Taiwan President Ma: White flag of surrender?

Taiwan lowers its military sights
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – In hardly a gesture of friendliness to its neighbors, China’s Defense Ministry has confirmed the People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLA Navy) aircraft carrier program. The announcement comes just days after the Taiwanese military released its regular defense white paper, which some observers likened to the island waving a white flag of surrender.

The edge the PLA has over the Taiwanese armed forces is becoming increasingly overwhelming, the Taiwanese military says, and within a decade, the PLA won’t have a hard time forcing Taipei into accepting unification by military means if necessary. Adding insult to injury by showcasing the island’s political indetermination in reacting to the threat, news emerged that for the first time in a decade, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) fighter jets jaunted across the centerline in the Taiwan Strait without Taipei even daring to protest.


According to Taiwan’s National Defense Act 30, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) must inform the citizenry at regular intervals. "What has been done? What is being done? What is being prepared for the future?" are among the questions the MND commissions a handful of defense analysts to answer.

While the range of assessments made in the "The Republic of China Centennial 2011 National Defense Report" spans from HIV/AIDS to the maintenance of weaponry in cooperation between armed forces and the private sector, the focus naturally is on the cross-strait military imbalance.

That time isn’t on the Taiwanese armed forces’ side is a notion virtually forced on the report’s readers. Over a few chapters it expounds on the PLA’s substantial progress in the fields of ground combat capability, sea combat capability, air combat capability, Second Artillery (the PLA unit in charge of conventional and nuclear missiles) strike capability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, and electronic warfare capability, as well as on mainland China’s strategic doctrine and the enormous disparity of both sides’ defense budgets and personnel numbers.

In more concrete terms:

· The Taiwanese military assess that mainland China’s military budget is already 21 times that of Taiwan’s.

· The PLA has more than 2.3 million personnel against Taiwan’s 270,000.

· The Second Artillery strengthened strategic nuclear deterrence and nuclear counterattack ability by the continued development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which makes an attack carried out by US forces coming to Taiwan’s help on Chinese targets other than those directly involved in the PLA campaign against Taiwan not being an option.

· The PLA has already deployed some DF-21D "carrier killer" ballistic missiles, which are assessed as the PLA’s key weapon platform to prevent the US Navy from intervening in a cross-strait conflict.

· China has significantly strengthened air defense and anti-ship bases along its coast, which makes it less likely that retaliation strikes could pressure China into halting attacks against Taiwan.

· In Fujian and Guangdong provinces, which are the ones closest to Taiwan, more than 1,000 missiles are deployed targeting the island, as well as new advanced combat aircraft and missile boats.

To attack Taiwan’s command-and-control bases, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and high-speed anti-radiation missiles are deployed and the PLA’s main naval and air platforms are gradually being equipped with electronic warfare capabilities, aiming at enabling the jamming of enemy forces’ weapon control systems.

And by 2020:

· The PLA Navy will have launched its first indigenous aircraft carriers which will come along with a fleet of stealth fighters on them.

· China’s Beidou navigation satellite system will provide the missile force with precision targeting capabilities, making precision strikes against moving targets at sea, and particularly US aircraft carriers, much easier.

As to what effect the PLA’s arms built-up will have on future battle scenarios, the Taiwanese military believes that by 2020 the PLA can carry out a blockade on Taiwan, seize Taiwan’s outlying islands, launch a full-scale military attack against Taiwan proper, and deter foreign powers from coming to Taiwan’s help.

Whereas the white paper acknowledges that since 2008 a number of cross-strait treaties have been signed – such as on direct links, financial cooperation and most prominently the Economic Framework Cooperation Agreement (ECFA) – it warns the PLA threat has failed to decrease.

"The state of peacetime readiness [the Chinese forces are in] can rapidly mutate into [a display of] combat power against Taiwan," it reads. However, the question of how the Taiwanese military considers responding is left largely ambiguous.

Besides slogans that call for a military "that cannot be scared, cannot be bitten, cannot be swallowed and cannot be broken", and a vague announcement that asymmetric warfare capabilities are being developed, about the only impressive things mentioned are that the MND-run Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) is working on electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, which are meant to knock out the enemy’s electronics over a wide area, cruise missiles with long-distance precision strike capabilities, and strategic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Not explicitly expounded on are the further development and deployment of the HF-missile family, which includes the subsonic HF-2 anti-ship missiles, the supersonic HF-3 anti-ship missile, and the HF-2E, a land-attack cruise missile capable of hitting targets in mainland China, and an absorbent paint the Taiwan Navy successfully tested that can provide stealth capabilities to platforms such as missile boats. Likely to raise eyebrows the most, however, was the absence of meaningful talk on strategic shifts necessary to face China’s compulsive military might.

In terms of domestic politics, Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) turned the defense white paper into political ammunition immediately upon publication. While DPP lawmakers attacked the Kuomintang (KMT) government under President Ma Ying-jeou for having caused the cross-strait military imbalance to grow rapidly – as he hasn’t kept his promise of allocating 3% of GDP to the military – some went so far as to likening the report to a flag of surrender to mainland China.

As the national defense budget for 2011 accounts for just 2.2% of GDP, a lack of funding and urgent new weapons purchases have grossly undermined Taiwan’s defense capabilities, say Ma’s critics. They also say that the notion that the Taiwanese military has long ceased to be seen by the PLA as a force to be reckoned with was manifested by an occurrence on June 29.

That day, according to the MND’s own account, two PLAAF Sukhoi-27 fighters crossed the centerline in the Taiwan Strait in what was alleged to have been the first such breach in a decade. The Su-27 fighters’ reputed mission: the harassment of a US U-2S high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft spying on the Chinese coast.

The Su-27s were said to have returned to Chinese airspace after having been intercepted by two Taiwanese F-16s. While, when directly asked about the incident, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated that the US "won’t be deterred from flying in international airspace", Taipei said almost nothing.

Both the MND and KMT lawmakers have been quick to categorize the incident as an isolated case and not a provocative act. The Ma administration isn’t only economizing the island’s defense, it even signals tactic approval and waves the flag of surrender in word and deed by not protesting against the PLA’s brazen incursion, say Ma’s domestic opponents.

Experts interviewed by Asia Times Online, however, expressed the opinion that these salvos are largely off the mark.

"All Ma’s fault – This is just cheap electoral talk based on no substance," said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and editor of the authoritative If China attacks Taiwan – Military Strategy, Politics and Economics.

"What more could a DPP Administration have done had it been in power? It could not have stopped the upgrading of the PLA’s capabilities. It could not have been more persuasive with the Obama administration [in the United States] in terms of securing the sale of major weapon systems."

Tsang furthermore pointed out that there is no evidence to suggest that the Ma administration pays less attention to improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities than the administration of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian of the DPP once had, elaborating that in contrast to the early 2000s when as US president George W Bush offered the biggest ever arms package to Taiwan and the Chen administration did not seize on it quickly and pin the Americans down, Ma’s tenure has seen a US government highly reluctant to inch forward even over arms packages that had reached nearly the end process for approval for sale to Taiwan.

"To argue that Ma is responsible for the growing gap in military capabilities across the strait does not seem either reasonable or responsible," Tsang stated. "To say this is not to say that the Ma administration could not have done better in some areas in improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities – all governments are guilty of such a general criticism in all countries at any time, which makes such a criticism not really meaningful unless specific avoidable failings are cited."

Also on the alleged incursions of the PLAAF’s Su-27 into Taiwanese airspace and the conspicuous lack of protest coming from Taipei’s side, Tsang warned against jumping to conclusions.

"Did the US government protest every time a Soviet aircraft got too close for comfort and required the USAF to scramble jets to intercept during the Cold War? Do we know that Taiwan can actually prove that the PLA planes crossed the centerline? Getting very close to it or even touching it is not the same as crossing it. Presumably the F16s were scrambled before the SU-27 crossed the centerline," Tsang argued, pointing out that there’s not much point to protest if one cannot prove whether something happened or not.

Tsang then took on the claim that within the last 10 years, similar breaches haven’t occurred and that if they had, a Taiwanese government other than the one Ma Ying-jeou leads would have vehemently protested.

"Do we know for sure that PLA jets really haven’t crossed the centerline for a long time, or that the government in Taipei always protested in all previous occasions? I believe the answer to the former is no, and that for the latter is probably also no," Tsang said, emphasizing that also due to absence of diplomatic channels between Beijing and Taipei there ought not be an expectation that the Ma administration should automatically protest.

Tsang then concluded on a somewhat intriguing note. "I am also not sure whether formally protesting for its own sake is always the best policy. If the leaking of the information was meant primarily to put pressure on the US government over sales of new F-16s or the upgrading of the ones Taiwan already has, there’s not much point in protesting to Beijing."

On numerous occasions and to little avail, Ma Ying-jeou has requested the US to authorize weapon sales. The platform Taiwan seeks the most urgently – F-16C/Ds to replace its fleet of aging aircraft – is unlikely to be sold to Taipei as Washington fears the deal would lead to a significant deterioration of US-China relations.

Recently, the Obama administration announced it would make a decision on the F-16 sale by October 1. This timing strongly augurs that the deal is dead. This is because that date is sandwiched between Vice President Biden’s trip to China in August and President Hu’s trip to Hawaii in November, and Xi Jin-ping, Hu’s expected successor, will also visit the US in the winter.

Washington would put these important diplomatic arrangements into jeopardy if it went ahead with an authorization of the F-16C/D sale. But by having chased off the PLAAF’s Su-27s with its aging F-16A/Bs, thereby protecting US reconnaissance aircraft, the Taiwanese may have given – or indeed may have intended to give – decision makers in Washington unexpected food for thought regarding the written-off F-16C/D deal.

Also according to Oliver Braeuner of the China and Global Security Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, claims don’t hold that Ma has deliberately turned the Taiwanese military into a weak one. Braeuner believes that Ma got somewhat tangled up.

"Since having taken office in 2008, Ma has for a large part been sticking to his predecessors’ defense policies and as much as possible tried to maintain a condition of defense readiness," Braeuner said, adding that on the one hand, Ma sought to strengthen the military by procurements of US weapons, while on the other, he didn’t want to endanger the easing of cross-strait tensions.

"But in a sense, Ma then fell victim to his own policy of detente. To the same degree ties to Beijing have been becoming warmer, Washington has been becoming more reluctant to anger Beijing through arms sales to Taipei, and correspondingly, also domestically it has been becoming ever harder to justify massive defense spending."

Braeuner recommended that Ma find a better balance in relations to Beijing and, perhaps as an allusion to the "The Republic of China Centennial 2011 National Defense Report", he said Ma should stop letting the MND alone decry the military threat caused by Mainland China.

"He has to make clearer that cross-strait relations can only be improved by Beijing abandoning the threat of violence," Braeuner said.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s