The international media’s coverage tends to hurt Taiwan. Though Reuters drew undue attention, Washington and Taipei do not discuss defense through the media. For an interview with President Tsai Ing-wen on April 27, Reuters caused controversy by inserting a heading of “F-35 Request,” and by asking President Donald Trump about selling F-35 fighters to Taiwan. Reuters’ headline suggested that Trump “spurns” Tsai on more direct contact. Actually, Reuters asked Tsai a leading and odd question: “Concerning Taiwan’s defense needs, would you rule out buying F-35 fighters?” She replied, “we determine our military procurement according to our defense strategy. We do not rule out any programs that are important for the strategy. The F-35 is important for the strategy.” Tsai said that bilateral talks cover not only arms acquisitions but also defense strategy, while Taiwan waits for Trump to name key officials. She added that Taiwan’s defense policy seeks self-sufficiency. However, Taiwan is missing opportunities in strategic communication. Instead of succumbing to distractions, Taiwan needs to convey positive signals about urgency in self-defense and shared security. When the world is engrossed in North Korea, Tsai has not noted Taiwan’s role in pressuring that regime and supporting US allies.
Under President Trump, the United States is leading overdue, intense pressure against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its patron, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the same week as Tsai’s interview, the Secretaries of Defense and State, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff together briefed Congress on the Administration’s review of policy on North Korea. They declared that, “the President’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our Allies and regional partners. We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on the DPRK in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue.”
The US Pacific Command (USPACOM)’s Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, testified to Congress: “the words and actions of North Korea threaten the US homeland and that of our allies in South Korea and Japan.”
Also, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) warned that North Korea poses a “real and rising risk of conflict.” He noted that, for years, the United States has looked to China, North Korea’s patron, to bring the regime to negotiate a denuclearized Korean peninsula. He said that China is the only country with influence on North Korea but it has refused repeatedly to exercise that influence. McCain pointed out that,“China has aided and abetted North Korea for decades.” He stressed that the Administration should seek China’s cooperation but not at the expense of vital interests such as alliances and freedom of the sea.
Taiwan is part of US’ vital interests, but Taiwan needs to play its part (with Tsai showing leadership). Is Taiwan missing opportunities to convey its roles in shared security with Japan, South Korea, the United States, and other countries? Words are not “lost in translation,” since Tsai is bilingual and uses an excellent interpreter only for official protocol. She could correct Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Leo Lee, who failed to say if Taiwan will stand on the US side or the PRC side to face the DPRK’s threats. She could report that Taiwan has imposed sanctions against imports of the DPRK’s coal in accordance with the UN Security Council after buying $4.1 million worth of that coal in 2016. She could go a step farther and announce more sanctions. Taiwan could stress cooperation to counter cyber threats and to track North Korea’s missiles. Congress urged US approval for Taiwan to acquire a long-range early warning radar. In December 2012, Taiwan used its powerful radar for the first time to track North Korea’s missile launch. Tsai could note Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance as a partner in counter-terrorism after her representative in Washington, DC, attended the Secretary of State’s meeting in March for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Assurances on Defense
Moreover, Tsai could show leadership on Taiwan’s defense against the PRC’s real and rising threat, especially the Taiwan people’s will to fight and support for defending their homeland. Why do Taiwan’s military officers shy away from wearing uniforms even in their own country? Taiwan seeks US reaffirmation of the Six Assurances, but what are Taiwan’s assurances? Can Tsai convey urgency on defense?
USPACOM Commander Harris also testified that, “China’s military modernization is focused on defeating the US in Asia by countering US asymmetric advantages.” He warned, “as the military spending and capability of the PRC grow every year, the ability of Taiwan to defend itself decreases.” While he assured that USPACOM will fulfill US commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), he stressed “continued, regular arms sales and training for Taiwan’s military” as important parts of US policy. Significantly, Harris noted “regular” arms sales, though the US process has gone astray from regular, routine notifications to Congress of proposed programs for Taiwan.
US Administrations and Congressional Members have urged Taiwan to raise resources for urgent upgrades for credible deterrence and defense. Last December, at a forum organized by the Project 2049 Institute with this author, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Abraham Denmark warned that China’s military focuses on unifying Taiwan with the PRC by force if necessary, making it incumbent on Taiwan to invest in capabilities to deter aggression and mount an effective defense if deterrence fails. He stressed that Taiwan’s defense budget has not kept pace with the threat and should thus be increased.
In March, Tsai assured the American Chamber of Commerce that Taiwan ensures more investment for defense. However, earlier that month, her administration issued a new defense strategy and a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), while leaving challenges for the military. Taiwan’s Defense Minister reiterated a long-standing plea for defense spending at 3 percent of GDP, but the budget amounts to NT$350.7 billion (US$11.5 billion), or only 2 percent of GDP. He said that Taipei has not yet talked to Washington about defense needs. He testified to the Legislative Yuan that the military faces two critical challenges: insufficient funds and insufficient personnel in an attempt to move towards a volunteer force.
In contrast, in February, the Defense Minister of Singapore stressed a strong defense in commemorating conscription on the 50th anniversary of its National Service (NS). He noted that Hong Kong seized Singapore’s military vehicles en route from training in Taiwan. He said, “NS has become an institution through which Singaporean males define themselves in their formative years, a crucial period where close friends are made for life; where values and character are deeply forged; where they begin to understand why and how they protect those that they love and what they cherish on this island home.”
It is misleading to assume a US demand that Taiwan invests 3 percent of GDP on defense. That target has been the goal of both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT).
US concerns are about Taiwan’s costly, long-term attempts at self-sufficiency even with insufficient resources for munitions and equipment, recruitment and retention of skilled personnel, reforms for innovation and asymmetry, and realistic training. For many years, Washington has been frustrated by Taipei’s political disputes over defense budgets, but partisan fights do not explain the problem under Tsai when the DPP controls both the Executive Yuan and Legislative Yuan.
The TRA entails mutual obligations. In 2005, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless issued a speech at a conference of the US-Taiwan Business Council (attended by this author). He stressed that the TRA intends for Taiwan to fulfill its obligation to ensure a sufficient self-defense. Today, Taiwan needs to make smart choices given limited time and budgets, a military that deserves more of the people’s support, and requirements to replace the military’s outdated equipment with weapons systems that are affordable, survivable, and lethal at this urgent time (and not way into the future).
Main Point: Whether President Tsai’s style of leadership is overly cautious or rightfully deliberative, an issue is whether Taiwan is missing opportunities for positive, proactive communication with the Trump Administration about the priority of defense. There is the potential for greater convergence and not divergence between Taiwan and the United States plus its allies for strong, shared security.