In spite of China’s increasing intimidation efforts toward Taiwan, the political leadership and public remain skeptical of the threat posed by Beijing. Taiwan’s political leaders must adopt a more martial spirit to avoid undermining actions taken in national defense and to effectively address the growing threats to its national security.
Life is normal in Taiwan, and it likely will continue to be. As Chinese missiles flew overhead and the island was effectively blockaded, residents were going to work, dining out, and going to concerts and games as usual. There are few uniforms on the streets, no regular military exercises or civil drills. Citizens appear to trust that their political leadership and armed forces are well-prepared, or otherwise confident that cross-strait tensions will not escalate.
China’s saber-rattling and aggressive messaging has been a part of life in Taiwan since 1949. People on the island have lived through their fair share of cross-strait crises, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been far from silent about their desire to annex Taiwan.
Apathy rooted in history
Many foreigners in Taiwan and overseas observers are puzzled by what they perceive as local indifference and complacency to the possibility of a China-Taiwan conflict. After all, given the persistent Chinese threat, would it not make sense for the Taiwanese to be more on guard or adopt a more martial spirit?
The problem is rooted in both Taiwan’s history and political leadership. The Nationalist Party, China’s former ruling party that fled to the island after defeat by the CCP in 1949, ruled Taiwan under authoritarian martial law. As Taiwan transitioned to democracy from 38 years of martial law, the longest in the world barring Syria, its political leadership distanced itself from the military and created Asia’s most socially progressive society. In doing so, they also de-emphasized military readiness in favor of economic prosperity and social welfare.
Making electoral calculations and appealing to voters, both Taiwanese political parties favored cutting conscription time and military spending. In this calculus, two main factors contributed to the current state of unpreparedness and inaction.
First, politicians understood that many Taiwanese suffered and were persecuted by the army, leading to a strong negative view of the military in the immediate period following martial law for its role in perpetuating state violence. With the lack of any formal transitional justice or reconciliation process, diminishing the military’s role in Taiwanese life seemed appropriate.
Second, the leadership failed to foresee the rapid pace at which the People’s Republic of China would modernize its military and become a threat to American power in East Asia. To their credit though, many Western nations and leadership also failed to gauge the speed of Chinese military growth.
2022’s wake-up call
The events of 2022 have made the year a distinctive sobering for Taiwanese officials, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s third term in power. Taiwan and Ukraine, despite clear differences, also share parallels. Both are threatened by a larger nuclear-armed power that views Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter as more of a guideline than undisputed international law. Both are also neighboured by countries that believe the smaller one should not exist as separate entities.
Though Xi Jinping’s continuation after the 20th National Party Congress was predictable, the extent of his centralisation of power was unthinkable only a few years ago. The Politburo Standing Committee, the highest echelon of Chinese power, has been stacked with Xi loyalists. This risks creating an information bubble not dissimilar to Putin’s, whereby nobody is willing or able to push back against him, allowing the leader to make enormous miscalculations vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Xi’s retention of General Zhang Youxia in the Politburo and the promotion of General He Weidong onto the Central Military Commission have been interpreted by some as a signal that Xi is actively considering military options against Taiwan. Zhang is one of the few serving generals with war experience, having fought in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. General He was previously the commander of China’s Eastern Theatre Command whose primary responsibility includes preparing for military action over Taiwan.
Apathy among the populace
Yet despite these rising and apparent threats, “what you see is not the fear you would expect,” as observed by Richard Bush, a Taiwan specialist at Washington-based Brookings Institute. Taiwanese polling data reflects Bush’s claim, with a March 2022 poll finding that 57% are not worried at all or not too worried whether China would use the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to invade, compared with only 14% who are very worried.
Other polling in 2021 and 2022 found that the majority of Taiwanese believe that war was not inevitable, with a 2021 poll detailing that 50.2% are not concerned about war with China, and 58.8% believe that war is not likely in the next decade.
Political leadership have not led
To their credit, Taiwanese officials have shared their concern of the Chinese threat. In August 2022, Taiwanese statistics department minister Chu Tzer-ming stated, “we always give safety and national security the top priority.” President Tsai Ing-wen has also frequently posted on social media regarding Taiwan’s national security and defense.
A reflex-like reaction to the 2022 wake-up calls presented by Ukraine and Xi’s third term has led Tsai Ing-wen’s government to announce an increase in defense spending. Although this marks the sixth annual consecutive growth in defense spending, past yearly growth has been below 4%. In contrast, Tsai announced an increase of 14% in 2022-23, reaching a record of US$19.6 billion and an equivalent of 2.4% of Taiwan’s projected GDP for 2023.
Despite this apparent prioritization of Taiwan’s security, “there is a lack of discussion, and of a clear sense of what the threat is,” as Richard Bush notes further. Liu Kuan-yin, English editor at Taiwanese political magazine CommonWealth, posits that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has misdirected Taiwanese attention: “the government should be raising people’s awareness of the military threat. But instead of doing real things, they just talk, telling people to hate China and love the U.S. and Japan.”
Recently, the Tsai administration announced an increase of military conscription time from a previous 4-months to 1-year, citing heightened threats from China. While this move ostensibly hardens Taiwan’s defense, it does not target the core of collective complacency, and has been met with heavy criticism from the electorate and political opposition. Further, increasing military service time means little when the service itself is sub-par and lacks adequate training for those serving.
President Tsai, alongside boosting defense spending and increasing conscription time, has also upped Taiwan’s diplomatic engagement. Her administration has frequently highlighted Taiwan’s plight as a target of Chinese irredentism. But all political parties in Taiwan have overall done little to harden the populace or adequately prepare society for the prospect of invasion.
With this inaction at the top of Taiwan’s government, it would be unlikely for the country to change its attitude if it continues to rely on the political leadership to take charge. In their absence, others have stepped forward. UMC founder Robert Tsao has become increasingly vocal in raising Taiwanese civil defense issues and has heavily invested in this endeavor, donating a combined NT$4 billion (US$130 million).
However, some have attributed Tsao’s vocality to profile himself and UMC as a competitor to Taiwan’s golden-child TSMC. UMC is often overlooked internationally, given TSMC’s much larger national and overseas reputation, despite UMC holding the position of Taiwan’s second largest semiconductor manufacturer. Moreover, unlike TSMC, UMC has limited investments in mainland China, allowing Tsao to take such a vocal position avoiding any financial reprimand from the Communist Party.
Regardless of whether his intentions are self-serving or benign, Tsao’s actions and voice are raising awareness and bringing visibility to Taiwan’s collective complacency, and in time, may force the Taiwanese political leadership to become more proactive in mobilizing the masses.
Taiwan’s extraordinary case
Ultimately, Taiwan’s political leadership, unlike other democratic nations, does not have the luxury to remain fixated on merely winning the next election, nor let election cycles dictate their policies and long-term strategies. The Taiwanese political elite, across the spectrum, bear an additional responsibility for guiding the nation and people through ever-growing threats from Beijing and how to best prepare Taiwan moving forward.
Although the root of Taiwan’s complacency and inaction lies in history, current political leadership must change its mindset and commit to preparing the country beyond simple rhetoric and social media posts. All efforts made toward policy and military preparedness may be hampered if the Taiwanese public undervalues the threat from China or has an overly panglossian view of potential U.S. support.
It is much easier to invite foreign delegations to visit Taipei and the island as an international support of solidarity. But it is much more difficult to take actions beyond symbolic arms purchases and posts, and to actually prepare for the worst, as that means the political leadership and population must make sacrifices.
[Photo by Bohdan Chreptak/Pixabay]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Samuel Ng is a Westpac Asian Scholar currently at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan undertaking units in Taiwanese international relations and political history. He is in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honors) and International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.