Defense Reform and Civilian Control in Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 22

Acquiring high-tech weapons systems and enlisting U.S. support have been Taiwan’s primary attempts to counter the growing Chinese military threat across the Taiwan Strait. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that some of the most pressing challenges facing Taiwan’s armed forces have more to do with “software” issues, such as strategy and doctrine, the recruitment and training of qualified personnel, and the capability to conduct joint operations [1]. Purchasing advanced military equipment and seeking firmer backing from Washington will not be sufficient unless Taipei successfully addresses these underlying problems. Consequently, Taiwan has embarked on a series of major defense reforms designed to address these challenges. Establishing civilian control over the military and reorganizing the defense bureaucracy are the most crucial components of Taiwan’s defense reform program. This process is a necessary precondition for the implementation of the rest of the defense reforms and the further improvement of Taiwan’s defense capabilities [2].

Historically, these efforts are also closely associated with Taiwan’s democratization and the nationalization of the armed forces and the establishment of civilian control are critical to the democratic consolidation of Taiwan [3]. During the period of martial law from 1949-1987, the military was loyal not to the state, but to the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT). The military actively participated in efforts to mobilize voters and was heavily involved in the suppression of opposition to the KMT regime. Military officers, composed primarily of mainlanders, held seats on the most powerful KMT bodies and filled numerous government positions. Additionally, the military was permeated by a political commissar system that ensured its loyalty to the ruling party. The Chief of the General Staff (CGS) reported directly to the President, bypassing Taiwan’s cabinet, the Executive Yuan, and minimizing legislative oversight of defense affairs. In addition, there were no civilian defense policy experts. In the words of one Taipei-based analyst, under Chiang Kai-Shek and Chiang Ching-Kuo the armed forces were the “military arm of the KMT instead of the nation. The military was infused with KMT ideology to implement the KMT’s policy” [4]. The process of democratization in Taiwan, marked by the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the end of the Period of Mobilization to Suppress the Communist Rebellion in 1991, opened the way for the nationalization of the armed forces and the establishment of civilian control.

The Two New Defense Laws

Restructuring the defense bureaucracy is a central part of the broader effort to enhance civilian control over the military. Two pieces of legislation, the National Defense Law (guofang fa) and the Ministry of National Defense Organization Law (guofangbu zuzhi fa), sometimes referred to collectively as the “Two Defense Laws,” are particularly crucial in this regard. After a lengthy process of drafting and debate that began in the early 1990s, the two defense laws were passed in January 2000 and took effect on March 1, 2002. The “Two Defense Laws” carry far-reaching implications for the modernization of Taiwan’s military. Indeed, the potential consequences of the two laws have been described as equal to those of the 1947 U.S. National Defense Act and 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act combined [5].

The primary purpose of the laws is to lay the groundwork for the reorganization of the defense bureaucracy, which is intended not only to consolidate civilian control and to nationalize the armed forces, but also to quicken the pace of the overall defense reform and military transformation efforts. According to Taiwan’s most recent National Defense Report, the reforms and reorganization mandated by the laws have several major policy objectives, including: enhancing civilian control and promoting the “thorough nationalization of the ROC armed forces”; restructuring the defense bureaucracy; increasing the capability of the armed forces to support the mission of “effective deterrence, resolute defense”; developing the capability to conduct joint operations; and improving procurement procedures and optimizing the allocation of resources [6].

To promote the achievement of these objectives, the laws codify the political neutrality of the armed forces. Article 6 of the National Defense Act states, “The ROC Armed Forces shall remain neutral from individual, regional and party affiliations” [7]. The laws also establish a new chain of command; Article 8 of the National Defense Act states, “The President shall assume the supreme command of army, navy, and air force of the ROC, and is the commander-in-chief of the ROC Armed Forces. He exerts executive authority over the Minister of National Defense, and the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) follows the command of the Minister to lead the ROC Armed Forces” [8]. This means that the CGS, who previously reported directly to the president, is now subordinate to the civilian defense minister. The Two Defense Laws also increased the power of the defense minister by placing both the ministry staff and the armed forces under his direct authority.

Under the new laws, the MND is thus effectively placed in charge of all major aspects of national defense. Specifically, the Organization Act of the Ministry of National Defense declares, “The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is in charge of the overall national defense affairs of the Republic of China” [9]. Accordingly, the law grants the MND authority over a number of areas that were previously the exclusive purview of the General Staff Headquarters (GSH) and the services. Specifically, the law stipulates that the MND is in charge of, among other things, the defense policy, military strategy, budgetary plans and the development of the military forces [10].

The laws thus give the minister control of both military administration and military command, for the first time placing these two functions under the jurisdiction of a single official. Moreover, Article 12 of the National Defense Law stipulates that the minister of national defense must be a civilian. Therefore, a civilian is in charge of administration, command, armament and resource allocation, and is responsible for developing military strategy and defense policy. Another important change resulting from the two defense laws is that the MND will now have the power to make important personnel decisions, a function that was previously dominated by the GSH.

The laws also reorganized the ministry and established new offices within the MND to assist the Defense Minister in carrying out his new duties, the most important of which are the Strategic Planning Department (Zhanlue guihua si) and the Integrated Assessment Office (Zhenghe pinggu shi). The MND’s Strategic Planning Department is responsible for outlining the MND’s vision, coordinating the organizational adjustment of the armed forces, analyzing the overall strategic environment and planning a “forward-looking and comprehensive national defense policy.” Another of the Strategic Planning Department’s responsibilities is promoting security cooperation and exchanges with foreign militaries [11]. The MND’s Integrated Assessment Office is charged with supporting strategic planning and ensuring efficient resource allocation. The main responsibilities of the Integrated Assessment Office are to analyze and assess military strategy, plans, force structure, military capabilities and resource allocation. It is also responsible for military modeling and simulation [12].

The MND’s Bureau of Armaments and Acquisition was also established as a result of the implementation of the new defense laws. Its responsibilities include developing defense procurement policies, strategies for procurement of weapons and equipment, and plans for the development of defense-related technologies. It is to provide “rapid, efficient and high-quality support” for weapons acquisition by the services [13]. The primary reasons for the establishment of the bureau were twofold. First, officials in Taiwan recognized that its existing procurement policy was often irrational, in part because inter-service rivalries tended to “distort the allocation of military resources” [14]. They concluded that there was a need to rationalize and improve the efficiency of the acquisition system. The second important motivation was to stamp out the corruption that had plagued the arms procurement process under the KMT, most notably exemplified by the scandal surrounding Taiwan’s purchase of the six Lafayette-class frigates from France in 1991.

Progress and Problems

Taiwan has made enormous strides in its efforts to establish civilian control and nationalize the armed forces. The most crucial achievement has been the transformation of the military from what was essentially a “party-army” that was loyal to the KMT into a military that serves the democratically elected civilian leadership, regardless of which political party is in office. This is a particularly impressive accomplishment in light of the considerable tension between the DPP civilian leadership and some elements of the military, which dates back to the period of martial law. This tension was exacerbated by President Chen’s accusation that senior military officers attempted to conduct a “soft coup” to overturn the results of the 2004 presidential election, in which Chen and Vice President Annette Lu won by a razor-thin margin following a bizarre shooting incident. Despite these tensions, the military appears to be well on its way toward internalizing its new role as a professional army that serves the civilian leadership and refrains from interfering in party politics. Indeed, the fact that few, if any, commentators in Taipei expect the military brass to become involved in the partisan battle currently raging over the corruption scandal that has engulfed the Presidential Office and is threatening to topple President Chen is a testament to the progress that has already been made.

Yet despite its progress in depoliticizing the military and civilianizing the defense bureaucracy, several major challenges remain. Perhaps the most important is the completion of the “civilianization” of the defense bureaucracy. Prior to the implementation of the “Two Defense Acts,” the MND had a total of 224 personnel, of which a mere 28 were civilians. The new laws increased the authorized number of personnel to 570 and mandated that civilians must fill at least one-third of the total positions in MND headquarters. The MND has experienced difficulty in meeting this goal, and as of November 1, 2004, the number of civilian employees stood at 167 [15]. The primary problem is the limited pool of civilians with backgrounds in defense analysis and national security affairs. It will take a considerable amount of time to develop a community of civilian defense experts in Taiwan. According to former MND officials, another problem is that the Minister and Vice Minister are not permitted to bring sufficient numbers of civilian staff with them when they assume their positions, nor are they given the opportunity to appoint civilian officials to many key mid-level positions, most of which are filled by career military officers [16]. These personnel issues reportedly contribute to the difficulty the senior officials face in controlling the military and implementing bold initiatives and major policy changes.

Still another issue is that since the passage of the “Two Defense Laws,” all of the civilians who have served as the Minister of National Defense have actually been senior military officers who have retired to assume the position. The appointment of a civilian defense minister with little or no prior military experience, which some observers expect to take place within the next few years, will thus represent an important milestone on the road to the completion of the civilianization of the defense bureaucracy. In sum, Taiwan has made considerable progress, but the establishment of a truly civilian defense ministry may take as long as another decade.


1. Michael M. Tsai and Jason C. Lin, “Funding for Taiwan’s Defense Reform,” Taiwan Defense Affairs, 4:2 (Winter 2003-2004), pp. 232-259

2. Ching-Jyuhn Luor, Huei-Huang Wang, and Jun-Hsiu Yeh, “Reinventing National Defense Organization in Taiwan,” Taiwan Defense Affairs (Guofang Zhengce Pinglun), 2:1 (Fall 2001), p. 153

3. Richard H. Kohn, “An Essay on Civilian Control of the Military,” American Diplomacy, 3 (1997),

4. Arthur S. Ding, “The Meanings and Future Prospects to Implement the Two Defense Laws,” Taiwan Defense Affairs 2:3 (Spring 2002), pp. 9-10.

5. Mark A. Stokes, “Taiwan’s Security: Beyond the Special Budget,” p. 3,

6. Ministry of National Defense, Defense Report of the Republic of China, 2002.

7. “National Defense Act,”

8. Ibid.

9. “Organization Act of the Ministry of National Defense,”

10. Ibid.

11. Government of the Republic of China, Ministry of National Defense, Zhanlue Guihua Si [Strategic Planning Department],, accessed August 22, 2003.

12. Government of the Republic of China, Ministry of National Defense, Zhenghe Pinggu Shi Zixungang [Outline of the Integrated Assessment Office],, accessed August 22, 2003.

13. Chen Chao-min, Vice Minister of Armament and Acquisition, Ministry of National Defense, Republic of China, “Remarks to the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference,” San Antonio, Texas, February 13, 2003.

14. Luor, Wang, and Yeh, “Reinventing National Defense Organization in Taiwan,” p. 150.

15. Ministry of National Defense, ROC, 2004 National Defense Report, pp. 133-134.

16. Authors interviews with former MND officials, September 2006.