I can still remember when I first became familiar with the depth and quality of USCC's annual report, when I was an undergraduate taking -- what else? -- Chinese politics with Melanie Manion at the University of Rochester. Parts of it were assigned reading then, and parts no doubt still are now, 20 years later, in the many Chinese security and politics courses around the country. So it is gratifying and a bit humbling to be in a position to contribute in some small way to the next iteration.
I also want to note here that, while I was an undergraduate, I received crucial funding from the National Security Education Program (NSEP, now known as the Boren Awards) to study abroad in Beijing and Taipei. That experience kindled my interest in Taiwan, set me on my current trajectory and, quite literally, changed my life. I hope that robust funding for studying the language and culture of countries that have national security implications for the United States will be available for years to come--it is a smart investment in our future, and an increasingly important incentive to learn a foreign language in an era when the numbers of American students studying abroad in China has dropped precipitously.
I would not be in a position today to contribute to the public conversation on Taiwan's security issues without the help of the Boren program, and I hope my testimony last week will go some small way toward repaying the investment NSEP made in me and my career.
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I have been asked to cover quite a lot of ground in my written testimony, so in my oral remarks I’m going to focus on my comparative advantage in this hearing: How to Assess Taiwan’s Will to Fight.
Assessing Taiwan’s “Will to Fight”
“Will to fight” is a vague concept, and assessing it a hard thing to do rigorously. But we do have at least three kinds of data we can observe to give us some purchase on this question: public opinion, budgets, and willingness to serve in the military.
The first is public opinion data. There are many surveys of defense and security-related issues conducted every year. I’m not going to go through them in detail, but simply note that when you look at the general patterns that appear consistent across surveys, they support four key observations.
First, Taiwanese on the whole are not very confident about their own military’s ability to defend the country—especially alone—against an attack by the PRC. There is a great deal of pessimism.
Second, they are generally much more confident in their fellow Taiwanese. About 2/3 – ¾ think most others would actively resist a PRC attack. And, their own willingness to resist is closely correlated with their estimates of how many others also do so.
Third, the majority of Taiwanese – anywhere from 2/3 to ¾ -- indicate willingness to participate in the defense of Taiwan as long as the US is also involved. If the US is not involved, this share drops below half. So US participation in the defense of Taiwan has an important psychological and morale-boosting element as well as a practical one.
And fourth, the majority of Taiwanese remain confident that the United States would intervene to stop a PLA invasion, even if Taiwanese leaders themselves triggered an attack by declaring independence.
So, to sum up: if they believe the US will also be involved, most Taiwanese are willing to resist, and think most others will too. If they believe the US will not, then most will not. Beliefs about our presence is a critical variable in Taiwanese “will to fight.”
A second way to assess Taiwan’s “will to fight” is to look at defense budgets. Until recently, these data have suggested a half-hearted commitment to defending itself.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Taiwan’s defense budget in real terms flattened out for 20 years. It declined as a share of GDP from about 5% in 1994 to about 2% in 2016. Last year Taiwan spent in real terms roughly what it spent in 1994. Meanwhile, the PRC spent 25 times what it spent in 1994.
We all know that Taiwan cannot keep up with the PRC’s increases, which have generally been in proportion to GDP growth.
What is more striking is Taiwan’s relative decline even compared to other states in the region. For instance, in 1989, Taiwan spent about 2/3 of what SK spent. In 2020, it spent less than 1/3. Put bluntly, going by budgets, Taiwan looks like it’s shirking on defense.
However, this has changed significantly in the past four years. Taiwan’s announced defense budget has increased in local currency terms by about 40%: from 321 bn NTD in 2016, to 453 bn in 2021, and the share of the central government budget going to defense has climbed back to 20 percent, a level it has not been at since 1999.
That is at least a start and suggests that under President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan is committing significantly more resources to its own defense.
Willingness to Serve in the Military
A third type of data we can use to assess this question is willingness to join the military. Here the patterns are not encouraging. In 2012, the Ma Ying-jeou administration approved a phase-out of conscription, to be replaced by an all-volunteer force. This transition has been repeatedly delayed, so that today, all adult able-bodied men are still required to serve four months—not enough time to learn much of use and develop into capable reserves.
The main reason is repeated shortfalls in recruiting. Put simply, most young Taiwanese have no interest in joining. And their brief time as conscripts does not change their minds. Most young people see the military as a path of last resort, only if they have no other options. So, we observe a contradiction: young Taiwanese are the most pro-Taiwan, anti-China, pro-democracy and pro-independence of any generation, but the vast majority would never consider volunteering to join the military.
This might be changing as a potential confrontation with the PRC looms larger, as the military threat becomes more salient—and as the military acquires new high-profile platforms. But this is an area that requires a great deal of work from the MND and civilian leadership to improve the public image of the military, and to strengthen Taiwan’s training and reserve system.
1. Strengthen the credibility of US commitment to Taiwan through NON-military ties. The ability to deter a Taiwan Strait crisis rests crucially on beliefs that the US would act to counter PRC coercion because it is in our own interests to do so.
That belief has weakened in Asia over the last four years, in part because the previous administration put up trade barriers and pulled out of the TPP. One way to reverse impressions that we will not be committed to Asia is to reengage in regional trade negotiations.
As one example, the USTR should open bilateral trade negotiations with Taiwan as soon as is feasible. Taiwan needs economic gestures of support as well as military ones, and bilateral trade talks would be a clear sign of deepening cooperation. If the Biden administration eventually decides to re-commit to negotiations for the CPTPP, use the leverage this opportunity offers to insist on Taiwan’s (and South Korea’s) participation in membership negotiations as well.