TAIPEI – Current headlines made by the militaries on both sides of the Taiwan Strait could hardly be more different: mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) basks in glory, while Taiwan’s scandal-plagued Republic of China Armed Forces is steeped in shame. Nonetheless, to the Taiwanese – even in times when the island’s military stomps from one embarrassing scandal to another – there’s no thought of giving up its role against former arch-foe communist China.
In the first three months of the year, China’s military men and women have had reason to celebrate startling breakthroughs. To begin with, the much-sooner-than-expected first test flight of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) fifth-generation stealth-fighter J-20
stunned both domestic and international observers.
Then, by having the missile frigate Xuzhou reaching waters off riot-torn Libya to offer support and protection for ships evacuating Chinese nationals, the PLA Navy (PLAN) belied all those who have maintained that China had significant difficulties in operating far away from its own shores. The PLAAF’s four IL-76 transporters evacuating more than 1,600 stranded Chinese shortly afterwards via Sudan to Beijing also clearly did its share in leaving an impression.
This is especially because the flight path between China and Libya – close to 10,000 kilometers across five nations – has set a record for the PLAAF’s large transport planes. But the good news for the military didn’t stop there. By announcing an increase of its defense budget by 12.7% this year to US$91.4 billion, Beijing made unambiguously clear that it remains firmly committed to the beefing up of the PLA.
That China’s 2011 defense budget is roughly 10 times Taiwan’s, which is estimated at US$9.2 billion, is far from being the Taiwanese military’s only worry. So many scandals involving the island’s armed forces have been filling local newspaper pages in recent weeks that it’s tempting to assume that public confidence in the military’s combat capability is on the way to rock bottom.
First, there was embarrassing news that over 60 serving military officers, sergeants and soldiers were found to have joined a fake gigolo training course. The servicemen paid the equivalent of thousands of US dollars each to a criminal ring to learn how to seduce wealthy females.
Days later, coinciding with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, the test-firings of 11 different types of missiles worked out worse than expected when six of the 19 missiles went astray. In what was likely meant by the government as a political posture for the domestic audience, apart from the AIM-120 AMRAAM and Patriot PAC-2 missile systems, Taiwan’s military fired every type of air-to-air and surface-to-air missile in its arsenal.
A foreign journalist who observed the tests on site described his impression on the perceived amateurism displayed by the Taiwanese military somewhat graphically. “We reporters there thought the Taiwanese were about to kill us,” he told Asia Times Online.
Then a much harder blow landed when the worst espionage scandal in Taiwan’s history evolved. One-star army General Lo Hsien-che, who ran the communications, electronics and information division of Army Command Headquarters, was arrested for spying for China. Lo is alleged to have spied on the Po Sheng C4I program, the purpose of which is to enable Taiwan’s military to share information with the US Pacific Command.
Apart from consequences to Taiwan’s military’s warfare capabilities that by some senior observers of Taiwan military affairs were described as “disastrous”, the Pentagon’s confidence in Taiwan’s ability to protect US defense technologies could have suffered. As the Ministry of Defense’s means of choice to prevent future spy-cases, it makes it compulsory for military attaches to undergo lie-detector tests.
Adding to the less-than-ideal impression the Taiwanese military has so far been making in 2011, revelations emerged that an air force private was wrongfully executed 15 years ago. It was found that the then-Air Force Political Warfare Headquarters commander had violated the law by ordering military counter-intelligence agents without status as judicial officers to conduct the murder investigation.
The disclosure that a confession from the executed private had been extracted after 37 hours of constant interrogation and torture didn’t place the military apparatus in better light either.
Compared to the political brouhaha the wrongful execution has been causing, the emergence of photographs supposedly proving that the Taiwan army uses ordinary paint purchased at superstores as opposed to coating that deflects night vision instruments can well be considered a bagatelle.
As these embarrassments occurred in the space of less than two months, questions arise over the point at which extensive and repeated media coverage on one pratfall after another will affect the Taiwanese public’s psyche. At what point will public opinion hold that throwing taxpayers’ money at a seemingly hopeless military is nothing but a waste? At what point will an assessment be reached that trying to resist a possible Chinese attempt to force unification on Taiwan by military means is a lost cause? According to analysts approached by Asia Times Online, it’s not quite yet the time.
Huang Hua-hsi, a legislative assistant, said Taiwanese generally had little confidence in the combat capability of their own armed forces. Although many take possible threats from across the Taiwan Strait rather fatalistically, he says, this doesn’t mean they want to give up on an appropriate defense.
“In terms of cross-strait military imbalance, the Taiwanese can be quite insensitive,” Huang says. “Taiwanese often joke that in case of an outbreak of war with China, they would simply hide somewhere in the mountains for two weeks until it’s over, and that’s it.”
Still, Huang rejects the notion that the recent scandals could lead to the Taiwanese public wanting to spend less on the military. “After the poor performance at the missile test-firings in mid-January, public sentiment called for upgrades of Taiwan’s advanced foreign-made weaponry,” says Huang.
Dr Steve Tsang, professorial fellow in Taiwan Studies at Oxford University, states that rather than giving up on it, the recent scandals “remind most Taiwanese of the need for Taiwan to enhance its own defense”. He also expounds that the mindset on the island remains rather defiant.
“The people and government of Taiwan do not want to see a military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, but if force were used by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] against them, it will be a matter of protecting and defending their freedom, dignity as individuals, family and homeland,” Tsang says. “They will not surrender without a fight, even if the odds look staggering.”
Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, also implies that even under the impression of overwhelming PLA military might and seemingly never-ending scandals, the Taiwanese are far from contemplating ideas to abandon the support of the island’s armed services. Militarily, the odds aren’t necessarily too bad for the island, Ding says.
“The Taiwanese military never sought to match the PLA, just as the US never regarded Taiwan’s ability to balance power with the PLA as feasible,” he says. “What Taiwan seeks is to repel or delay a PLA operation against Taiwan. In this regard, the opportunity is there.”