What you need to know
At the 2019 Taipei Defense and Security Forum, researchers suggested the government to pursue Indigenous Military Programs to strengthen Taiwan's national defense.
Over dozens of academics gathered in Taipei last week to discuss Taiwan’s asymmetrical diplomacy as a small island nation caught between the power dynamics of China and the United States.
At the 2019 Taipei Defense and Security Forum hosted by the Institute for National Security and Defense Research (INDSR), researchers from the institute shared their studies during a session on strengthening Taiwan’s defense.
INDSR research fellow Dr. Hung Jui-min presented his study on Taiwan’s defense industry, followed by Dr. Paul An-hao Huang’s introduction of the role of the Taiwanese Army in defending critical infrastructure.
The forum largely focused on Taiwan’s pursuit of an asymmetric strategy to fend off Chinese hybrid aggression. In terms of numbers, Taiwan’s military cannot match China’s ship-for-ship, bullet-for-bullet, so the Taiwanese government must find the best way to use its limited resources to re-equip its military.
To defend against China’s military power, Dr. Hung suggested pursuing Indigenous Military Programs (IMPs), the use of local companies to produce military equipment here in Taiwan.
“At the present stage, I think it’s necessary to have a comprehensive military strategy combining defense needs and industry development,” Dr. Hung said.
IMPs would give Taiwan more autonomy by decreasing the country’s reliance on foreign arms purchases and technology transfer, according to Dr. Hung. The programs could also bring possible economic benefits such as boosting employment growth and spillover effects from profitable military projects that will encourage industrial innovation in the private sector.
Of the current IMPs, the submarine program is one of the big-budget items, with construction on a series of eight diesel-electric attack submarines scheduled for next year.
However, Dr. Kharis Templeman of Stanford University expressed his concern with the submarine construction and instead came out in favor of missiles and small fast-attack craft, where Taiwan already has a comparative technology advantage. It would be much more cost-effective to focus on what the country is already invested in, Dr. Templeman said, as Taiwan today spends less than it did on national defense than it did in 1994.
Adding to the discussion on Taiwan’s defense industry, Dr. Huang tackled the question of how to protect it. During a conflict, it would be critical for the Taiwanese Army to protect critical infrastructure (CI), which includes things like the factories that create military equipment, the food supply chain, and anything that the public and private sectors rely on to keep everything running on a daily basis such as the power grid and digital networks. To guarantee security, the public and private sectors will have to cooperate.
He promoted the use of the military police in CI protection, noting that private industry is an important asset that will need to be safeguarded in times of war. To protect physical locations, Dr. Huang recommended using military police to bolster local police forces, but that will require an increase in manpower.
“The ability to carry out CI protection is limited against the backdrop of the Army downsizing… the total number of ROC military police was over 30,000 in the 1990s but now they are just about 5,500 troops,” he said.
CI protection isn’t just a matter of increasing the number of boots on the ground, though. A large part of what makes societies and economies run is now tied to the digital world, which presents security challenges.
In the 21st Century, countries are increasingly turning to hybrid warfare, a military strategy that combines conventional warfare with methods like disinformation and electoral intervention. Rather than simply using brute military force against adversaries, they can conduct cyberattacks and political warfare that can be equally as damaging.
Dr. Huang answers this hybrid threat with a hybrid response, “all-out defense” as he calls it. Taiwan’s military and populace will have to work together to succeed.
“We need to think about how to build Taiwan’s resilience by promoting all-out defense. Importantly, social resilience can also be reflected as an asymmetrical strategic capability of Taiwan when facing China’s military or non-military threats and aggressions.”
The need for an all-out defense, which requires cooperation between public and private sectors, could perhaps be illustrated in the recent bridge collapse in Yilan. The accident has grappled the local news with not only the resurfacing of human rights abuse but also the lack of efficiency in the rescue mission.
“[It was] a real test for our country to see how we respond to these accidents, how we prevent such incidents taking place, and how we respond,” said Chung-Young Chang, a professor at Fo Guang University.
Faced with increasing Chinese military power, the cost of American commitment to Taiwan is also rising proportionately. In a stark remark, Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, urged Taiwan to maintain its independence in national defense without relying too much on the United States.
“It’s hard for American policymakers to risk American sons and daughters considering the flat line of Taiwan investments in its own defense,” Denmark said.
From the U.S. perspective, the message is simple: whatever strategies and reforms Taiwan decides to run with, it has to start pulling its own weight, or China will come knocking.