Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will mark the end of her first year in power on May 20. It was hardly an uneventful 12 months for the country's first woman president. The defense and security arena was no different, despite generally being lower profile than issues like pension reform, same-sex marriage or transitional justice.

Taiwan presidents do not tend to score popularity points in defense and security. The misfire of an anti-ship missile or the latest espionage scandal are just two examples. Despite this, Tsai has made an effort to visit to military bases, pursuing good relations with the military and hoping to improve the armed forces’ public image.

One of the more visible defense and national security milestones of her first year in office was the official launch of the indigenous defense submarine (IDS) project in March.

As the law requires, the Ministry of National Defense also issued the Quadrennial Defense Review that is due every four years within 10 months of the presidential inauguration. Most of the attention focused on a newly formulated defense posture - "multiple deterrence, resolute defense (防衛固守,重層嚇阻) replacing "effective deterrence, resolute defense (防衛固守,有效嚇阻)" adopted by the previous administration.

This was an apparent move from a passive posture to a more active one. But in reality, what we see is in many ways an element of continuity and incremental development in embracing asymmetry as a method to counter quantitative superiority on Chinese side. Tsai’s emphasis on the increasing role of the domestic defense industry (both for military purposes and an incentive for economic growth) is reasonable, but is also partly forced due to Taiwan’s inability to freely purchase the arms it needs from abroad.

Tsai’s administration should be commended for extending the computer phase of the annual Han Kuang military exercise from one week to a full month, with a full week dedicated to joint forces exercise. The extended exercise also aimed to test the new multiple deterrence defense strategy.

Challenges ahead

The challenges for the forthcoming years are plentiful and several issues may become thorny for the administration.

The first and foremost challenge is primarily domestic but with direct foreign policy consequences.

The Tsai administration needs to make a decisive move toward its declared goal of reaching 3 percent of the country’s GDP allocated to defense.

Not only is increased budget needed to finance existing and future defense projects, it is also a matter of signaling to the U.S. the intention to purchase F-35s. On top of the IDS developments, an overhaul of the navy, the new advanced trainer program and other projects, this will hardly be credible if the budget does not rise.

The U.S. has regularly raised the issue of not reaching its defense spending targets, ever since Taiwanese leaders kept declaring it as a goal but failed to follow through.

Everything else stems from the available budget, including the success or failure of the transition to an all-volunteer force (which should be complemented by a substantial overhaul of the structure and the role of reserve forces). The Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was not able to finish the transition due to inadequate volunteer enrollment, which can be partly attributed to lack of budget and partly to the military’s public image problem.

Turning inward

The turn to indigenous development presents a danger that is inherent to any modern defense project: spending more than was the initial allocation. IDS is a particular risk of serious overspending due to the advanced nature of building a submarine from scratch without prior experience. The current support for the project across the political divide will soon disappear when the government starts to ask the legislature to approve more and more additional funds. Managing expectations and trying to prevent wasteful behavior on the part of major contractors and subcontractors will require serious effort.

In the immediate future, the likelihood of Chinese direct military action is relatively low. The People’s Liberation Army is undergoing the most extensive reorganization since its founding and the Party leadership will be keen to avoid military solutions before the reforms settle down, unless compelled to do otherwise by external circumstances (for instance an escalated crisis on Korean peninsula). This gives Tsai and the MND some space to implement Taiwan’s own much-needed reforms and push for advanced defense projects.

On a regional security front, Taiwan will need to watch for developments in South and East China Seas, both have the potential to draw Taiwan into a military confrontation without having vital national stake in the situation.

Needless to say, Beijing will keep pressure on Taiwan. We should expect greater activity of Chinese intelligence services both in Taiwan and in cyberspace.

Mounting effective counter-intelligence and fostering Taiwan’s cyber defensive and offensive capabilities will require focused effort. The plan to establish a specialized cyber branch is a step in the right direction but the implementation will be difficult, especially in terms of securing qualified personnel with highly specialized skillsets.

Read more:
Xi's Grand Design: Recentralizing Power in the PLA
Shades of Gray: China is Changing the PLA’s Ground Combat Units
Will China's New Military Rankings Change How the PLA Trains and Fights?
PLA 2.0: China's Military Intelligence Upgrade

Editor: Edward White