TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Taiwan proposed a record NT$586.3 billion (S$27 billion) in defence spending for next year on Thursday (Aug 25), a double-digit increase on 2022 that includes funds for new fighter jets, weeks after China staged large-scale war games around the island.
China carried out its largest-ever military exercises around the self-ruled island after a visit this month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The trip infuriated Beijing, which saw it as an attempt by Washington to interfere in China’s internal affairs.
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification with the mainland, by force if necessary. Taiwan says it will defend its freedoms and democracy.
The overall proposed defence budget by President Tsai Ing-wen’s Cabinet sets a 13.9 per cent year-on-year increase.
That includes an additional NT$108.3 billion in spending for fighter jets and other equipment, as well as other “special funds” for the defence ministry. A statement from the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics did not provide a break down specifics on where the money would go.
The planned defence spending, which is a record high and must be approved by parliament, marks the island’s sixth consecutive year of growth in defence spending since 2017.
The double-digit rise on 2022 marks a sharp increase compared with the island’s defence spending growth in recent years; yearly growth has been below 4 per cent since 2017.
Statistics department minister Chu Tzer-ming said the increase in defence spending will mainly go to operational costs.
“We always give safety and national security the top priority... that’s why (the budget for) operational costs rises greatly,” Mr Chu said, pointing to costs such as fuel and maintenance for aircraft and ships dispatched to counter Chinese military activities near Taiwan.Excluding the extra budget for military equipment and funds, proposed defence spending represents a 12.9 per cent year-on-year increase, compared with a 20.8 per cent increase in the overall government budget proposed for next year.
That proposed spending accounts for 14.6 per cent of the government’s total spending for next year and is the fourth-largest spending segment, after social welfare and combined spending on education, science and culture, and economic development.
The island last year announced an extra defence budget of US$8.69 billion (S$12 billion) by 2026, which came on top of its yearly military spending, mostly on naval weapons, including missiles and warships.
In March, China said it would spend 7.1 per cent more on defence this year, setting the spending figure at 1.45 trillion yuan (S$294.5 billion), though many experts suspect that is not the true figure, an assertion the government disputes.
Live-fire drills will take place in a coastal part of China’s Fujian province on Friday and Saturday, just north of the tiny Taiwan-controlled Wuchiu islands in the Taiwan Strait, Fujian authorities said on Wednesday, announcing a no-sail zone.
Ms Tsai has made modernising the armed forces – well-armed but dwarfed by China’s – a priority.
China is spending on advanced equipment, including stealthy fighters and aircraft carriers, which Taiwan is trying to counter by putting more effort into weapons such as missiles that can strike far into its giant neighbour’s territory.
Meeting visiting Japanese academics at her office on Thursday, Ms Tsai reiterated that the determination to protect their sovereignty, freedom and democracy would not change “due to pressure or threats”.
Separately, Taiwan will next year begin deploying drone defence systems on its offshore islands, the defence ministry said, after footage emerged of Taiwanese soldiers throwing stones at a Chinese drone that buzzed a guard post near China's coast.
Taiwan has complained of repeated Chinese drone incursions near its offshore islands as part of China's war games and drills after Mrs Pelosi's visit.
The brief video clip, circulated first on Chinese social media before being picked up by Taiwanese media, shows two soldiers throwing stones at a drone that got near their guard post.
In a statement late on Wednesday, the defence command of Kinmen, a group of Taiwan-controlled islands that sit opposite China's Xiamen and Quanzhou cities, said the incident occurred on Aug 16 on Erdan islet, and confirmed the soldiers had thrown stones to see off what it called a civilian drone.
Taiwan's defence ministry said in a separate statement that starting next year, it will deploy anti-drone systems, which will first be placed on the smaller islands.
"Officers and soldiers at all levels will continue to implement vigilance in accordance with the principle of "not escalating conflicts or causing disputes", it added.
China has not commented on the footage, which has received millions of views on Chinese social media with users making fun of it.
It has also triggered heated discussion in Taiwan, with some social media users calling the incident a "humiliation" for the island's armed forces and urging the defence ministry to step up its countermeasures to the increasingly frequent drone incursions.
The Kinmen defence command said the footage was another example of China's "cognitive warfare" against Taiwan and an attempt to "denigrate" its armed forces.
Mr Wang Ting-yu, a senior lawmaker of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, described the incident as "very serious" and questioned why Taiwan's defence ministry did not respond to the incursion.
"The drone was flying on top of our soldiers on guard but there's zero response," he said. "If you just let them come and go freely, this was negligence of duty."
Taiwan has controlled Kinmen, along with the Matsu islands further up China's coast, since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taipei after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949.
At its closest point, Chinese-controlled territory is only a few hundred metres from Kinmen.