Editorial: Taiwan needs to strike while the iron is hot

President Tsai visiting a military academy. (By Central News Agency)

China’s military reform and modernization have received maximum coverage, partly due to President Xi Jinping’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea and toward Japan.

The advances by the People’s Liberation Army have caused concern in Taiwan about the growing imbalance across the Taiwan Straits. Due to the island’s isolated international position, doubts have been voiced about its capability to ward off any attack from China, which has maintained its threat of using force should Taiwan move toward independence.

Unexpected words of comfort for Taiwan’s military situation arrived this week from Randy Lawrence, formerly an official at the American Institute in Taiwan responsible for military cooperation between the two nations.

His praise came as reports from Washington indicated that anti-ship missiles included in a supposedly major weapons package to be drawn up by the administration of United States President Donald Trump.

In a separate move, one of the responses from Taiwan to the growing danger was the launch of a domestic submarine construction program, with President Tsai Ing-wen attending the signing of a memorandum at the Zuoying Navy Base in Kaohsiung Tuesday. By the end of a decade, the locally made submarines should be ready for action, reports said.

Lawrence gave Taiwan’s military high marks for its defensive capabilities, adding the public in Taiwan should not worry too much about the short term. The AIT expert said his task had been to assess the country’s defensive needs and discuss them with the Taiwanese military, focusing on which kind of weapons or training were the most necessary

He said his efforts concentrated on the Patriot PAC-3 missiles, helicopters, ships and tanks. After having collected the necessary information, he would report back to Washington, where the White House, the State Department and the Department of Defense would address the issues, Lawrence said.

In the face of an ever-strengthening People’s Liberation Army, Taiwan’s military could still be said to have excellent defense capabilities and the highest quality of officers, the Taiwanese ranking among the best he ever taught in Hawaii, Lawrence said.

He noted the different strategies prevalent in the U.S. and Taiwanese military.

U.S. Armed Forces are all about power projection which often leads to an offensive posture and potentially the use of violence, but Taiwan is simpler, because its strategy is defensive, Lawrence said. The island doesn’t buy too many tanks and fighter jets, as buying too many offensive weapons would amount to a waste of funds.

Lawrence emphasized the importance of asymmetric warfare, where the size and relative military power of the belligerents diverge widely. Taiwan works on a limited budget that needs to be stretched to its maximum effectiveness, he said. Even limited numbers of soldiers with relatively cheap weapons can devastate enemy ranks, Lawrence remarked.

He downplayed the threat posed by Chinese spies to the supply of U.S. arms to Taiwan, even after a Chinese student and several retired Taiwanese military officers were unmasked as having collected confidential information for Beijing. Despite previous spy scandals, Washington continued to sell arms, the former AIT official said.

Nevertheless, the issue still played a role as a factor in arms procurement decisions for advanced systems such as the Apache AH-64E helicopters, which Taiwan started using even before the U.S. itself, and the Patriot PAC-3 missiles.

The defense expert also gave a positive appraisal to Taiwan’s plans to establish a fourth wing of the armed forces in the shape of a cyberforce defending the island against disruption by Chinese hackers.

While the comments from an AIT military expert can hearten Taiwan’s government, they should not divert from the fact that in the long term, the island still has a long road to go in terms of keeping its defenses up to scratch if it wants them to act as a deterrent to a Chinese attack.

For the time being, positive noises have been coming from Washington, with the administration of President Donald Trump reportedly preparing a major new weapons deal including anti-ship missiles.

In the meantime, Taiwan is waiting for the delivery of the last of 12 P-3C Orion marine surveillance planes expected this summer, aircraft which will play a crucial role in detecting enemy submarines.

As if Taiwan needed added warning of China’s intention, it has to be noted that the communist country stationed about a dozen Dong Feng-16 ballistic missiles in Guangdong Province, which means they pose a direct threat to the island. Some commentators see the Chinese-built missiles as more difficult to intercept by Taiwan’s Patriot PAC-3.

As President Tsai told the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei Wednesday, the country is prepared to take up its responsibilities in promoting regional peace and stability. Bilateral relations should be upgraded to a closer level of strategic partnership, not only in the field of regional security, but also in trade and economic cooperation, she said.

Now that the administration in Washington sounds friendly to Taiwan, at least for the time being, the island’s government and military need to do all they can to present a financially realistic list of their defense needs, in the hope that the country can obtain as much as it needs to postpone the moment when the military balance in the Taiwan Straits threatens to grow out of sync.