Taiwan’s January 16th presidential election will likely bring Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power. The DPP has promised investments in defense along with democracy-strengthening measures that respond to the concerns of protesters in the 2014 Sunflower Movement (China Brief April 9, 2014). With a defense budget less than 10 percent of China’s, Taiwan faces a great challenge in maintaining credible deterrence. It is equally challenged by a portion of the domestic voting public that increasingly sees defense as a sunk cost and a perception in the United States that Taiwan is insufficiently committed to its own security (Taipei Times, May 8, 2013).  Taiwan’s defense posture must deter aggression, but must present itself in a way that balances the desires of the domestic, U.S. and Chinese audiences, and optimizes political outcomes. The prospect for realization of the defense goals contained in the DPP’s Defense Blue Papers depend on institutional factors, budget constraints, popular attitudes toward national security, the U.S, and China. Whether a DPP administration could achieve its defense goals will have implications for maintenance of the cross-strait status quo and security situation in the Asia-Pacific.
The Legacy of Ma Ying-Jeou’s Presidency – Engagement before Defense
After an era of provocative statements by the last DDP President, Chen Shui Bian, U.S. officials welcomed Ma Ying-jeou’s pragmatic engagement with China. Ma cleverly used the military for regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions to increase the profile of Taiwan. His policy of reconciliation with China was “economics first, politics second” as can be clearly seen in the tone of reports of the Mainland Affairs Council, an agency under the executive yuan that is responsible for mainland policy-making and implementation. This focus on economic policy meant less emphasis was placed on defense. In Ma’s hierarchy of three priorities to secure national security, the first was engagement with China, then expanding Taiwan’s international space, and, lastly, traditional defense programs. Despite his public support for the military, some in Taiwan’s defense establishment viewed Ma as unwilling to push for budgets increases for defense modernization, which became even more difficult when an economic downturn hit.
Ma’s policies soon drew sharp criticism and culminated in the student-led 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which the public expressed dissatisfaction with flat wages, rising housing costs, economic inequality in Taiwan’s society, the uneven distribution of the economic benefits of cross-Strait agreements, and the lack of transparency in the negotiation of those agreements.
Predictions for Tsai Ing-Wen – Cautious Ambiguity and Social Issues
In the run-up to the election, the DPP’s New Frontier Foundation think tank, with input from Taiwanese and U.S. defense officials, has released 12 Defense Policy “Blue Papers” (DPP International Site, June 2013–December 2015). The papers discuss modernization and expansion of current programs like cyber defense. Defense governance initiatives aim to bring greater legislative oversight to the National Security Council, improve bi-partisan and inter-agency cooperation, and improve dialogue with democracies and allies.  A senior defense official said the ideas were “not very different from the current [policies]” This suggests that there is already a great deal of continuity in thinking about military policy by both parties (China Brief, November 19, 2009). The papers have been reasonably well received by the U.S. defense policy community (China Brief, August 23, 2013). According to the papers, the current, Kuomintang (KMT) administration has misunderstood Taiwan’s strategic situation—just because Taiwan’s external situation has improved does not mean Taiwan can afford to spend less on defense. Historically, the DPP has been more focused on social policy, but following a period of rapprochement with China that has displeased many Taiwanese, the DPP has seized the opportunity to strengthen its defense credentials and improve deterrence (Focus Taiwan, September 5, 2015). The DPP may even be able to conduct confidence building measures with China that the KMT could not pursue without being criticized for “selling out to China.” 
The DPP’s image-building campaign included Tsai’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that reassured China by pledging to preserve the “accumulated outcomes” under the “Republic of China constitutional order,” implying acceptance of the “One China” principle (Apple Daily, June 6, 2015). DPP campaign staff describe Tsai’s strategy as cautious, proceeding slowly and monitoring the PRC statements and “other channels” to judge the reaction to DPP policies. Regarding a future inauguration speech, they say that “[acknowledgement of] the ‘One China’ principle will not happen” but will work with China and the United States to create a statement both ambiguous and concrete enough to satisfy everyone. 
Tsai has spoken widely about veteran’s programs, increasing pay and benefits, and revitalizing “respect for our soldiers within Taiwanese society” (DPP International Site, August 22, 2014).  These initiatives may help overcome the effects of scandals about former officers spying for the PRC and low salaries that contribute to the public perception of military careers as low status, a perception which makes it difficult to achieve recruitment goals in the transitions to a volunteer force. 
To generate interest in defense policy, her statements package defense spending in terms of economic benefits, saying her plan for indigenous defense industries will create 8,000 jobs and a minimum of $7.6 billion (Taipei Times, October 30, 2015). In the short term, whether Tsai can enact her defense policies will depend on her ability to manage public opinion and get cooperation from the military, the opposition and factions within her own party. 
Budget Constraints and Procurement Issues
Despite much urging from U.S. politicians, Taiwan’s defense spending has not risen above the U.S. recommended level of 3 percent of GDP since 1999.  U.S. leaders warn that the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan is not a blank check.  But Taiwan’s defense policy community complains about the U.S. periodic unwillingness to agree to procurements of large systems which, had they been more timely and predictable, could have been included in an expanded defense budget. The unpredictability of procurements led to Taiwan’s “spaghetti” tactic of asking for everything to see what stuck, rather than asking for specific, thoughtfully-selected systems. Officials say the process is better now, but particularly with regard to development of new systems, it is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and having to wait for years for the missing pieces in technology transfers. 
In the past, bipartisan conflict between the Legislative Yuan and the executive branch has prevented the president from achieving national defense goals. In 2001, President Chen’s attempts to purchase an arms package were stymied by the KMT, with dozens of procurement special budget requests stopped by the procedure committee (Taipei Times, April 5, 2006). The lack of a working mechanism to resolve legislative and executive stalemates and acrimony between the KMT and DPP coalitions prevented any compromise on defense policy and could do so again if the president’s party does not also control the legislature.
Because Taiwan’s laws limit deficit spending, other social and economic programs would have to be cut to accommodate a defense budget increase. The DPP advocates immediately increasing the defense budget to 3 percent but do not explain how this will be achieved (DPP International Site, June 2013). The difficulty in increasing the budget or reallocating funds is compounded by the fact that Taiwan has one of the lowest tax rates in the developed world. Although this has been suggested as a way to increase the size of the budget “pie,” it could encourage even more industries to leave for the mainland and Southeast Asia, further hurting Taiwan’s economy.
Society and Identity
Data from the Taiwan National Security Survey, last collected in 2014, shows a downward trend in preference for re-unification, a high preference for maintaining the cross-Strait status quo, and an increase in confidence that the U.S. would send troops to protect Taiwan if it was attacked for declaring independence.  58 percent of respondents favored a reduction in arms purchases if China withdraws its missiles from along the southeast coast. Yet, 56 percent of respondents in 2014 perceived the PRC’s attitude toward the ROC government to be “unfriendly” (Mainland Affairs Council, July 6, 2014). These trends point to an apparent contradiction between an awareness of a threat combined with a feeling of safety despite a growing military imbalance.
Su Chi, a former Taiwan National Security Council official and influential thinker who coined the term “1992 consensus,” to describe acknowledgement of a “One China principle” has conceptualized China as a bicycle moving forward on two wheels of “economic growth” and “nationalism.”  To remain stable, both wheels must continue moving forward. An economic slowdown could pressure from increase nationalist elements to take action against Taiwan. Recent causes for concern include a training assault by People’s Liberation Army forces on an apparent mock-up of the Taiwan Presidential Palace that was televised on state television. That in turn led to Taiwan’s armed forces conducting special exercises to train to counter a PRC “decapitation strike” (China Brief, September 16, 2015; Taipei Times, September 1, 2015; Focus Taiwan, August 31, 2015).
Despite the potential for conflict, there are reasons for optimism. Political insiders in Taiwan report that the Taiwan public is developing “resistance to provocation.” The Ministry of National Defense’s threat assessments now explicitly discuss China, and “nam[ing] the enemy” has a calming effect on the population.  Leaders have gained experience in implementing counter-policies and assuaging fears in response to Beijing’s economic and media influence attempts.  This tendency toward calm is a positive factor for the future of cross strait stability, but may also work against leaders’ attempts to increase the defense budget.
U.S. Interests: Dangers and Opportunities
U.S. policy toward Taiwan “insists on the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences, opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side, and encourages dialogue to help advance such an outcome,” a position with no preference for the outcome as long as the process is peaceful.  Arms sales help provide conditions for Taiwan to negotiate with China intelligently and from a position of strength.
In the battle of ideas, it is in China’s interest to encourage the belief that defending Taiwan is not worthwhile or possible (China U.S. Focus, Marcy 25, 2014). A recent RAND study became a topic of discussion in Taiwan this year. It shows the U.S.-China military balance in comparison, with the U.S. retaining certain advantages, but the Chinese are attaining superiority in some areas, particularly within their own region and “near-seas” area (Apple Daily, October 19, 2015).  China’s “salami slicing” tactics in the South China Sea have generated much concern and made Taiwan newly salient to U.S. policy-makers, either as an informal part of a U.S. security apparatus or as a model example of U.S. commitment to allies. Those in the U.S. who advocate abandoning Taiwan should remember that Taiwan has tried to develop a nuclear weapon, but was dissuaded by U.S. pressure.  If U.S. support evaporates, it is possible that Taiwan would again look to a nuclear deterrent, as it did in response to China’s first nuclear test in 1964, increasing the dangers of escalation (Taipei Times, September 14, 2010).
The U.S. should advise an incoming DPP government to sustain economic progress and support their defense plans with technology transfers, training, and doctrinal support. If deterrence is linked to perceptions of the strength of U.S. commitment to the continued existence and success of Taiwan, then the U.S. can also bolster its support of Taiwan through non-defense channels wherever possible. Inclusion in an economic agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may have the same absolute value in deterrence as an aircraft carrier or number of fighter jets.
Jennifer M. Turner is a graduate student in China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She previously served as a Navy civilian electrical engineer and as a U.S. Army officer in Korea. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, or Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.
1. Yuan-kang Wang, “Taiwan Public Opinion on Cross-Strait Security Issues,” Strategic Studies 93 (2013), <http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/digital/pdf/summer_2013/wang.pdf >.
- The titles of the DPP’s Defense Blue Papers’ topics provides a useful insight into the DDP’s priorities: DPP’s Defense Agenda; Transforming the CSIST: Strengthening Indigenous Defense Research and Development; An Accountable National Security Council; New Chapter for Taiwan‐U.S. Defense Partnership; China’s Military Threats against Taiwan in 2025; New Generation of Soldiers; Bolstering Taiwan’s Core Defense Industries; Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief; Taiwan’s Military Capacities in 2025;Information Protection and Strategic Communications; Refinement of Veteran Affairs; Preparing the Development of Indigenous Defense Industry;
- Author interview with former military defense academic, June 29, 2015.
- Author interview with DPP campaign official, December 15, 2015.
- Author interview with former military defense academic.
- Author interview with DPP defense policy advisor, July 13, 2015.
- Shirley Kan, “Taiwan: Major Arms Sales since 1990.” Congressional Research Service. <https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30957.pdf>.
- “Defense Budgets Archives,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, accessed December 24, 2015, <http://amti.csis.org/category/defense-budgets/>.
- Author interview with former ROC senior defense official, September 11, 2015.
- Emersion Niou, Duke University Department of Political Science, Conference Paper: “The China Factor in Taiwan’s Domestic Politics,” 2011.
- Chi Su, Taiwan’s Relations with Mainland China: A Tail Wagging Two Dogs (Routledge, 2008).
- Author interview with former ROC senior defense official.
- Author interview with DPP campaign official.
- Clement Zablocki, “H.R.2479 – 96th Congress (1979-1980): Taiwan Relations Act,” legislation, (April 10, 1979), <https://www.congress.gov/bill/96th-congress/house-bill/2479>.
- Eric Heginbotham, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2015). <http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR392.html>.
- Martin Edmonds and Michael Tsai, Defending Taiwan: The Future Vision of Taiwan’s Defence Policy and Military Strategy (Routledge, 2013).