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Commentary: Why Taiwan's defence priorities might need a rethink

ARLINGTON, United States: Taiwan’s recent 2023 National Defense Report fails to grasp the realities of an evolving situation amid China’s increasing military pressure. Recent arms deals and the unveiling of a domestically built submarine suggest the island’s intent to beef up its defences, but Taipei is ignoring lessons from Ukraine at its own peril.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has said that the island seeks “peaceful coexistence” with China, saying in a National Day address on Tuesday (Oct 10) that peace is the “only option”.

However, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has previously warned of the possibility of a conflict with China in 2027. US intelligence also believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping – who has said before that Taiwan’s reunification with China is inevitable – has instructed his country’s armed forces to be ready to invade by 2027.

As it bolsters its defences, Taiwan is actively seeking support from the West. While doing so, it received an additional endorsement from the Biden administration.

In August, the US approved for the first time a military aid package under a programme typically reserved for sovereign states. The assistance under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) breaks with the historical method of transferring weapons to Taiwan under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS).

The move was widely interpreted as a political and military upgrade by industry watchers, although Washington has said repeatedly it remains committed to the well-established One China policy.

Beijing criticised the sale of US$80 million in military equipment under the new status, saying that it “will take resolute and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The US’ total approved arms sales to Taiwan this year could reach half a billion dollars, including other programmes.

The US State Department has also asked for a further US$113 million in global FMF next year, which could be used for Taiwan.

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STAKES OVER TAIWAN ARE HIGH

There has been renewed international interest on tensions between China and Taiwan following the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022.

Taiwan is a technological powerhouse and a key player in the global supply chain. A crisis over Taiwan would lead to significant geopolitical tensions and complex diplomacy on a global scale. The stakes are high for Taiwan and the world.  

Still, analysts are concerned Taipei may be getting the basics of military deterrence wrong. Big kit, like ships, large air defences or world-class fighter planes make attractive targets for capable Chinese missiles.

The first piece of the puzzle in a kill chain starts with intelligence. Beijing has launched at least 40 remote sensing satellites in 2023 and is expected to end this year with 60 to 70, according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). China reveals little information on the satellites, but analysts widely believe they may partly be used for reconnaissance capabilities.

Many in Washington fear that Taiwan’s most valued and visible military equipment would be wiped out in minutes, not days, if China employed its hypersonic missiles in a precise attack.

Taiwan reacted with a record defence spending of NT$606.8 billion (US$18.8 billion) for 2024, amounting to 2.5 per cent of the island’s gross domestic product. Still, the budget is far less than the 1.55 trillion yuan (US$224 billion) China proposed for its defence spending this year.

And more isn’t necessarily better. Taiwan’s 12.9 per cent increase in its military budget for 2023 has not translated into increased deterrence.

The war in Ukraine has taught that asymmetric responses play an important role in a conflict with a larger, more capable, power. Small drones, portable missile systems and electronic warfare have proven their worth in battle with the mighty Russian army.

Naval drone warfare offers another dramatic example. The Russian navy in the Black Sea was cornered using unmanned vessels and creative tactics. Asymmetry at sea offers critical advantages, but Taiwan insists on trying to match a foe that is far ahead in the race.

On Sep 28, Taiwan unveiled its first homemade submarine – something that was once considered “mission impossible”, although it won’t enter service for another two years. Taiwan is planning to build eight such submarines, but even when all are built, they will be outnumbered by China’s estimated 60 submersibles.

Michael Lostumbo, a senior defence researcher at RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank, believes that Taiwan needs to focus its security efforts more narrowly. He argues that for Taiwan to survive an onslaught it needs to design a better shopping list than the one it sent to the United States. 

The 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks it ordered in 2019 were a step in the wrong direction, but the recently requested Reaper drones suggest Taipei may be updating its military doctrine. Still, some find it hard to celebrate.

“Today and for many years into the future, Taiwan’s military budget will be devoted to things that will be destroyed or expended very quickly,” Lostumbo said in a report.

Complicating this, the delivery of 66 US-made F-16 fighters will not be completed until 2026 due to software problems.

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WAR UNLIKELY

Patrols by Chinese warplanes around Taiwan, naval exercises rehearsing a blockade and amphibious exercises along the Chinese mainland coast are increasingly frequent. In 2022, Taipei recorded 1,737 airspace violations in the Taiwan Air Defence Identification Zone, a 79 per cent increase compared to 2021, according to a report by the CSIS, a DC-based think tank. So far, this year, there have been close to 1,400 incursions.

Despite heightened fears of a conflict, analysts expect that the current scenario where the People’s Liberation Army pressures, but does not attack, will continue.

While these actions are aggressive, they aren’t acts of war. Still, this expands Beijing’s influence and improves its military posture.

Whether the 2027 invasion date is credible is a matter of debate. What is gaining traction among Taiwan watchers is that the island isn’t applying to its military the same ingenuity it employed to become a global technology leader – and if it comes to a toe-to-toe fight it will be hopeless.

Diego Laje is an international defence journalist and analyst at defense magazine SIGNAL.

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