By Michal Thim.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of the Republic of China is a major defence policy document that has to be updated every four years and prepared by the Ministry of National Defence (MND) within 10 months of the Presidential inauguration. The first QDR was published in 2009, and its revised 2013 edition became available on 12 March. Unsurprisingly, yet not always in line with the current stable cross-Strait relations mantra, China (PRC) is identified as Taiwan’s major security threat.

The days when military planners in Taipei were preparing to “retake the Mainland” are naturally long gone. Plans that were quietly scrapped in mid-1960s were replaced by territorial defence of Taiwan-proper and adjacent islands under the Republic of China’s (hereafter Taiwan) control. Subsequently, Taiwan has moved from strategic requirement to impose crushing defeat of the People’s Liberation Army to the concept of the “Hard ROC” promoted by President Ma Ying-jeou and incorporated into relevant defence policy documents. At the centre of the “Hard ROC” idea is the transformation of a conscript army to an all-volunteer professional military force. Rather than defeating the PLA, the primary mission of Taiwan’s armed forces is now to prevent it from winning, forestalling any form of attack from PRC forces and holding out long enough to allow U.S. intervention in the worst case scenario. A Taiwan-centric defence posture is a natural reflection of political developments in Taiwan, including the popularization of Taiwanese identities and the marginal position of that part of population that identifies itself as Chinese-only.

Although “Hard ROC” might imply a more inward-looking or passive defence posture, it does not differ that significantly from the “active deterrence” promoted by previous DPP administrations as some analysts have pointed out. The KMT government may evince a more positive view towards the PRC, yet it continues to develop weapon systems that push the defence line away from Taiwan’s coastline. One example is Taiwan’s indigenous cruise missile program that plans to introduce Cloud Peak missiles with a range of 1200-2000 km, another is the development and introduction of Kuang Hua VI-class fast missile boats and a new 500-ton corvette with stealth capabilities expected to enter service in 2014.

Differences aside, any policy document that realistically reflects the growing military imbalance between Taiwan and China is an important step forward. Taiwan’s defence planning has suffered from domestic political bickering for the most of the previous decade, and is partly responsible for substantial difficulties with arms sales from the U.S.

The current QDR correctly prioritizes key areas of focus and improvement, including a whole range of joint warfare capabilities and natural disaster relief operations. The latter has been given greater priority in the overall scheme of things, especially after typhoon Morakot  devastated large areas of  Taiwan in August 2009. The QDR also notes other disturbing developments in the region, e.g. the DPRK’s nuclear program, the East and South China Sea territorial disputes and frictions associated with the U.S.  “pivot” towards Asia.

However, one of the issues that is not explicitly mentioned among security threats is Taiwan’s economic reliance on the PRC. It has become conventional wisdom and one of the most Taiwan-associated catch-phrases to note the evolution of peaceful relations between Taiwan and China since Ma Ying-jeou was first elected in 2008. However, trade with China increased approximately ten times between 2000 and 2008, i.e. during a period characterized by “hostile” relations. Yet, if the QDR identifies the PRC as the main security threat and establishes that the military’s most important mission is to prevent an amphibious invasion by the PLA, it is surprising that it does not elaborate on the possible downsides of booming cross-Strait trade for Taiwan. Instead, recent developments are lauded in vague terms such as “gradually heading towards rapprochement” (p. 17). Arguably, the diversification of trade partners is not the prerogative of the MND, nor is it a primarily military-related issue. However, the QDR does not mention only traditionally defined security threats. In the same section it states following:

In addition, Mainland China has integrated its “three-front war” strategy of legal, public opinion and psychological warfare, using propaganda and cross-Strait exchange activities to confuse the public’s awareness of friend/foe and disunite the people. It attempts to influence the media and infiltrating public opinion in Taiwan and friendly countries (p. 18).

Apparently, non-military activities related to cross-Strait exchange activities are considered as potentially threatening. It seems prudent that possible risks stemming from excessive economic reliance on China should be included as well in that case.

There are other challenges too. Transformation to an all-volunteer defence force will be costly and the military will face difficulties competing with the private sector to attract highly-skilled individuals urgently needed for modern 21st century armed forces. That simply cannot be achieved without a significant increase in defence spending, such that would cover both personnel costs and arms procurement. To date there has been more talk than action on this point. As James Holmes recently noted: “with defense spending hovering at just over 2 percent of GDP, Taipei barely meets the standard set by NATO — an alliance whose members face no threat. This bespeaks a society in denial about the dangers it confronts.” Sooner or later, Taipei will have to face up to these challenges.

Michal Thim is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. He also owns the blog Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim


  1. As James Holmes recently noted: “with defense spending hovering at just over 2 percent of GDP, Taipei barely meets the standard set by NATO — an alliance whose members face no threat. This bespeaks a society in denial about the dangers it confronts.”

    Or it bespeaks an awareness of advantages brought by having US for ally? Taiwanese security predominantly hinges on political and military backing of Washington, as the defense strategy outlined in the post also suggests. China is bound to by far outspend Taiwan on military anyway, so Taiwanese main strategy to improve its security environment should not be to spend more on defense but to keep US committed to defend the island.

    BTW, are there any doubts that the Taiwanese military spending figures are deliberately understated and misreported?

    1. In an asymmetric encounter, money spent by stronger side are not the most important thing to consider, there are many ways Taiwan can do smarter for much less money than China. However, Taiwan can and should spend more. Nobody expects it to start spending ten times more than now but appropriate increase of budget is necessary as a sign that Taiwan is committed to its own defense and does not only rely on U.S among other important reasons.

      As for the figures, budget making is relatively transparent and I can’t imagine how – considering blue-green divide – it would be possible to hide some expenditures without unlikely consensus between all parties in Legislative Yuan.

      1. In an asymmetric encounter, money spent by stronger side are not the most important thing to consider, there are many ways Taiwan can do smarter for much less money than China.

        exactly, that’s why Holmes’ quote makes no sense – defense budget does not tell us that Taiwanese are in denial about the dangers they confront.

        The transparent budget – transparency is not something that one would easily associate with military and security matters. Security concerns may override party politics. Not sure if that is the case here though, just asking whether the budget has been properly scrutinized…

        1. Considering some basic defense needs and intention to transform to all-volunteer army, it makes sense. Spending set by NATO is relatively modest. Holmes’ point is that Taiwan is even below that, although I myself would not say that Taiwanese are in denial (it is not the main point though).

          Regarding transparency, it is fair point. Generally speaking some military-related costs could be excluded from defense budget, R&D perhaps. Then, being slightly familiar with the environment, it is hard to imagine that budget would be substantially misrepresented without nobody noticing that. Security concerns have been disregarded by party politics on quite regular basis in the past, i.e. between 2000 and 2008 (especially during Chen’s second term). As for doubts, I am not aware of any, but it is a good question and I will have a closer look at it. Cheers!

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