News analysis

Taiwan's defence review reflects its security fears

Raising military spending won't close gap in capabilities with China

Taiwan's latest plan to boost military spending and equip its military to fight an invader on multiple fronts does not change the reality that it stands no chance of prevailing in a war with China.

The island's four-yearly defence review that was delivered in Parliament on Thursday instead reflects its growing security fears, the result of actions by Taipei in recent months that Beijing has viewed as a shift towards independence, said analysts.

The review's emphasis on a more proactive defence strategy, coupled with greater indigenisation of its weaponry, also tells of the uncertainty facing Taiwan about American commitment to the Asia-Pacific under President Donald Trump.

Nanjing University cross-strait analyst Liu Xiangping said plans to boost military spending to 3 per cent of gross domestic product next year - the highest proportion of Taiwan's budget set aside for its military in a decade - will not close the gap in capabilities at all.

China has undertaken sweeping military modernisation efforts in recent decades, and its military spending is second only to the United States'.

China has also increased its naval presence in the Taiwan Strait with more drills, and its sole aircraft carrier passed through the waters in January.

This being the case, Taiwan raising its military spending is akin to whistling while walking down an alley at night, said Dr Liu, referring to a Chinese saying which means giving oneself false courage.

With its economy experiencing weak growth, such a path will likely also lead to greater economic pain for the island's people, he added.

China's Global Times newspaper yesterday dismissed the defence review, and said it "has almost no actual military value".

Given the wide disparity in military capabilities, Taiwan's security can be assured only by adhering to the "one China" policy, not with military means, it added.

Since taking office last May, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, which states that both sides believe in one China but differ in what that China refers to.

"As long as the Tsai government accepts the 1992 Consensus, the island's security will be ensured," Global Times said in an editorial.

"The eight-year tenure of Ma Ying-jeou is the most secure period Taiwan has enjoyed since entering the 21st century."

Mr Ma was Ms Tsai's predecessor.

However, defence analyst Li Da-jung of Tamkang University in Taiwan said the rise in cross-strait tensions is precisely the reason why the island needs to continue to sharpen its strike capabilities.

Today's situation calls for "a more proactive defence strategy and for Taiwan to be ready to launch pre-emptive strikes", he said.

Defence expert Alexander Huang, also from Tamkang University, said the defence review is also about upgrading Taiwan's military options in the face of new geopolitical realities.

Taiwan wants to build its own supersonic jet trainers, submarines and missiles.

Faced with a tighter budget and an uncertain security environment, Taiwan may find it more difficult to buy weapons.

This is especially so as it is caught in the middle of the big power rivalry between the US and China, Dr Huang said.

The review cited uncertainties about the "strategic direction and troop deployment" of the US in the Asia-Pacific region under the new Trump administration as another security challenge for Taiwan.

"Even if we have the money, it is not known who we can buy from and whether we can get what we want, as foreign governments may not want to anger Beijing," he added.

While the defence plan typically advocates independence, analysts said the 44-page document is not likely to rattle Beijing. Former Taiwan deputy defence minister Lin Chong-pin said this is because Chinese President Xi Jinping is starting to "consolidate his power base" to launch reforms to accelerate economic growth, ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's 19th National Congress in October.

"It's more to do with the domestic dynamics than what Taiwan says or does. Xi seems to have a firmer grip on power and does not see the need to react too much," Dr Lin added.

Citing how Chinese Premier Li Keqiang referred to Taiwan as being part of the "family", Dr Lin said: "The tone towards Taiwan has softened and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, will continue to be the case."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan's defence review reflects its security fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe