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Taiwan Revives Civilian Leadership of Defense

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Taiwan Revives Civilian Leadership of Defense

Can the Lai administration finally break through the insular defense bureaucracy to enforce necessary reforms?

Taiwan Revives Civilian Leadership of Defense
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Three months following the conclusion of Taiwan’s election, the president-elect, Lai Ching-te, recently unveiled his Cabinet lineup. Of particular note is the forthcoming defense minister: Wellington Koo, a lawyer. He will be the first civilian to head the Ministry of National Defense since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) returned to power in 2016. 

This is not the first time for a ruling party to appoint a civilian defense minister in Taiwan since democratization. However, it remains a formidable challenge for a civilian minister to achieve substantial defense reforms, which is an ever-more pressing issue amid increasing military pressure from China.

Since Taiwan’s democratization, the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces have transformed from the party military of the Kuomintang (KMT) to a national military. Prior to democratization, however, the military was a critical component of the KMT’s authoritarian regime and a tool to repress Taiwanese people and opponents of the KMT. Due to this history, the military has become a closed community that is passive in cooperating with civil society, making it harder for civilians to participate in defense affairs. As a result, civilians have struggled to earn the trust of the military community. This situation has hindered civilian defense ministers from effectively implementing policy.

After the ROC government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, military power was monopolized by the KMT military elites under its party-state system. Under the party-state-military structure, military officers and leadership were co-opted into top political decision-making structures. When the KMT froze the ROC Constitution, most decisions were relegated to the KMT Central Standing Committee, chaired by the KMT chairperson, circumventing the national legislature. 

Notably, the minister of national defense, the chief of general staff of the Ministry of National Defense (MND), and the director of the General Political Department of the MND were designated members of the KMT Central Standing Committee. In 1952, military personnel comprised 31.3 percent of the KMT Central Standing Committee. Therefore, the military could hold autonomy in the security realm, exerting a dominant influence over defense policymaking. The ministers of national defense were mainly active or retired army generals.

Although democratization and the lifting of martial law in 1987 initiated the process of civilian control over the military, the influence of civilians on defense policy and strategy remained superficial, often susceptible to rejection by the military community throughout the 1990s. 

For example, in 1991, President Lee Teng-hui proposed the “Chung Yuan” reform with the endorsement of civilian leaders. The reform sought to restructure the military to prioritize the navy and air force, resulting in substantial budgetary and personnel reductions for the army. However, staunch opposition from the army led to the substitution of Chung Yuan with the more compromised Jing Shih project.

Lee appointed two successive civilians as defense minister: Chen Li-an, with a background in politics and engineering, in 1990, followed by economist Sun Chen in 1993. Yet, the military leadership, represented by Premier Hau Pei-tsun, who had been the chief of general staff of the MND for six years, declined to collaborate with the civilian ministers. In 1994, Leei appointed retired General Chiang Chung-ling as Sun’s successor. After that, Lee mostly refrained from being involved in military affairs, essentially delegating defense policy to the military.

To nationalize the military, the National Defense Act and the Organization Act of the Ministry of National Defense (the Two Defense Laws), passed in 2002, stipulated that the military is a politically neutral force. Furthermore, the Two Defense Laws centralized defense and military decision-making authority under the minister of national defense. The role of the chief of general staff was redefined as the chief of staff for the defense minister. Therefore, the chain of command extended from the president and the Executive Yuan through the MND and the chief of general staff, marking the first instance of effective bureaucratic oversight over defense affairs and unifying the previous bifurcated command lines of the MND and the chief of general staff. These legal provisions empower civilian governance, encompassing institutional mechanisms for supervising and controlling the military.

Although the National Defense Act mandates that the minister of national defense must be a civilian, most defense ministers were still retired generals, retaining the military’s substantial autonomy to oppose adjusting the force structure. Following Lee Teng-hui, President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP and Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT each attempted to appoint civilians to the post of defense minister. However, Tsai Ming-shian, appointed by Chen in 2008, only served as the minister for a mere 85 days during the transition to the new Ma Ying-jeou administration. Afterward, in 2013, Yang Nien-dzu, appointed by Ma, served just six days until his plagiarism issue surfaced. Because of their short tenures, these short-lived civilian ministers barely impacted defense policy or institutional reform.

For Taiwan, defense reform has never been more critical. Responding to mounting military pressure from China, numerous articles advocate for Taiwan to embrace asymmetric defense, urging accelerated progress in reform efforts. Although Taiwan has increased its defense budget, particularly under the Tsai Ing-wen administration, the ratio of defense budget to GDP is still lower than 3 percent.

Still pursuing the unachievable goal of securing air superiority and sea control, the Taiwanese government has spent billions of dollars on large weapons platforms, a strategy deemed futile and wasted by some critics. For example, confronted with the PLA Navy’s mature anti-ship cruise missile and underwater A2/AD capabilities, Taiwan’s surface fleets and submarines face daunting odds of survival in initial engagements. Due to Taiwan’s smaller economy and governmental budget, engaging in a dollar-for-dollar defense expense competition is untenable.

The forthcoming Lai Ching-te administration and his civilian defense minister are expected to implement the asymmetric strategy more concretely, prioritizing procuring small, lethal, survivable weapons. Throughout his campaign, Lai pledged to continue Tsai’s foreign and defense policies, including increasing the defense budget, extending conscription to one year, and enhancing asymmetric capabilities. Implementing the asymmetric strategy requires adjusting the allocation structure of the defense budget and equipment procurement portfolios. Moreover, garnering public support and participation is indispensable. 

However, although Taiwan has implemented civilian control over the military, prior ministers failed to manage the new defense policy implementation effectively. As the defense minister, retired generals mostly maintained their traditional strategy. The insular military community also impedes legislators and NGOs from meaningfully engaging in defense policy and imposing pressure on the MND to reform. All of these hinder Taiwan’s progress in conducting an asymmetric strategy, thereby undermining Taiwan’s efforts to bolster war readiness and sending inaccurate signals of Taiwan’s determination to international partners.

In addition to continuing Tsai’s policy, a conspicuous divergence between Lai’s defense policy and that of other presidential contenders lies in civil defense. Lai proposes bolstering the integration of national defense and civil defense, fortifying Taiwan’s social resilience and disaster management infrastructure. The integration will extend to civil defense and disaster relief systems at the level of local governments.

To attain this objective, the future president must prudently and strategically facilitate cooperation between the MND, civil society, and other government agencies. Despite barriers, a lawyer who serves as defense minister, comprehends the bureaucracy, commands the complete trust of the president, and has a great relationship with civil society could prove instrumental in accomplishing these crucial objectives. 

Integrating the civil defense of local governments predominantly governed by KMT members into a coordinated system presents political and bureaucratic obstacles but remains imperative. Therefore, improving civil-military relations, engaging with the public, and fostering bipartisan cooperation are necessary to achieve Lai’s defense policy.

In conclusion, the stability of the Taiwan Strait and global supply chains depend on Taiwan’s ability to deter Chinese aggression. Implementing the asymmetric strategy and integrating civil and national defense are indispensable for this purpose. Yet, to achieve these objectives, the future president and his civilian defense minister must deliberately overcome obstacles caused by historical legacies and domestic political struggle.