since such programs are still rather visible. Nuclear technology hasn’t changed that much, while Chinese penetration of Taiwan has markedly increased.

          And in this particular case, even after the first few nukes we’re still in the danger zone since Taiwan doesn’t have a good delivery mechanism (no non-ancient subs, no long-range ballistic missiles, a few F-16s just won’t cut it). 30 years ago Taiwan could have waltzed to a bomb and China could only look helplessly at Taiwan. These days it is a huge risk.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The Chinese certainly have a deep and broad penetration of the Taiwanese (wow, was that awkward phrasing…must have been all of those Anthony Weiner stories I have been reading today!), but the suggestion that nuclear technology hasn’t advanced much is simply incorrect. If the Taiwanese could get a hold of sufficient raw materials, building the bombs would be a fairly trivial step for them, and would be possible to do very, very quickly. This might suggest that the first few bombs (at least) could be the result of black market shipments of raw materials, followed by a full infrastructure being put into place. South Africa (which had bombs during the latter days of the ancient regime) is proof positive that even a pariah state can make such things happen.
            Regarding delivery systems, I don’t agree with you. The Taiwanese wouldn’t be using their first few bombs for long-range strikes (China’s staging areas are very close by), and they have several missiles that could handle a reasonably well designed warhead. Their F-16s are quite capable of delivering a bomb (Chinese AD is capable, but not prohibitive, and we are not talking about more than a single plane getting through), and Taiwan has already made some progress in enhancing the existing aircraft with upgrade EW suites. A single bomb wouldn’t be sufficient, but 3-5 would be more than enough. The Taiwanese could also make use of disguised or third-party merchant ships to deliver bombs to Chinas many ports, though this would represent a somewhat extreme option. Finally, a few ‘planted’ bombs would be sufficient (in a desperate invasion scenario) to destroy Chinese beachheads and logistical infrastructure essential to a successful invasion.
            The key here isn’t ‘can Taiwan destroy China’, because it obviously cannot. The real question is more along the lines of ‘can Taiwan offer sufficient threat of unacceptable damage to China’, because that is far more likely. Even 1 or 2 well-chosen targets would cripple any Chinese attack on Taiwan, and even one ‘Samson’ style attack on a Chinese population center would produce utterly unacceptable levels of damage that the government simply wouldn’t risk. China simply doesn’t have sufficiently critical interests in Taiwan to risk that sort of retaliation *IF* Taiwan was able to demonstrate that they actually had a bomb.

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