Eroding Deterrence: Taiwan’s Civil-Military Divide

Photo Credit: Consortium of Defense Analysts

By: Michael Daly, Columnist

When I was in Taipei this past summer, I asked one of my Taiwanese acquaintances about the perception of the military in Taiwan’s society. His answer enlightened me: “It’s not a good career path,” he explained. “The military is for unskilled people who don’t have any other options.” His sentiments typify a worrying trend in the nation’s civil-military relations. Disdain for the military, much of it rooted in the Kuomintang’s (KMT) use of martial law to brutally repress its citizens until 1987, pervades Taiwanese society.[i] Defense planners, consequently, find it politically unpalatable to reverse the government’s anemic defense spending, which in turn detracts from the potential appeal of a military career.[ii] These mutually reinforcing trends undermine the strength of Taipei’s armed forces and weaken the island’s deterrence capability. Given the ever-growing power asymmetry between Taiwan and China, these inadequacies must be addressed to ensure Taiwan’s long-term security.

Aversion to the armed forces presents Taiwan’s defense planners with a systemic challenge. In a 2012 survey of Taiwanese people aged 28 or younger, 57 percent agreed that people have the right to refuse conscription in the military in the event of a war with China.[iii] Moreover, many in Taiwan view the conscription law as unfairly applied because “the rich and powerful frequently manage to either avoid service all together or otherwise serve in an alternative way.”[iv] This sense of injustice helps explain why in 2016, 21 percent of reservists exploited loopholes to avoid their mandatory military service.[v] Consequently, President Ma Ying-jeou and his successor Tsai Ing-wen have been forced to delay until at least 2017 the transition from a conscription force of 400,000 troops to an all-volunteer military of 215,000, originally planned for completion by 2014.[vi] This failure to attract the nation’s best and brightest people will undermine military readiness and blunt the credibility of Taiwan’s deterrence.

A second troublesome trend for Taiwan’s security is its consistently inadequate defense spending. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has targeted 3 percent of GDP as the minimum level of defense spending needed to ensure Taipei’s security.[vii] However, President Ma slashed year-over-year defense spending five times in his eight-year tenure (2008-16), and the 2016 defense budget remains less than 2 percent of GDP.[viii] Such a dearth of funding undermines three aspects of Taiwan’s military strength.[ix] First, without sufficient benefits (e.g. higher salaries, educational opportunities, veterans benefits, etc.) Taiwan cannot hope to lure highly skilled recruits to the military.[x] Second, weapons acquisitions and maintenance require substantial funding. Taiwan recently purchased $1.83 billion worth of arms from the United States, and will need to continue spending heavily to upgrade aging weapons platforms, especially its fleet of F-16 fighter jets.[xi] Third, Taiwan needs funding for research and development (R&D), as President Tsai has promised to devote 70 percent of defense budget increases to R&D.[xii] Lack of funding in these three areas—not to mention training and operations—has deteriorated Taiwan’s armed forces, thereby reinforcing the perception that the military is not a career worth pursuing.

Taiwan’s strategic environment exacerbates these systemic problems. President Tsai’s defense strategy appears to be based upon “deterrence by denial,” unlike her predecessor Ma, who sought to decrease tensions with China through closer diplomatic and economic engagement while pursuing a strategy of “deterrence by punishment.”[xiii] A central pillar of deterrence is that one’s threat to the adversary must be credible, both in capability and willingness to carry out that threat.[xiv] Therefore, if Taiwan seeks to deny China from invading or blockading the island, Taipei’s armed forces must be sufficiently capable to enact unacceptably high costs on Beijing’s military, and Taipei must demonstrate its willingness to use that force appropriately. Moreover, because deterrence entails a psychological process to alter the adversary’s perception of your capability, Taiwan’s pervasive anti-military sentiment undermines the credibility of Tsai’s strategy of deterrence.[xv] These dynamics signal a growing danger to Taiwan’s security.

This analysis leads to two specific policy implications for Taipei. First, regardless of domestic hurdles, Tsai must continue to fight to increase defense spending. Taiwan is saddled with stagnant economic growth, widening inequality, and a host of social issues that place serious constraints on government spending.[xvi] Nonetheless, Tsai needs to demonstrate the “obstinate, unyielding determination” that characterizes great leaders in order to overcome domestic hurdles, clearly articulate to her domestic audience the threat China poses in order to gain sufficient political capital, and reach the defense-spending target of 3 percent of GDP.[xvii][xviii] Considering the spike in cross-Strait tensions following the Democratic Progressive Party’s electoral victory this year, Tsai must grasp the notion that the continued dilapidation of Taiwan’s force structure reduces the feasibility of her strategy of deterrence. She needs to exhibit strong leadership accordingly. Second, following two decades of Beijing’s rapid military modernization, Taipei should increasingly focus on asymmetric capabilities.[xix] Tsai has made an admirable effort toward this end since her inauguration, announcing plans for a $14.7 billion indigenous shipbuilding project over the next 23 years that includes four to eight submarines, as well as plans for a ‘fourth branch’ of the military dedicated to cyber capabilities.[xx] Both of these programs, if carried through, could present significant second-order benefits by bolstering integration and cooperation between businesses and the armed forces and consequently improving civil-military relations. The United States, for its part, should assist Taiwan in developing the appropriate strategy and doctrine needed for effective asymmetric operations tailored to the contingency of a Chinese use of force.

These recommendations are starting points for mending Taiwan’s civil-military gap and developing a credible deterrent. Defense spending will be no panacea for the disdainful perception of the military in Taiwanese society today. Nonetheless, by transforming the military into a more viable career path for Taiwanese youth, investing in future weapons platforms, and bolstering asymmetric capabilities, Tsai can begin to reverse the adverse impacts of declining military morale and recruitment. If she succeeds, my Taiwanese acquaintance and all of his peers will no longer view the military as a last-resort career—and only then can Taiwan credibly deter China.

[i] Laura Dickey, “Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan’s New President,” War on the Rocks, January 20, 2016, accessed July 20, 2016,; John Chen, “Why Taiwan Won’t Be Able to Build an Effective All-Volunteer Force,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, April 10, 2015, accessed October 4, 2016,

[ii] Peter Enav, “Improving Readiness in the Military,” Thinking Taiwan, September 7, 2015, accessed October 5, 2016,

[iii] Shih Hsiu-chuan, “Youth will not fight for Taiwan: poll,” Taipei Times, May 13, 2012, accessed October 4, 2016,

[iv] Oriana Skylar Mastro, “Taiwan’s Defense Policy Under Tsai,” China Brief 16:15 (2016): 6-10,

[v] Kevin McCauley, “Taiwan’s Military Reforms and Strategy: Reset Required,” China Brief 16:13 (2016): 5-9,

[vi] “Armed Forces, Taiwan,” IHS Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, September 28, 2015, accessed February 25, 2016; McCauley, “Taiwan’s Military Reforms and Strategy: Reset Required.”; Gavin Phipps, “Island Endeavor: Taiwan Country Briefing,” IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, March 22, 2016, accessed July 21, 2016.

[vii] Enav, “Improving Readiness in the Military.”

[viii] “Armed Forces, Taiwan,” IHS Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, September 28, 2015, accessed February 25, 2016.

[ix] Michal Thim and Liao Yen-Fan, “Defense of Taiwan Post-2016 Elections: Legacy and New Challenges of Military Transformation,” China Brief 16:1 (2016): 6-10,

[x] Mastro, “Taiwan’s Defense Policy Under Tsai.”; Enav, “Improving Readiness in the Military.”

[xi] Phipps, “Island Endeavor: Taiwan Country Briefing.”

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Mastro, “Taiwan’s Defense Policy Under Tsai.”

[xiv] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 37-41.

[xv] Dickey, “Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan’s New President.”

[xvi] Bonnie Glaser and Anastasia Mark, “Taiwan’s Defense Spending: The Security Consequences of Choosing Butter Over Guns,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 18, 2015, accessed October 6, 2016,

[xvii] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command (New York: Free Press, 2002): 224.

[xviii] Glaser and Mark, “Taiwan’s Defense Spending.”

[xix] Dickey, “Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan’s New President.”

[xx] Wendell Minnick, “Taiwan Moves on $14.7B Indigenous Shipbuilding, Upgrade Projects,” Defense News, June 23, 2016, accessed July 23, 2016,; Dickey, “Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan’s New President.”; Jake Chung, “Tsai Unveils Ambitious National Defense Policy,” Taipei Times, October 30, 2015, accessed October 6, 2016,

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