Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power

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How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.

—Adam Smith (1759)

If you spend any time studying Taiwan defense issues you quickly realize something has gone wrong. Almost every single American defense expert who comes to the island agrees on a rough picture of what the Taiwanese military needs to do if they want to deter a Chinese invasion force. They will have disagreements on the margins—some will be for that weapons system here, or against that one there—but the big picture is always the same. The people drawing this picture are a coterie of think tankers, war college professors, military reporters, military intelligence officers, and defense bureaucrats. Their consensus has been summarized in numerous interviews, congressional testimonies, open-editorials, think tank reports, and policy briefs.[1] It has been communicated to the Taiwanese in innumerable track-1 and track-2 discussions. Throughout it all, American analysts are insistent that Taiwan’s defense is not hopeless. If Taiwan is willing to change, it can be saved.

It is a great message. There is only one problem: the Taiwanese do not want to hear it.

I have a new piece out in Foreign Affairs that takes a stab at explaining why this is so. Here is my summary of the kind of changes American defense thinkers who have taken the time to analyze Taiwan’s situation in depth tend to advocate:

In light of these advantages, a broad consensus has emerged among U.S. defense analysts who have visited the island: Taiwan can successfully deter a Chinese invasion—but only if it radically retools its military. Instead of allocating its limited defense budget on expensive equipment such as stealth fighters, tanks or submarines, the Taiwanese military should invest in cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems that can be easily moved, disguised, and deployed against an amphibious invasion force. In practical terms, this means a navy composed of missile patrol boats, mine-laying ships, small semi-submersibles, and underwater drones; an air defense component reliant on mobile surface-to-air missile batteries; ground forces armed to the teeth with aerial drones, land mines, and antiship and antiarmor guided missiles; a reserve force and civilian population fluent in guerilla tactics; and an industrial policy focused on developing breakthroughs in missile and drone technologies.

…In the eyes of many U.S. defense analysts, Taiwanese leaders face what should be an easy choice: They can ensure their nation’s survival through the mass production or procurement of low-cost, low-profile armaments. Or they can continue to waste their resources on what the analysts Colin Carroll and Rebecca Friedman Lissner have called “‘prestige’ capabilities … with no tangible benefit in deterrence or war.” [2]

You only need to look at the Persian Gulf to understand the logic behind the American arguments. America has had her wealth exhausted fighting multi-year insurgencies against poorly armed insurgent forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Iranian military has shot down American drones and hijacked international shipping, yet has successfully scared the United States away from armed retaliation with exactly the sort of weapons mentioned above: with fast attack craft, drones, short range ballistic missiles, and SAMS. This very week some combination of Iranian missiles and drones  was able to half Saudi Arabia’s oil output.[3] 

That is the basic idea here. Build a force optimized towards destroying as much of an invasion force as possible, and if that fails, one that can drag China into weeks, months, and perhaps even years of costly military operations. In an earlier era, when Taiwanese technology and training were superior to what the PLA could muster, the Taiwanese could afford to match strength with strength. Now they cannot. Instead of trying to beat Communists in an arms race they cannot possibly win, the wise choice for Taiwan is to opt of the race entirely. This is what Iran has decided to do with America. For them it has been enormously successful. It is what the Estonians, Latvians, and Poles are doing with Russia.

But the Taiwanese have different plans:

On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States.  package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.  

Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.
The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.  

Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy  also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.[4]

So what is going on here? Why are the Taiwanese committing themselves to an arms race they cannot win? Why the rush to buy platforms that will be of limited utility in time of war?

But there is a different lens through which to view these purchases, one that few U.S. observers consider in their analyses.  Within the context of Taiwan’s hyper-partisan political and media environment, Taiwanese leaders’ defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense…. 

The Taiwanese are isolated on the international stage, not officially recognized by any of their most critical economic and defense partners, and constantly subjected to a crippling Chinese propaganda campaign designed to undermine public confidence in Taiwan’s diplomatic standing and military strength. As a result, any international incident—anything that could be seen to diminish Taiwan’s position in the world—is an opportunity to score political points against the party in power.  

Consider Taiwan’s competition with China for official diplomatic recognition. Whether small countries officially recognize Taiwan has no material effect on the country’s economy or security. The impact is psychological and political. When El Salvador severed ties with Taipei in 2018 and transferred recognition to Beijing, a spokesperson for the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party in Taiwan, accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of cultivating disaster: “The DPP must take full responsibility for Taiwan’s isolation and apologize to our people,” the spokesperson thundered. “I would like to personally ask Tsai Ing-wen: Just where is it you are leading the Republic of China to?”  

Military mistakes trigger similar media firestorms. One scandal began in 2016, when an antiship missile was accidentally launched at a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing its captain. Within a day, KMT spokesmen were calling the incident a “national security crisis” and demanding that Tsai cancel her planned trip to the United States. Tsai shifted the blame downward, accusing the military of “utter contempt of discipline and a complete lack of competency.” The subsequent media bonanza followed the normal Taiwanese pattern, with forced apologies up and down the Taiwanese chain of command providing fodder for days of outrage on Taiwanese television.  

This is the context in which Taiwanese procurement strategy must be understood. Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives. 

In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.” 

This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.[5]

While this frustrates me, I cannot say I particularly blame the Taiwanese leaders for doing what they need to do to stay in power. It is important for Americans to understand that no number of op-eds or think tank presentations will change their behavior. Incentives matter more here than ideas do. If Washington wants Taiwan to take its defense more seriously, than it needs to change the incentives Taipei politicians and generals face.

There are lots of ways to do this. In this piece I suggest just one. Joint military training:

The easiest way to do this would be to channel the Taiwanese desires for prestige away from procurement and toward military training. The U.S. Department of Defense should establish joint military exercises with the Taiwanese air force, army, and navy. These exercises should be regular, well publicized, and at least initially, held on U.S. soil.[6]

You can read the full piece to see some of the examples of the kind of joint training exercises we might invite the Taiwanese to. Inviting Taiwanese units—and importantly, it must be full units, not individuals—to join training exercises would give military leaders the face they need, politicians the signs of American commitment they crave, and would allow us to train these soldiers in the sort of fighting the ROC Armed Forces actually need. Joint training would be the sort of symbolic boost Taiwan needs—and having attained it, Taiwanese leaders may be less inclined to waste their nation’s resources on symbolic weapon purchases that will do them little good once war begins.

If you found this analysis of Taiwanese politics of great interest, you might also like the posts “Taiwan’s Past Matters Less Than Taiwan’s Present” and “Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] This strand of thought began in 2008 with William  S. Murray’s article, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense  Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no 3 (Summer 2008). Several dozen reports, testimonies, op-eds, etc. have been written on the same theme since then. For a selection of recent examples, see J. Michael Cole, “How Taiwan Can Defend Its Coastline Against China,” The National Interest (30 June 2019); Colin Carrol and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “Forget the Subs: What Taipei Can Learn From Tehran About Asymetric Defense,” War on the Rocks (6 April 2019); Drew Thompson, “Hope on the Horizon: Taiwan’s Radical New Defense Concept,War on the Rocks (2 October 2018); Michael A. Hunzeker, Alexander Lanoszka, Brian Davis, Matthew Fay, Erik Goepner, Joseph Petrucelli and Erica Seng-White. A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture (Arlington, VA: Center for Security Policy Studies, 2018), pp. 63-105; Michael Bekely, “The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,” International Security, vol 42 , iss 2 (2017) pp.78-119; Ian Easton, Mark Stokes, Cortez A. Cooper III, Arthur Chan,  Transformation of Taiwan’s Reserve Force (Santa Monica: RAND, 2017), pp. 55-59; Michael J. Lostumbo, David R. Frelinger, James Williams, Barry Wilson, Air Defense Options for Taiwan: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Operational Benefits (Santa Monica: RAND, 2016), 73-91.

[2] Tanner Greer, “Taiwan’s Defense Strategy Doesn’t Make Military Sense,” Foreign Affairs (17 September 2019).

[3] It is not yet clear whether these weapons were launched from Yemen or from Iran. But whether Houthis or Revolutionary Guards fired these weapons, Iran was clearly their original source. 

[4] Greer, “Taiwan’s Defense Strategy,”

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

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Has the ROC considered creating a ATGM Tank Destroyer? We could give them fully upgraded M113s or they could buy a similar light tank/apc, and then fit them out with Anti-Tank Missiles, essentially a lighter Pereh Missile Carrier.

Tanks and APC's preformed rather well in Vietnam in similar terrain, and hiding would be much easier when you have a 25 km NLOS missile.

The Spike is being used against Tanks, as Precision Artillery (British in AFG), and against ships (Finnish Navy) so having a good size force of these missile carriers would check off a bunch of boxes at once.

The Taiwanese won't listen to what the Americans say they should be doing. They seem to be doing what we do. We can't get a naval vessel in the water for much less than near a billion. They can't either. The strategic situations of the countries are very different but it is hard to be taken seriously about the efficacy of mine warfare when we (last time I checked) mostly ignore it.

There is something else to be considered. It is easy to make a great military career, or careers, managing a really coolio submarine project in addition to the post military jobs associated. Overseeing the development and installation of anti-landing craft missile defenses that would necessarily consist of hundreds of sites with off the shelf missiles manned by (sniff) reservists, probably isn't so bright a uniformed career and post career ring to grasped. If this is so in Taiwan, it again mirrors what us Yanks do.

The Taiwanese would be better advised, I think, to seek military advice from the Swiss.

When was the last time the US held joint training exercises with Taiwan, and what would the expected PRC reaction be?

Lynn Rees comments via e-mail:

This may be nothing, insofar as I can see. It may be one tiny sprout of growing unwokeness in Taiwan.

Referring to Wikipedia, that source of all 3-second truth, it seems that Taiwan has gun control laws rooted in a deep belief that History really did End. Elsewhere Wikipedia provides a number of 10,000 known firearms for Taiwan for a population of 23,405,000 souls (0.04%). While that number is suspiciously round, and may reflect a population conditioned to be as frugal in reporting what weapons they have as they are in reporting pro-independence sentiment during peak KMT, it seems that, if it was merely a matter of personal firearms owned, Grantsville could conquer Taiwan by itself. That 4,000 of the reported firearms may be in the hands of civilians who can do something interesting with them, namely indigenous Taiwanese with some hunting experience in the country's interior, that is of cold comfort.

Even the PRC is quoted as having a firearms rate of 3.6%, a number that should perhaps be as trusted as reported PRC GDP. The percentage of gun ownership vs population is probably not considered a totem of honor compared to being the proud owner of a 30-second Abrams tank. It certainly is not a woke statistic. However, there are cute kitten statistics, inviting potential consumers to woke, pet, and be purred, and there are porcupine statistics, informing potential petters as to the quills per square inch (or centimeters, according to taste) their hands may be pierced with if they pet and pet unwisely. If the population of Taiwan is judged according to porcupine statistics, they are poor indeed. They'd have a hard time even competing in the broken reed department, not even piercing the hand.

If someone in the Taiwanese government aspired to run with the emerging porcupine republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and, for Intermarum solidarity, Poland, they'd hardly be comforted in their reported porcupine disparity:

Lithuania: 385,000 reported firearms for a population of 2,831,000 (13.6%)
Latvia: 205,000 reported for a population of 1,945,000 (10.5%)
Estonia: 65,000 reported for a population of 1,306,000 (5.0%)
Poland: 968,000 reported for a population of 38,564,000 (2.5%)

Porcupine statistics are an under-explored topic so the applicability of a crude measure like reported firearms to total population is questionable. It excludes all-important but perhaps unmeasured or even unmeasurable qualities like unit cohesion, cultural support, terrain suitability, political possibility, &tc. Taiwan has the possibly motivating example of an existential Red threat to become a Chinese Sparta. However, as you suggest and as with most de facto if not de jure dependents, it may be counting on Athens or Uncle Sam to bail them out. There is wisdom in this, as Taiwan + America is a more formidable obstacle than Taiwan. However, there are different kinds of reliance.


[cont from above]

The current assumption seems to be that Taiwan should be bailed in before hand. I suppose without any evidence that there are Taiwanese war planners whose dream of dreams would be their own highly vulnerable set of American military bases like the ones you pointed out that Japan can boast about. However, it seems like, at minimum, Taiwan should go for the chicken-bone dependency: whilst the chicken-bone by itself is unimpressive, a chicken-bone stuck in the throat acquires impressiveness by location, location, location. A chicken-bone in the PRC's throat though could allow sufficient time for the Americans to do all the wrong things before stumbling onto the right thing. (We too live in a glass house with not enough quills.)

A people in arms and naval mines might not be appealing to video-op seeking politicos. While naval mines have a certain stoic quality due to being inanimate objects, they tend to be bulky. Perhaps if they had R2D2-ish kitten features in addition to their explosive rack of quills. However, the people are fitted with metal-hangable necks. Perhaps they can play the guqin from the reviewing stand for some cultural salience.



I have had this conversation with Taiwanese, some quite high up. Most do not get it. Part of the reason I want them being sent to ridge-ruuner, so more of them start to get it. The PLA and the ROC Armed Forces expect the entire war to be decided in two weeks of action. That is their official projections for how long the land battle will last after landing. The trouble with this thinking (fight for two weeks so the Americans can come save the day) is that it will take the Americans longer than that to degrade the PLA's anti-access bubble to the point we can send in substantial support.

If the Taiwanese could credibly signal to the Chinese that the battle will last not two weeks but two months…. or two years….. we would be in a very different position right now.

The advocated defense strategy is hard to argue against. It's the most sensible and wise strategy from purely a military standpoint.

Your interpretation why Taiwanese pursues their current big-ticket items strategy is also to the point – they're more political and psychological statements than anything else.

But you missed one big underlying reason. The people in Taiwan has in general resigned to the fact their fate is sealed. They would not be able to win the ultimate war against PRC and, this is extremely important, it's NOT worthwhile making the kind of sacrifice that the suggested military strategy deems to require in order to have a chance. Deep down, Taiwanese knows they don't have a case for de jure independence, and unification with mainland is not that bad after all. Taiwanese is Chinese, and Taiwan belongs to China. Don't underestimate this strong undercurrent.