Taiwan’s Defense Policy Under Tsai

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 15

At the end of August, Taiwan held its annual Han Kuang (汉光) military exercises (CNA, August 25). In a departure from previous exercises, this year emphasized responding to infiltrated PLA units or “fifth columnists” mainland forces already hidden on Taiwan (Wenweipo [Hong Kong], August 23). Presiding over the first series of exercises after her inauguration, President Tsai Ing-Wen ordered Minister of Defense Feng Shikuang (馮世寬) to submit a review of Taiwan’s strategy by January 2017 (Awakening News Network [Taiwan], August 25). This follows Tsai’s decision in mid-July to send a La Fayette-class frigate to Itu Aba in the South China Sea in response to the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling to “display Taiwan people’s resolve in defending the national interest” (Taipei Times, July 14; Taipei Times, August 1). Just this week, the Ministry of Defense announces changes to reservist requirements and training to ensure greater combat readiness (China Post, September 16). These actions suggest a Tsai administration desire to take Taiwan’s defense in a new direction, even if domestic politics, bureaucratic issues, and force posture challenges in the end limit the viable defense alternatives.

Tsai was swept into power after an election whose results reflected widespread dissatisfaction with outgoing President Ma’s policy of closer economic ties to mainland China. Tsai’s inauguration on May 20 became a point of contention with Beijing when she did not directly accept the “1992 Consensus,” a hotly debated acknowledgment that both Taiwan and China belong to the same China, but with different interpretations (Phoenix, May 20). Even though Tsai did not explicitly reject the two conditions of the consensus, Beijing has chosen a hardline response, ceasing diplomatic contact with Taipei (Sina, June 26). Chinese official reporting has painted Tsai as a militarily aggressive leader that hopes to leverage the United States to build up Taiwan’s military and strategic importance in the region (Taiwan.cn, June 28).

Amid this deterioration in cross-Strait relations, U.S. policy makers need a better understanding of what the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s defense policy may entail over the next four years. Three general principles are likely to color Taiwan’s defense policy over the next four years. First, Tsai will rely on deterrence to protect Taiwan from a mainland attack, rather than the Ma Administration approach of pursing closer ties with Beijing. Second, domestic politics, not strategic considerations, will dominate defense planning, which may prove problematic given the first point; and lastly, innovative strategic or operational concepts are not likely to be forthcoming. [1]

Greater Reliance on Deterrence Over Goodwill

One main difference between the Ma and Tsai administrations is their theory for peace across the Strait. The Ma Administration presided over a steady decrease in Taiwan’s defense spending, preferring instead to embrace closer economic ties with the mainland in the hope of mitigating tension in the Taiwan Strait. President Ma believed peace could only be maintained if the mainland never felt that there was no hope for reunification. Nevertheless, major arms sales from the United States continued and Taiwan acquired Blackhawk transport helicopters, Apache attack helicopters, PATRIOT PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles, and ordering a retrofit of its F-16 fighter aircraft between 2008 and 2015 (China MFA, December 17, 2015). [2]

But Tsai doubts strong economic ties will impose caution on the PRC, and therefore will be relying more on a strong deterrent to protect the island. Tsai has promised the DPP will raise defense spending to three percent of GDP, a goal that should be reachable in two to three years. [3] Tsai may also take the reform of the military in a different direction than her predecessor. Ma Ying-jeou had launched the yonggu’an (勇固案) effort in 2008, which planned to phase out conscription to create an all-volunteer force for enlisted personnel (officers have always been volunteers). But increased financial incentives for service have failed to help the Ministry of Defense reach its recruitment goals, forcing Ma to delay the program, and pushing the complete phase-out of the conscription program to 2017 (China Brief, August 22; The Diplomat, March 19, 2014). A DPP blue paper, in contrast, called for the suspension of yonggu’an and continuation of compulsory service for all service-age males while also creating a special recruitment channel for young talent. [4] In Taipei, informed individuals emphasized that the attempts to move to an all-volunteer force should not be equated with the establishment of a more professional, capable force—the impetus was largely political in that most did not want to serve. The requirement is seen as unfairly applied—the rich and powerful frequently manage to either avoid service all together or otherwise serve in an alternative way such as pursuing advanced degrees or professional expertise in key areas like medicine or education. [5]

Attention to force development is likely needed to address both the low expectations of military personnel and the recruitment challenges. Tsai has mentioned the need for post-retirement educational aid, changing Ministry of National Defense (MND) positions to civilian/military dual-employable positions, better integrating veterans’ healthcare system, reforming Veterans’ Affairs Council (VAC) (國軍退除役官兵輔導委員會) corporations, and merging the VAC into the MND as the Bureau of Veterans’ Affairs (退伍軍人事務總部) under a Vice Defense Minister (軍政副部長/副部長). [6] But force development was not a common topic in discussions in Taipei, government officials have confirmed it is not on the books for the foreseeable future. [7] For now, it appears that the more politically palatable issues of defense spending and indigenous submarine development have overshadowed any interest in institutional reform.

Domestic and Societal Aspects of Defense

While a renewed focus on deterrence as a key feature of its defense policy is likely a relief to some defense planners, domestic concerns seem to trump strategic ones in the implementation of this idea. Specifically the negative image of the armed forces creates barriers to any plans to transform its military into an all-volunteer force. [8] Strengthening the ties between the military and society, as well as embarking on military reforms with a focus on personnel issues, have been at the top of Tsai’s agenda since she declared her candidacy. [9] In June, two separate incidents occurred that play into the perception of the armed forces as an unprofessional, non-elite force, further hindering recruitment efforts. First, a leaked video of three marines torturing and killing a dog went viral, eventually requiring President Tsai to intervene; Defense Minister Feng even issued two public apologies (The Straits Times, June 28). The crime was heinous, but the fact that the ROC Navy chain of command was judged insufficient to manage the incident again underscores deeper issues within the ROC armed forces. A few days later, a Chinchiang-class corvette accidentally fired an anti-ship missile during an exercise, killing the captain of a Taiwan-registered fishing boat (China Press, July 1). Another incident occurred on August 16 when a CM-11 tank overturned on a bridge during an exercise killing three soldiers inside (Liberty Times, August 17). These incidents pose a significant challenge to President Tsai’s goal of restoring the public’s trust and respect in the military.

One strategy Tsai is pursuing is to, at least rhetorically, leverage defense as a driver for much-needed economic growth. [10] President Tsai herself has suggested that spending in national defense should be used as a driver for industrial innovation and has consistently called for a defense budget of at least three percent of GDP (Radio Taiwan International, July 4). [11] In May 2015, Tsai called for the construction of a self-sufficient defense industry in the face of projected increased difficulty in foreign procurement. [12] She named defense industry as one of the five major national industries in September 2015 and stresses civil-military combined use products as a major focus of DPP defense policy, including aerospace, naval construction, and information security as primary fields of development (Liberty Times Net, September 22, 2015; Storm, August 13, 2015). Tsai announced that research and development for a domestic submarine program would begin this year, with hopes of achieving mass production within the decade (Liberty Times Net, October 29, 2015). But Tsai has also been careful to position the indigenous defense industrial aspirations as complementing defense cooperation with the United States and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan (UDN, June 6). The delicacy of the U.S. relationship coupled with the fact that a strong outside market is usually necessary to build a strong indigenous defense industry may push the island industry to focus on manufacturing smaller scale military items and personal equipment.’ [13] Ma Shu-jung (馬樹榮), the head of the research and development division at the Armament Bureau’s 205th manufacturing factory, highlighted the domestic manufacturing of items such as military helmets, combat vests and bullet-resistant panels during Tsai’s recent inspection visit.

Insufficient Focus on Innovative Strategic and Operational Concepts

As one Global Times editorial points out, Tsai faces a “cruel” strategic reality (Global Times, March 31). Small in size and only 110 miles from the mainland, Taiwan is at a geographic disadvantage. While a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would still be risky and difficult, and likely a secondary option to blockade or air/missile bombardment, significant Chinese improvements in amphibious assault capabilities have increased its probability of success. [14] Just to highlight one indicator of this trend—in 1996 the PLAN operated 54 amphibious ships with many being antiquated platforms. Now the Chinese navy possesses 89 craft, with many new classes of larger, more advanced ships such as the Yuzhao-class (Type 071) introduced in 2007). Over the past twenty years, Chinese transport capacity, partly because of more and advanced ships, has increased from 1.2 divisions to 2.7 divisions. [15] For Taiwan, building a significant deterrent under these conditions will require more than advanced platforms, a professionalized force, adequate defense spending, and a close relationship with the United States—what is needed is new and innovative strategic planning (The Diplomat, March 19, 2014).

But while Tsai’s military reforms and arms procurement policy diverges from that of former President Ma, no changes to Taiwan’s overarching military strategy are expected. Scholars and government officials, regardless of background and party affiliation, noted that there was not a great difference in the strategic direction of the armed forces under Tsai and Ma. Though the military may not experience great changes, the difference between Ma and Tsai’s military strategy is significant. Ma’s “Hard ROC” strategy is classic deterrence by punishment in that it “assumes the best defense for Taiwan involves showing that invasion would result in a costly, protracted struggle” (War on the Rocks, January 13). Tsai, instead, relies on signaling to the PRC that the Taiwan military will be equipped to withstand and push back such an assault. This is classic deterrence by denial, building and displaying “the capability to deny the other party any gains from the move which is to be deterred.” [16] But it is evident from current trends that the balance of power has tipped in such a way that this goal of deterrence by denial is unmanageable. If the United States cannot spend its way out of the China challenge, Taiwan certainly cannot, even if domestic politics allowed for a better-equipped and professional force. [17]

Tsai has called for the building of asymmetric capabilities at times, such as sea mines, cruise missiles, and cyber warfare, and the creation of a “fourth service” with cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. [18] There have been announcements that Tsai plans to move forward with these asymmetric options, but they seemed to have not gained traction yet among the broader defense community (Taipei Times, May 22). The focus seems to be on conventional air and naval projection capabilities. Tsai’s appointed defense minister, Shih-kuan Feng (馮世寬), is a retired Republic of China Air Force general that followed a conventional path in his military career (China Brief, June 1). There is nothing in his military career to suggest Feng is the risk taker and visionary the defense establishment needs—to the contrary, Tsai probably picked him because he has strong traditional military credentials (without the strong KMT ties). Moreover, there is little appreciation even among defense experts for how the U.S. military may operate differently during a conflict given the same need to adapt to a more complex threat environment. [19]


While President Tsai’s approach to cross-Strait relations may diverge significantly from her predecessor, her defense policy is unlikely to change significantly enough to adjust sufficiently to the new threat environment. Domestic politics undoubtedly hinder any effort to build the military Taiwan needs to deter PRC coercion and aggression, but her own approach to defense as a means to resolve economic problems exacerbates the situation. The threat environment in the Asia-Pacific has changed radically over the past eight years—the United States has taken notice and is adapting accordingly. Taiwan also needs to be creative about how to use the military and equipment they currently have. This initial assessment suggests that major changes to Taiwan’s military strategy and doctrine are unlikely over the next four years. Hopefully, for Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, the status quo of no independence, no reunification, and no use of force will also remain.

Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include “The Vulnerability of Rising Powers: The Logic Behind China’s Low Military Transparency” in Asian Security and “A Global People’s Liberation Army: Possibilities, Challenges, and Opportunities” with Kristen Gunness in Asia Policy. Her full bio can be found here. Dr. Mastro would like to thank John Chen, Mike Daly and Yilin Sun for their expert research assistance.




  1. These general principles derived in part from information gathered during a week of meetings with informed individuals in Taipei in late June 2016.
  2. Shirley A. Kan, “Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990,” Congressional Research Service, June 13, 2014, p. 59, https://china.usc.edu/sites/default/files/legacy/AppImages/crs-2014-us-arms-sales-to-taiwan.pdf.
  3. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  4. New Frontier Foundation, “Taiwan’s Military Capacities in 2025,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper, No. 9 (2015): pp. 5–9, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/20150526_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_9.pdf. DPP Defense Policy Blue Papers are platform statements written by the DPP’s New Frontier Foundation think tank and a collection of retired military officers and defense experts of the DPP’s Defense Policy Advisory Committee [國防政策諮詢小組]. The documents are not written by Tsai herself, but instead represent DPP policy positions and form the basis of her talking points for the election cycle. Tsai’s actual contribution to the reports is unknown, but she is credited with writing the forewords for several Blue Papers after she became the DPP Party Chair in May 2014.
  5. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  6. New Frontier Foundation, “Refinement of Veterans Affairs,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper, No. 11 (2015), pp. 5–6, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/ 12/20150526_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_11.pdf.
  7. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  8. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  9. New Frontier Foundation, “New Generation of Soldiers,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper No. 6 (2014), p. 4, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/20140822_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_6.pdf.
  10. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016
  11. New Frontier Foundation, “Bolstering Taiwan’s Core Defense Industries,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper No. 7 (2014), p. 5, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/20141005_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_7.pdf.
  12. New Frontier Foundation, “Preparing the Development of Indigenous Defense Industry,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper, No. 12 (2015), pp. 3–4, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/20150526_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_12.pdf.
  13. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  14. Rehman, Thomas, and Stillion, “Hard ROC 2.0: Taiwan and Deterrence Through Protraction,” CSBA, December 21, 2014, p. 23.
  15. Heginbotham et al, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017, RAND, 2015, pp. 203–204. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR300/RR392/RAND_RR392.pdf
  16. Snyder, Glenn H. (1960), “Deterrence and Power,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 163–178.
  17. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.
  18. New Frontier Foundation, “Taiwan’s Military Capacities in 2025,” DPP Defense Policy Blue Paper, No. 9 (2015): pp. 5–9, https://www.ustaiwandefense.com/tdnswp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/20150526_DPP_Defense_Blue_Paper_9.pdf.
  19. Author’s meetings, Taipei, June 2016.