On November 9, the Republic of China (ROC) Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) released the ROC National Defense Report 2021 (中華民國110年國防報告書). This represents the latest edition of a biennial document intended “to convey to the people the general international situation and security environment, our defense policies, [the] progress of force buildup, combat readiness, and [the] condition and allocation of defense resources” (p. 8). The MND released the ROC National Defense Report 2021 (hereafter, “defense report”) simultaneously in both Chinese and English versions—a departure from past years, in which the translated English version followed the original Chinese edition typically by several weeks—thereby providing greater accessibility to international audiences.
Overall, the text of this year’s defense report—subtitled under the official theme of “Forging a Resilient and New Armed Forces” (打造堅韌新國軍)—provided few surprises. The report offers significant continuity with previous MND public statements regarding priorities for the Taiwan armed forces in terms of missions, training, and force structure. [Notably, the 2021 edition of Taiwan’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR, 四年期國防總檢討), another significant document detailing defense priorities, was released earlier this year.] Yet, the report offers value as an official public assessment of the national security challenges facing Taiwan, and the necessary steps to be taken in response. This year’s report offered an evaluation of the regional security environment, as well as commentary on the more direct threats to Taiwan itself, that are worthy of consideration.
The Assessment of Taiwan’s Status in the Indo-Pacific Security Environment
In terms of assessing the regional security environment for Taiwan, the report mentions multiple issues—to include North Korea’s nuclear program, and advances in fields of emerging defense technology such as artificial intelligence (p. 28). Yet, the most striking overarching theme is that of the significantly increased—and increasing—threat to Taiwan posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The report notes that “the PRC has never renounced the option of the use of force against Taiwan… [and] with its growing modern military power, [the] PRC’s military actions against Taiwan are getting more intensified and rigid” (p. 43). In addition to the pressure directed against Taiwan, the report also stresses Beijing’s irredentist goals: stating that the “PRC’s determination and leverage to expand its control over the South China Sea is obvious,” and that it is conducting “relentless military expansion” (p. 28) indicative of the PRC’s “intention to dominate the region” (p. 33).
By contrast, the report describes the regional role of the United States in highly positive terms—thereby reflecting the broader policy of the Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文) Administration to cultivate closer ties with the United States. The report asserts that “The US is the most important strategic partner of our country” (p. 33). Contrasting the regional roles of America and China, it opines that “the United States is actively strengthening cooperation with allies and partners to maintain … freedom and security in the Indo-Pacific, whereas the PRC is attempting to dominate … regional development by its political and economic clouts [sic] and expansion of military power” (p. 23).
The report also echoes the larger messaging effort of the Tsai Administration to portray Taiwan as “democracy’s first line of defense” in the face of an increasingly authoritarian and assertive PRC. The report asserts that “The ROC (Taiwan) is a paradigm of freedom and democracy in the Indo-Pacific region,” and that “Taiwan is located at the forefront of curbing the expansion and incursion of a totalitarian regime.” In conjunction with this, the report also emphasizes Taiwan’s strategic position, stating that “Taiwan is located at a key node of strategic importance on the first island chain of the Indo-Pacific … Any changes to the situation in the Taiwan Strait will affect the security of international communication and the economic development of the region” (p. 33).
The Growing PRC Military Threat to Taiwan
The defense report also lays out a general assessment regarding the growing military capabilities of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although the text is short on specific details, it is particularly noteworthy for points made regarding potential military operations in two specific warfare areas: “Joint Blockade Capabilities” and “Joint Firepower Strikes” (missile strikes).
One of the most striking comments made in the report regards the prospect for a blockade of Taiwan’s ports—a critical concern for an island state dependent on seaborne commerce. In early October, Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) made public comments to the effect that the PRC would possess the capability to conduct a blockade of the Taiwan Strait by 2025. The National Defense Report 2021 goes even further on this matter (a point picked up in some media outlets) by stating that the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) are already capable of such operations: “At present, the PLA is capable of performing local joint blockade against our critical harbors, airports, and outbound flight routes, to cut off our air and sea lines of communication and impact the flow of our military supplies and logistic resources as well as our sustainability for operations” (p. 44).
The second noteworthy assertion regards the threat to Taiwan posed by the PRC’s missile forces. The report states that the “PRC’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and air-launched land-attack missiles […] along with the capabilities of [the] PLAN and PLAAF will attack our political, economic, and military HVTs [high-value targets], and decimate our operational persistence as well as the potential for follow-on supportive operations” (p. 44). This brief statement, innocuous on its face, reflects the seldom discussed but very real concern that the PRC’s massive arsenal of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles could devastate Taiwan’s military and economic infrastructure—and potentially decapitate parts of Taiwan’s military and political leadership structure. It is likely that such concerns are a significant consideration behind the MND’s ongoing investments to build the Taiwan military’s own capabilities for longer-range strike.
The Identification of “Gray Zone” Threats
In regards to its discussion of the security threats facing Taiwan, the report’s most noteworthy component is its extensive discussion of the PRC’s steadily increasing and intensifying usage of “gray zone” (灰色地帶)operations that occupy the spectrum between peacetime and active military conflict. The report devotes an entire section to gray zone warfare, as summarized in this passage:
In recent years, the gray zone threats frequently posed by the PRC on us are highly diversified and orchestrated generally through [both] military and non-military approaches. The military approaches can be explained by PRC military planes’ frequent intrusions into the southwestern corner of our Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) […] while the non-military approaches [are] PRC speedboats’ ramming our coast guard vessels and its sand pump dredgers’ illegal operations in our neighboring waters. These approaches have normally exploited the limbo between peace and war […] The PRC is […] gradually escalat[ing] the threat level by manipulating these salami tactics, and is using its political and military power to shape a posture to its advantage […] [with intent] to alter or challenge the status quo in the Taiwan Strait to ultimately achieve its goal of “seizing Taiwan without a fight” (p. 45).
While significant attention has been devoted throughout 2021 to the PRC’s increasing tempo of aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ as a primary component of gray zone operations, the report also places significant stress on the PRC’s use of “cognitive warfare” (認知戰) directed at the collective mindset of Taiwan’s citizens:
Cognitive warfare is used to sway the subject’s will and change its mindset […] [emerging from the disciplines] of intelligence warfare, psychological warfare, and public opinion warfare […] it can make use of highly efficient modern computing systems, the internet, and social media, to twist the subject’s social ideologies, mentality, and the sense of law-and-order through cyber infiltrations and manipulation of […] public opinion. The PRC is exploiting the tactics of cognitive warfare, mixing with “Three Warfares,” which are psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare […] Psychologically, the PRC is trying to cause mental disarray and confusion, in order to weaken our fighting will [and] determination to defending [sic] ourselves, and [to] seize the dominance of public opinion (p. 46).
The defense report’s devotion of a considerable body of text to emphasizing a non-military security issue (or perhaps, one that straddles the military and civilian domains) is a reflection of the extent to which Taiwan’s national security officials are grappling with a coordinated and multi-faceted assault by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agencies—one intended to subvert Taiwan’s will and capacity to maintain its democratic political system, and its state of de facto independence.
Although there is little in the ROC National Defense Report 2021 that is surprising, the document is worthwhile as a restatement of defense planning priorities under the current Tsai Administration. It is also valuable as an official public assessment of the range and scope of national security challenges facing the island democracy. In particular, the report’s assertions of both the rising conventional military threat posed by the PLA’s naval and strike warfare capabilities, as well as the unconventional threat posed by CCP-directed “cognitive warfare,” are worthy of attention. As the state that stands most squarely in the crosshairs of PRC aggression, Taiwan’s experience offers valuable lessons for the rest of the world.
The main point: The ROC National Defense Report 2021 provides several noteworthy public assessments regarding the security environment facing Taiwan, particularly in regards to the PRC’s growing military capabilities and its intensifying usage of “gray zone” operations.