March 5, 2008

HARRISONBURG— Today, in a special “Inside Track” feature for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, reviews the U.S. Defense Department’s Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China and discusses the implications of its finding on the balance of power along the Taiwan Strait.

Noting that “a comparison of the 2008 report and the six which preceded it show that whatever its effects on the global stage, the PRC’s defense build-up has already altered the military balance” in the strategic area, the article asks, “What is the United States to make of this changed security situation?” In answering this question Dr. Pham goes on to report:

Unfortunately, owing largely to the internal political dynamics of the country’s remarkable democratic transformation during the last decade, Taipei’s politicians have not always availed themselves of the offers made by Washington, especially during the Bush administration, but also under President Clinton. The long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT), the party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, finding itself in the unaccustomed role of political opposition to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), more often than not blocked the special defense procurement budgets submitted by the government of President Chen Shui-bian for submarines, P-3C Orion planes and Patriot missile batteries which the United States, after a long hiatus, had offered to make available in 2001.

Fortunately, after years of declining defense expenditures, there are indications that the corner has been turned. Last June, a long-delayed $8.9 billion defense budget finally passed the Legislative Yuan. The appropriation represented 2.65 percent of Taiwan’s GDP and included funding for twelve of the P-3C maritime patrol aircraft, six Patriot missile system upgrades and a feasibility study for the possible purchase of eight diesel-electric submarines. Funding was also made available for upgrading the island nation’s precision munitions, including acquiring late model air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and advanced conventional stand-off missiles. In December, the legislature passed a $10.5 billion defense budget—a 12 percent increase on the spending bill it approved just six months earlier—which will include the purchase of three PAC-III missile defense batteries…Meanwhile, though the shift is nowhere near complete, the ROC’s armed forces have been trying to transform themselves internally from a mass-conscript military into an all-volunteer force while simultaneously improving its joint operating and other capabilities.

Significantly, whatever their other differences, the urgency of investing in the ROC’s self-defense and modernizing its military has not been lost on the two major candidates in the presidential election which will be held on Taiwan on March 22. KMT standard-bearer Ma Ying-jeou, while favoring improved ties with the mainland, has also declared that an arms buildup was necessary in order to achieve that goal: “We must build leaner but stronger forces . . . in the face of the Chinese communists’ fast military expansion.” Speaking to a strategic seminar last month, the former mayor of Taipei said that such forces “must be capable of crushing out the enemy from the onset in case of war” so that “the Chinese communists would drop the idea of taking Taiwan at a minimum cost.” Ma’s DPP opponent, former Premier Frank Hsieh, has likewise stressed the importance of defense spending: “ Taiwan needs to continue buying defense equipment and to make its defense budget more than three percent of GDP.”

The piece concludes:

If Taiwan continues upgrading its defense capabilities, as appears likely irrespective of the election results, it will also be indirectly advancing U.S. interests in the western Pacific rim, both strategically vis-à-vis the PRC’s ambitions for regional hegemony and operationally as a potential partner in the event of a security or even humanitarian crisis in the region. Carefully managed, a policy of actively helping Taiwan help itself will pay healthy dividends into America’s East Asian and even global geopolitical accounts.


The full text of Dr. Pham’s feature, “Helping Taiwan Help Itself,” can be accessed by clicking here.