Taiwan’s Defense Review Consciously Vague

It would be unwise for the island to communicate its military plans to China.

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense released its second Quadrennial Defense Review. The document, in addition to discussing the state of defense policies in the present political environment, examines the challenges facing the island and reports on the condition of national military preparedness.

Beyond minor changes in the language describing the local threat environment, there is very little new content over what was in the 2009 version. Indeed, the only substantial changes come in the form of a renewed focus on mainland China’s strategic transformation from a focus on near shore power projection to far sea perimeter defense.

This, of course, will guide Taiwanese defense planning and preparedness calculations in the future. But details on how that will translate into what new capabilities are to be pursued are thin on the ground and commentators have been quick to suggest that proposed spending levels and a lack of decisive developments could leave the island vulnerable to Chinese attack.

Why is this? After all, one might think it the case that a country so existentially challenged would have the greatest interest in deterring aggression and projecting an image of readiness through the effective broadcasting of its capabilities abroad.

One need only look at the report’s language and broad geopolitical observations to understand why the details of strategic planning and new defense apparatus development might increasingly lose a measure of effectiveness if exposed to the public limelight, however.

In recognizing China’s transformation of capacity and focus toward far seas anti-access missions, Taiwan is almost certainly also recognizing that Chinese area denial and conventional first strike capabilities, including sophisticated ballistic and cyber forces, are lengthening the shadow of the future for the island in conflict scenarios. A successful response to any degree of direct aggressive action on China’s part would undoubtedly require American intercession. Taipei’s forces would have to capably blunt or derail an attack long enough to allow the United States to deploy appropriate force.

New hardware, much of which was generally commented on in the defense report, is certainly needed to ensure that Taiwan’s conventional military units remain effective against Chinese counterparts. Anti-submarine warfare capabilities, advanced ballistic missile defense platforms, more surface combatants and stealth fighters, if they can feasibly be bought or built, will all boost the island’s survivability.

But many of the steps to be taken to transform Taiwan’s national-security capabilities and enable the possibility of sustained resistance beyond the opening phases of an assault are those that require or benefit from more clandestine preparation.

In particular, cyber defense capabilities benefit from the lack of a public profile of any kind, as Taiwan’s military leadership undoubtedly wants to avoid allowing China the ability to adapt or compensate for any online weapons the island might be able to bring to bear.

This is perhaps most important in the realm of focused offensive cyber assets that Taiwan could develop. After all, active defense of infrastructural and military systems is to be expected by China in the event of an assault on the island but any ability that Taipei might produce to disrupt counterpart military or intelligence systems, particularly those that are increasingly tying China’s over the horizon radar and communications platforms together to improve command and control awareness, need obscurity and confidentiality if they are to stand a chance of proving effective.

Furthermore, installation hardening and alternative infrastructure development projects are most likely best left unenumerated. While China is certainly aware of the drills that Taiwan has undertaken to assess the feasibility of military aircraft using highways in place of airfields assumed to be destroyed in an opening attack barrage, it would clearly be unwise to publicly indicate the location or nature of contingency assets, infrastructural and otherwise, that could simply be added to a list of sites to be targeted in a ballistic assault.

Finally, the problem of domestic threat awareness might benefit, at least in terms of the island’s international relationships, from an avoidance of the limelight.

The issue of popular complacency and willingness to shelf national security priorities in favor of more conservative outlooks on the prospect for conflict, laid out in a very brief paragraph in the defense review’s first chapter, is to be tackled in the future in several ways.

Notably, Taiwan aims to actively integrate defense education resources, increase popular awareness of threats from espionage and leverage increasing understanding of the island’s threat environment to gain support for future national-security improvement spending.

And that is about as specific as the leadership in Taipei likely wants to get. The diversion of defense funds to what could be construed as a politically motivated drive to galvanize nationalist support for greater military spending and an expansion of the national-security apparatus would almost certainly draw sharp criticism, and perhaps even further redistributions of force to coastal areas, from China.

Moreover, indications of a drive to institutionalize nationalist sentiment, even to improve threat awareness and create opportunities for intraregional security cooperation, could introduce an element of uncertainty to the calculations of policymakers from the United States and other potential partners. While many would value a strengthening of Taiwan’s capabilities and diversion from other pressure points in East Asia, nobody wants to see the development of a national mindset likely to provoke conflict.

So, whether Taiwan’s vague report is the result of poor planning development or of something more calculating, it is clear that the increasingly encircled nature of the island’s security environment generates both a significant need for unconventional defenses and for the secrecy to ensure that they remain effective options for the future.