Taiwan’s defence budget and military strategy have come under intense scrutiny in a series of high level meetings convened on the island in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The scrutiny has in part been caused by America’s decision to not intervene militarily in the Ukraine conflict. This has prompted some Taiwanese experts and politicians to surmise that the U.S. military may not defend Taiwan directly if the latter were to be invaded by China. China has long claimed that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and that it will absorb the island by force if necessary.
After the recent outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Taiwan’s President Ts’ai Ing-wen directed the National Security Council to form a ‘Workgroup for Responding to the Situation on Ukraine’. The workgroup, whose members included Taiwan’s Ministers for National Defence, Foreign Affairs, and the Director General of the National Security Bureau, tabled a report to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on March 10 titled ‘An Analysis of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the [Security] Situation In and Around Taiwan Strait - with [Recommendations for Policy] Responses'.
The report was released on the very same day that DPP International Affairs, an organ of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, convened a symposium titled ‘The Evolving Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Taiwan Strait’. The event, which was broadcast live, including some of the islands top scholars and analysts, included a representative of the government funded Institute for National Defence and Research (INDSR).
Both the symposium and the Legislative Yuan debate addressed rising concerns about Taiwan’s defence budget, defence procurements, conscription, training, and the role and quality of Taiwan’s reserves.
Making the case for a dramatic increase in Taiwan’s defence budget during the symposium was Su Tzu-yun, a current associate researcher, and the former director, of the INSDSR’s Division of Defence Strategy and Resources.
Su noted that China’s defence budget has increased by over 200 per cent since its president Xi Jinping assumed office in late 2012. Its current budget, which he put at almost 6.5 trillion Taiwanese New Dollars (A$320 billion), is more than 17 times larger than Taiwan’s 2022 estimate, which reached a new nominal high of 374 billion TND (A$18.2 billion).
In Su’s estimation, Taiwan would need a budget of roughly 480 billion TND (A$23 billion) to realise the government’s aspiration for maintaining an asymmetric defence capacity that could hold off against a Chinese invasion independent of direct military intervention from Taiwan’s allies.
This figure does not include Taiwan’s ballooning special expenditures figure, which mainly covers the cost of procuring or upgrading weapons systems. In November 2021 Taiwan announced a special expenditures budget of 240 billion TND ($8.4 billion USD, A$11.7 billion).
Last year’s special expenditures budget focused mainly on the acquisition of upgraded anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems, such as the Tien Kung III, as well as the indigenous Chien Hsiang loitering munition system. Su noted that continuing to invest in missile systems is essential to Taiwan’s asymmetric warfare strategy – a strategy whose credentials Su felt had been strengthened by Ukraine’s success in slowing the Russian invasion. Unlike Ukraine, whose use of portable anti-tank missiles has been markedly successful, Taiwan’s island geography dictates a weighting towards anti-air and anti-ship munitions, noted Su.
Taiwan’s shift to a focus on missile systems also follows a recent attempt to complement the purchase of conventional platforms such as F-16V fighters and M1A2T Abrams tanks with a flurry of procurements in munitions, training technology and logistics equipment from the US.
Hsu Hsiao-huang, a researcher at the INDSR, noted that one of the advantages Taiwan has over Ukraine is better interoperability. He noted that while Ukraine’s defence forces mainly use equipment inherited from its former membership in the Soviet Union, most of Taiwan’s weapons systems are American designed, meaning that Taiwanese forces would not need addition training to use man-portable weapons systems and munitions sent from the United States and its allies.
However, the role and quality of Taiwan’s reserve forces – including their capacity to effectively use advanced equipment such as man-portable air-defence-systems (MANPADS) – were major concerns during and subsequent to the discussion on the workpaper report in the Legislative Council.
Han Gan-ming, a researcher at the INDSR, and the former chief of the Ministry of Defence’s All-out Defense Mobilization Office, noticed that reserves had played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s defence. However, he emphasised that the effectiveness of reserve forces is largely determined by the quality of the ongoing training they receive during peacetime. He suggested that Taiwan should provide more training camps for its reserves and conscripts, with a focus on training them to operate advanced MANPAD and anti-tank weapon systems.
In relation to training, Taiwan’s Minister for National Defence, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said he was considering revisiting the current arrangements for conscription and ongoing training – including reversing a reduction of conscripted service from one year to four months. He was also considering a revamp of Taiwan’s post-service training camps, which have been the subject of pointed criticisms from experts and former recruits.
On other issues – namely, allowing open, voluntary enrolment in training camps, mimicking Ukraine’s decision to train or enlist all male citizens, and extending conscription to females – he noted that Taiwan’s current situation did not yet warrant extreme policy changes.