Little is known about the defense policy of Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s main opposition party, since their landslide defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Their lack of presence in Washington, D.C., during the past six years raises questions about how the party, if it returns to power, would formulate Taiwan’s defense strategy amid the growing Chinese military threat.
Fortunately, some key KMT decisionmakers have commented on defense topics or published articles in Taiwan that allow us to explore the party’s policy direction. Overall, the KMT is in favor of a symmetric defense posture while seeking to pursue more autonomy from Washington in Taipei’s force planning.
The KMT has been consistent in their position on Washington’s push for an asymmetric defense posture: It is dangerous for Taiwan’s defense and sovereignty. Alexander Huang, chief of the KMT’s International Affairs Department, was very critical of the “Fortress Taiwan” policy under the Trump administration’s Defense Department, which prioritized providing advanced missiles, sea mines, and drones to Taiwan. Huang criticized the concept for its purely defensive nature. A “fortress,” in his opinion, is an operational stronghold to be defended with little initiatives and flexibility. Posturing Taiwan as a fortress does not serve any deterrence purpose and can at best delay the invading forces from China, Huang claimed.
The strongest criticism against a U.S.-driven asymmetric defense strategy actually took place during the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference (USTDIC) last October. The KMT delegation, led by Dennis Weng of Sam Houston State University, openly asserted that “Fortress Taiwan can be blockaded, and a porcupine can be starved to death.” Although Weng does not serve in any official position in the KMT, such criticism was very likely to be authorized by the top decision maker in the party. The conference, after all, was Eric Chu’s very first indirect engagement with the United States on defense policy after his successful bid for KMT chair in September 2021.
If it rejects the “Fortress Taiwan” concept, what is the KMT’s alternative vision for the defense posture and missions of the Taiwan military?
In another article, Huang viewed Taiwan as a maritime country whose main interests extend beyond its land mass. He argued that the Taiwan military should not solely prioritize defending against an amphibious invasion, but also possess the capabilities to respond to gray-zone threats by the Chinese military and to protect sea lines of communications (SLOCs). Only by preparing itself for these latter two missions beyond the main island could Taiwan avoid becoming an “isolated fortress” cut off from foreign assistance, Huang pointed out.
This concept is also very coherent with how Huang envisions the role of Taiwan’s navy in the defense of Taiwan. In a policy debate on whether the navy should downsize its developing indigenous frigate from 4,500 tons to 2,000 tons, Huang reiterated the importance of SLOC protection and criticized the prioritization of coastal defense. “If the Taiwan Navy cannot sail afar, it becomes a mere extension of the Army. I think this is very painful for the Navy,” he said.
This position reflects the mainstream opinion in the Taiwan military establishment. In the 2018 National Defense Report, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) proposed a radical reform in its strategic guidance, coined as the Overall Defense Concept (ODC). The ODC highlighted the need for the three services to fight a decisive battle in the littoral areas. Admiral Lee Hsi-Min, then-chief of General Staff and the chief proponent of the ODC, further called for acquiring 60 50-ton miniature missile assault boats for the concept. However, after Lee stepped down in 2019, the MND and the Taiwan Navy reinstated the guidance to prioritize “sea control.” In the 2021 Annual Han Kuang exercise, the Taiwan military divided its field training exercise into four phases: force preservation, comprehensive counter-air operations, joint sea control, and joint homeland defense. In the same year, the Taiwan Navy also scrapped the miniature missile boat project. The military establishment’s opposition to “sea denial” is fairly similar to the position of the KMT.
The KMT’s support for a symmetric defense occurred amid the Tsai administration’s attempt to shift the military establishment to the other direction. Despite criticisms from some experts about a lack of seriousness, the Tsai administration made a bold step for the FY2022 defense budget that few people give it credit for. For the second time during her presidency, Tsai Ing-wen used the special budget to accelerate the modernization of the military. Notably, in this US$8.6 billion budget, about 34 percent and 18 percent were allocated for indigenous anti-ship cruise missiles and ground-based air defense missiles, respectively. As for the ship-building program, Tsai decided to prioritize the 500-ton Tuo Chiang-class corvettes (which received about 29 percent of the special budget) instead of larger platforms. As to the FY2022 regular defense budget, about 20 percent was invested in the Harpoon ground-based anti-ship cruise missiles. These numbers demonstrate the ruling party’s relatively closer alignment with Washington’s position.
The Tsai administration’s unusual practice to prioritize the purchase of U.S. weapons in the regular instead of the special defense budget triggered another feature of the KMT’s defense policy – seeking autonomy from U.S. interference in Taiwan’s force planning. When reviewing the FY2022 special budget, the KMT Caucus in the Parliament (led by three senior lawmakers) issued a statement that reflected skepticism against the United States. The KMT slammed the listing of Harpoon missiles in the regular defense budget as “a gesture to forcibly pressure the Legislative Yuan to pay the bills on behalf of the Americans” and a “U.S. demand for our side to prioritize the payment for [U.S.] arms sales.” A similar statement was also made by Ma Wen-chun, a KMT lawmaker in the Foreign and National Defense Committee, who further suggested that the U.S. government was forcing Taiwan to buy weapons inferior to indigenous missiles.
This suspicion toward the intention behind U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is not unusual for the KMT. After Republican Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced Arm Taiwan Act and Taiwan Deterrence Act, respectively, to support Foreign Military Finance (FMF) to Taiwan, Huang cautioned that the policy demonstrated “the United States’ strong intention to put their hands into our country’s force planning direction.” This position is again linked to the KMT’s aversion to an asymmetric defense – the two pieces of legislation explicitly limit the Taiwan FMF program to asymmetric weapons. Clearly, compared to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT is very cautious about Washington’s influence in the defense and autonomy of Taiwan.
Perhaps the root of KMT’s concern over building an asymmetric defense posture is their lack of confidence in U.S. willingness to intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan. This February, former President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT claimed that “the Americans… will sell us weapons and provide us with intelligence, but they won’t send troops.” Such pessimism is also shared by Su Chi, former secretary-general of the National Security Council and a highly respected adviser in the KMT, who asserted in a public event that the United States had neither the capabilities nor the willingness to help Taiwan.
How is U.S. commitment related to the KMT’s vision for Taiwan’s defense posture? Weng’s remark at the USTDIC offered a clue. He indicated that the ODC would become meaningless without “an ironclad U.S. security commitment” and “clear division of areas of responsibility.” What the KMT and Weng might be suggesting was that the Taiwan military would have to step up for “non-porcupine” missions, such as SLOC protection and sea control, should the United States decide not to intervene. If Taiwan adhered to the porcupine strategy and the U.S. decided not to intervene in a conflict, Taiwan would be forced to fight near or inside the island with little buffer.
What are the implications and unresolved questions that follow the KMT’s defense policy? One of them concerns Taiwan’s capability and capacity to achieve sea control in a contingency. Even for country as powerful as the United States, some American experts believe that the best military strategy against the Chinese military in the Taiwan Strait is one of denial. To make its naval strategy credible, the KMT needs to explain in more detail how they plan to meet certain preconditions, such as air superiority, to achieve successful sea control vis-a-vis China.
Another question worth explaining for the KMT is how the Taiwanese armed forces can prepare for a contingency before the various indigenous programs mature. In fact, this is the reason why Washington and Taipei reached an agreement on the Harpoon sales. For example, Taiwan’s production capacity for the Hsiung Feng III anti-ship cruise missile is estimated to be roughly 20 per year. This figure will not increase until mid-2022 when the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology opens new production facilities.
Last but not least, the KMT’s favor of a symmetric defense appears to be defeating their political objective to maintain closer ties with China. According to William Murray, a Naval War College professor who first initiated the “porcupine strategy” concept, one of the advantages to shifting away from a symmetric defense posture is that it would lessen the tension in the Taiwan Strait. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many notable KMT figures expressed their anxiety of how smaller countries could provoke aggression from great powers, and argued for prioritizing of peace in the Taiwan Strait over “following the United States.” Given the KMT’s low risk tolerance for a political and military conflict with China, it is necessary for the party to carefully calibrate the balance between their political and military strategies.