Can Taiwan stay safe in the next decade?

As the sabre-rattling continues in the Taiwan Strait, there seems to be no clear solution in sight for reunification. Zaobao’s correspondent Woon Wei Jong speaks to commentators and experts to take soundings on feasible solutions.
Taiwan's armed forces pose for a photo with a Taiwan flag during a routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 11 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Taiwan's armed forces pose for a photo with a Taiwan flag during a routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 11 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Given the global attention on security in the Taiwan Strait and the Taiwan presidential elections just less than a year away in January 2024, whether the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) can remain in power or the Nationalist Party (KMT) can regain power after eight years in opposition will depend on who can come up with a convincing peace narrative that will keep the two sides of the Taiwan Strait away from war.

Notably, cross-shore relations — across the Taiwan Strait between mainland China and Taiwan, as well as across the Pacific between China and the US — have been at a low point, but political exchanges have been maintained to manage crises, and guardrails have been set so that relations do not break despite some tussling.

This includes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing rather than cancelling his visit to China following the US military shooting down a Chinese “runaway balloon” allegedly fitted with surveillance equipment; and KMT vice-chair Andrew Hsia persisting in leading a delegation to mainland China, and meeting with new Taiwan Affairs Office director Song Tao, as well as incoming chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and China’s top brain on the South China Sea Wang Huning, despite the KMT being accused of bootlicking the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and encouraging reunification.

... they hope for a breakthrough in cross-strait political exchange, so that young people will not have to go to the battlefield.

The safest spot between China and US

Previously, the DPP’s line of “resisting China and protecting Taiwan” worked in its election efforts. However, after the Taiwan Strait crisis in August last year, the Taiwanese people are gradually recognising that Taiwan cannot be protected by resisting mainland China.

Following its heavy defeat in the “nine-in-one” local elections last November, DPP chair and potential presidential candidate William Lai has shifted to the milder rhetoric of “peaceful protection of Taiwan”. However, he later clarified that it still means having to resist mainland China. His flip-flop has been interpreted as putting old wine in new bottles, offering empty peace goals that come with no proposal.

tsai ing wen
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Vice-President William Lai (right, in back) attend a New Year flag-raising ceremony outside the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, in this Taiwan Presidential Office handout released 1 January 2023. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

Amid the increasingly tense situation in the Taiwan Strait, the DPP government announced late last year that from 2024, compulsory military service in Taiwan will be extended from four months to one year. President Tsai Ing-wen noted that the war in Ukraine is ongoing after more than 300 days, but Ukraine has not fallen and is still fighting. She stressed, “Only by preparing for war can we avoid it, and only by being capable of fighting a war can we stop one.”

However, people are doubtful as they believe that Ukraine’s war preparedness and capability only proved that that is no way to avoid or stop a war. Hence, they hope for a breakthrough in cross-strait political exchange, so that young people will not have to go to the battlefield.

On its part, the KMT has stressed the need to prepare for war as well as dialogue. New Taipei City mayor and potential presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih emphasised that Taiwan will not be a chess piece to any great power — which has been interpreted by the Taiwanese people as “US scepticism” — and will keep an equal distance between mainland China and the US.

Subsequently, DPP’s Lai indirectly countered Hou’s comment, saying that US scepticism cannot be a social consensus, as it would be detrimental to Taiwan. Lai’s comments are seen as indicative that the DPP has moved from being pro-US to “US dependent”.

It [DPP] is wavering between pursuing a conventional military race and targeted war preparations that emphasise asymmetric combat capabilities. 

Preparing for war

So far, both parties’ narratives of protecting Taiwan are merely slogans. But once the presidential candidates are announced, the specific strategies and measures such as preparing for combat and managing cross-strait as well as Taiwan-US relations will have to be presented and come under scrutiny.

Currently, the two general schools of thought are either resisting China and depending on the US for a conventional military race; or seeking peace with China and being sceptical of the US while making targeted war preparations.

The DPP is moving towards resisting China and depending on the US, but it seems undecided on preparing for war. It is wavering between pursuing a conventional military race and targeted war preparations that emphasise asymmetric combat capabilities. 

william lai
Taiwan's Vice-President William Lai assumes the chairmanship of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, Taiwan, 18 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Meanwhile, the KMT seeks peace by encouraging exchanges with mainland China, while the party central emphasises its pro-US stance to the Americans. However, within the party, there is significant scepticism of the US, and there are also two contradicting stands on preparing for war — some support the extension of military service to one year, while others call to go back to a four-month period. Overall, there is a tendency towards targeted war preparations.

Essentially, in the context of the China-US strategic tussling, can Taiwan find an independent, safe way to build strategic trust with both sides? Can Taiwan really avoid becoming a chess piece for any power? Otherwise, given that rejecting reunification is the mainstream sentiment in Taiwan, will it have to face war sooner or later? How can it prevent a war, or if it does happen, how can it avoid losing?

Fighting between 2027 and 2035?

Most people do not have answers to these questions. Politicians and political commentators each have their own views but no solutions, and a rare few experts have clear ideas and put forward solutions — former chief of the general staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming has put forward a comprehensive way to protect Taiwan, including preventing, avoiding and winning a war.

From 2017 to 2019, during his term as Taiwan’s top military leader, Lee proposed the “Overall Defence Concept (ODC)”, which was never implemented but gained much attention from the US, and was even written into a draft of the Taiwan Policy Act. A few months ago, he published a bestselling book The Overall Defense Concept: An Asymmetric Approach to Taiwan’s Defense, which sparked intense debate.

Lianhe Zaobao understands that potential presidential candidates from various parties have even sought his views to craft their own defence policies.

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Former chief of the general staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming has ideas on preventing, avoiding and winning a war. (SPH Media)

In general, Lee believes that to avoid war, one has to “speak softly and carry a big stick”, and show friendliness in protecting Taiwan by getting along with China and promising not to pursue Taiwan independence and separation. At the same time, Taiwan would need to make targeted war preparations and develop asymmetric combat capabilities, including preparing plenty of cost-effective weapons, to deter mainland China from easily resorting to arms.

He also proposed establishing a “territorial defence force” of volunteer elite troops from all sectors, trained each year by special forces in mobile guerrilla warfare, to fight alongside professional soldiers.

Considering various expert views, Lee judged that both sides would most likely start fighting between 2027 and 2035.

Lee also told Zaobao that the rumours of him becoming Taiwan’s next defence minister for either the Blue or Green camps is pure speculation and that he had no intention of becoming an official after stepping down, adding that he just wanted to do his part and get Taiwan thinking about security and defence preparedness, and respond quickly. He added, “Because those with foresight and create change will win; those who see and respond when it’s too late will lose; those who see and do not change will die.”

Lee noted that whether and when the CCP engages in armed reunification depends on the gap between military strength on either side of the Taiwan Strait, the US’s deterrent capabilities, the CCP’s resolve in achieving reunification, and Chinese President Xi Jinping's resolve to establish a historical legacy. Considering various expert views, Lee judged that both sides would most likely start fighting between 2027 and 2035.

Amid the threat of arms by the CCP, he feels the Taiwan government and military still do not have a clear strategy and solution, and it is easy to be affected and swayed by the US and domestic opinions in pushing through arms sales and defence policies.

Civilian soldiers to strengthen the cause

In terms of preparing for war, Lee believes that given the growing gap in military strength, Taiwan’s defence focus should not stop at traditional efforts to control land, sea and air combat, it should come up with a strategy focusing on asymmetric combat capabilities. This could then be applied to the structure of its armed forces, weapons procurement, military training, combat planning, standards development and logistical support.

“Even if Taiwan does not have a territorial defence force, its armed forces will still have to engage in urban warfare in the event of war as Taiwan is an urban terrain.” — former chief of the general staff Admiral Lee Hsi-ming

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Taiwan's armed forces hold two days of routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 11 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

He shared that his new book was well-received by US academics and political figures, who felt that it provided a clear solution in prevention, deterrence and defence. However, Taiwan’s Blue and Green camps have their own criticisms. For example, the Blue camp is worried that establishing a territorial defence force will lead to urban warfare in Taiwan, while the Green camp is unhappy with Lee encouraging the Taiwanese to be friendly to mainland Chinese. But neither side has come up with a strategic solution as an alternative.

Lee stressed that the establishment of a territorial defence force similar to an urban guerrilla is pragmatic thinking. He explained, “Taiwan has a 2 million-strong reserve force but is only able to train tens of thousands of people every year, meaning that it would take at least 20 years to train 2 million people. The people who are trained each year are different as well. Based on my practical experience, combat skills cannot be built in this manner at all.”

Lee suggested modelling the territorial defence force after the Singapore Armed Forces, which treats recruits well and offers them tax relief. In addition, people from all walks of life who are interested in defending Taiwan could be recruited to enlist for a few weeks every year to learn to operate precision-guided munitions with fellow soldiers. “Even if Taiwan does not have a territorial defence force, its armed forces will still have to engage in urban warfare in the event of war as Taiwan is an urban terrain,” Lee added.

Soldiers practice during the annual military drill ahead of Lunar New year in Chiayi, Taiwan, 6 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Soldiers practice during the annual military drill ahead of Lunar New Year in Chiayi, Taiwan, 6 January 2023. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

However, Lee admitted that the promotion of Taiwan’s ODC is still laden with challenges, especially because the core of the ODC is in replacing air and sea superiority with air and sea denial, and in significantly reducing the number of fighter jets, warships and armoured vehicles. Soldiers who have long served in such military machines will find it difficult to adapt.

As for maintaining a friendly attitude towards China, Lee believes that while Taiwan must adopt a firm stance against the CCP, it must be “friendly” to the remaining 1.31 billion Chinese people outside of the 90 million CCP members to gain their favour. He asserted, “When you show the mainland’s 1.31 billion people that Taiwan’s best asset is its people, why would they support the CCP in destroying Taiwan and taking the island by force?”

“The problem is that mainstream public opinion does not want to accept peaceful reunification; so Taiwan needs to rely on its own combat readiness and the help and deterrence of the US and its allies to avoid war.” — Lee Hsi-ming

Taiwan needs the US for security

Lee also stressed that while Taiwan should be clear of the US’s intentions, there is no need to question it — the US protects Taiwan for its own interests, and friendly ties need to be maintained because only the US can help Taiwan in terms of security.

He said, “If Taiwan is willing to accept the ‘one country, two systems’ model as well as peaceful reunification, things will be straightforward. The problem is that mainstream public opinion does not want to accept peaceful reunification; so Taiwan needs to rely on its own combat readiness and the help and deterrence of the US and its allies to avoid war.”

Can Taiwan simultaneously build mutual trust with the US and mainland China, and survive amid great power rivalry?

People walk under lanterns at the traditional market along Dihua street in Taipei, Taiwan, on 17 January 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
People walk under lanterns at the traditional market along Dihua Street in Taipei, Taiwan, on 17 January 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Under Taiwan’s political milieu and public sentiment, people can easily be split into opposing camps depending on whether they are anti- or pro-China; or friendly or sceptical towards the US. The pan-Green camp could claim that the pan-Blue camp are followers of the CCP, while the pan-Blue camp could say that the pan-Green camp is a US proxy. But as the shadow of war looms larger, the tide seems to be turning.

Key to maintaining peace

Distinguished Professor Wang Hsin-Hsien of the National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies told Zaobao that China-US strategic competition is set to last. Although strategic compromise for short-term cooperation in economic and climate issues outside of politics may be possible and alliance formations may adjust due to economic cooperation needs, nobody will actually change sides. He said, “Amid the highs and lows of China-US relations, China-US competition is set to intensify in the long term.”

He believes that small- and medium-sized countries or political entities caught in the middle should remain flexible and not completely tilt towards the US or mainland China, which will escalate risk. He said that Taiwan needs to rely on the US for security, and should use its own defence capabilities, as well as support from the US and its allies as the basis for initiating dialogue with the mainland.

“Since Taiwan cannot rely solely on the US to defend the island, wouldn’t there be a need for a political party that could dialogue with the mainland?” — Distinguished Professor Wang Hsin-Hsien, Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University

An aerial view shows residential buildings damaged by shelling in the Saltivka district of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 20 February 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Ihor Tkachov/AFP)
An aerial view shows residential buildings damaged by shelling in the Saltivka district of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 20 February 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Ihor Tkachov/AFP)

He pointed out that after the Russia-Ukraine war and Taiwan Strait crisis broke out, the Taiwanese people are thinking if the US would do the same to Taiwan as it did to Ukraine in the event of war — only providing weapons and intelligence but not deploying any soldiers or troop to defend the island.

He questioned, “Since Taiwan cannot rely solely on the US to defend the island, wouldn’t there be a need for a political party that could dialogue with the mainland?”

Wang believes that there is an objective reason why US credibility is declining in Taiwan — it is not entirely initiated by politicians, but more so a public sentiment. He described Taiwan’s attitude towards the US as being on a spectrum with a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being anti-US and 10 being fully reliant on the US. He assessed that the DPP is close to a 10, and it’s “risky amid China-US strategic competition”.

Wang believes that it is necessary for Taiwan’s political parties not to go to extremes, and highlight their commitment to properly manage issues in both Taiwan-US and cross-strait relations during the presidential election.

Lee said that the key to building mutual trust with both the mainland and the US is to not hurt each other’s interests.

Pro-Taiwan independence activists display banners during a protest before China’s Taiwan Affairs officials arrive in Taipei, Taiwan, on 18 February 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
Pro-Taiwan independence activists display banners during a protest before China’s Taiwan Affairs officials arrive in Taipei, Taiwan, on 18 February 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

He believes that the mainland wants “face” while the US wants “substance” — the mainland cares about Taiwan’s outward status, while the US does not mind cross-strait interactions as long as Taiwan does not reunify with the mainland or seek Taiwan independence.

He explained, “Be it achieving a de jure independence or ‘one China, one Taiwan’, constantly speaking about Taiwan’s de facto independence only garners more votes but does nothing to help build mutual trust with the US and the mainland.”

“But under current circumstances, how could the people who are friendly to China go discuss ‘one country, two systems’ with Xi Jinping? Would the KMT dare?” — Professor Authur Ding Shuh-fan, chair of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies

Beijing putting KMT in predicament? 

If Beijing stops negotiating the comparatively flexible one China framework in the “1992 Consensus” — whereby both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there is only “one China”, with each side having its own interpretation of what “one China” means — and switches to emphasising the “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan, the KMT would be caught between a rock and a hard place and even be forced to reject reunification completely.

Professor Authur Ding Shuh-fan, chair of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, told Zaobao that China and the US have long been strategically competing in the areas of politics, diplomacy, military and technology. US President Joe Biden’s emphasis on building communication channels and setting guardrails can only keep competition from spiralling out of control but not alleviate tensions.

People select goods at a traditional market in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on 21 January 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
People select goods at a traditional market in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on 21 January 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Ding believes that it is difficult to build mutual trust between China and the US; both sides of the Taiwan Strait; and Taiwan and the US. However, “cooperation could occur when there are common interests”.

Ding said, “To Beijing, negotiating the ‘one country, two systems’ model for Taiwan is building mutual trust, so it has stopped talking about the one-China framework after 2019. But under current circumstances, how could the people who are friendly to China go discuss ‘one country, two systems’ with Xi Jinping? Would the KMT dare? At the end of the day, the KMT may be forced to reject China or reject reunification. The point is that if Xi demands too much, the KMT would be in a real predicament.”

Ding believes that there will still be dynamic adjustments to how the Blue and Green camps talk about cross-strait relations and Taiwan-US relations in the future. He thinks that no matter which party wins the Taiwan elections next year, it must still pursue diplomatic manoeuvring space, and Beijing will interpret it as wanting to create “two Chinas”.

The future of cross-strait relations will remain rocky. “And avoiding conflict with the mainland while maintaining a stable relationship with the US is probably what most people want,” Ding concluded. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “台政军专家:蓝绿争主政 两岸和平方案须服众”.

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