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Defense News Editorial on Cross-Strait Detente

Early last month, several of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense officials met with the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and National Defense Committee. During his testimony, Chang Liang-jen, vice minister of national defense, noted that Taiwan’s defense procurement budget will be reduced as a result of the planned move to an all-volunteer force. He did not state whether that reduction is simply through the transition period or a long-term adjustment.

The move to an all-volunteer force is not the only pressure on Taiwan’s defense budget. Taiwan’s economy is expected to contract by 6 percent to 7 percent in 2009, and it is likely that defense spending will come under extensive budgetary pressures as the government of President Ma Ying-jeou seeks to allocate greater resources to social welfare and industrial development.

The contraction will allow Ma to claim that he is maintaining his commitment to spending 3 percent of GDP on defense. But as a practical matter, we would likely see a significant and real drop in defense spending.

Such a reduction in resources, and the slowing in Taiwan force modernization that comes with it, could seriously jeopardize the ability of the Ma government to place Taiwan’s relations with China on firm and sustainable footing.

Ma enjoys high support for his country’s policies toward China not as a goal unto itself, but as part of a broader strategy to improve Taiwan’s international profile and operating space.

Yet China continues to hedge on its Taiwan policy. China is continuing its force modernization efforts, and the People’s Liberation Army remains focused on ensuring its ability to coerce Taiwan while deterring U.S. intervention. The Chinese feel a need for options, including military ones.

Ma is therefore wholly beholden to the willingness of the Chinese to continue to provide Taiwan with greater international breathing room. If the Chinese balk or fail to make material concessions, domestic support for Ma’s policies will erode. The prospect of a chastened Ma government and a China frustrated over another failed strategy is deeply troubling. This is a contingency that should not be overlooked.

Conversely, Taiwan’s negotiating position is strengthened immeasurably by a robust U.S. security commitment; it underpins Ma’s outreach and ensures a degree of Chinese respect for Taiwan’s options. This is an essential component if Taiwan-China detente is to have legs and if Ma is to build enough momentum to ride out the rougher patches that are sure to come.

Editorial in Defense News – “Detente Needs Muscle: Taiwan Modernization Underpins Chinese Dealings”

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