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Ex-Taiwan military chief urges combat readiness

William Yang Taipei
September 28, 2022

Former top Taiwanese defense official Admiral Lee Hsi-ming told DW he is concerned that forces are not ready to fight off China, and that a new defense concept is needed.

Armoured vehicles move into position during a live-fire military exercise in Pingtung, Taiwan
Last month, Taiwan proposed a huge increase in its defense spending for 2023Image: Ann Wang/REUTERS

Tensions have been running high near Taiwan since last month, as China staged a series of escalatory military exercises around the island, leading many analysts to conclude that Beijing will continue to apply strategic pressure on the region.  

Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, Taiwan's former defense chief, told DW that Taipei should come up with new rules of engagement given the current situation.

"The goal is to not lose your position and not lose your dignity," he said. "Since China has established a new normal, it's unlikely for them to return to the practice of occasionally crossing the center line of the Taiwan Strait. As a result, Taiwan should respond cautiously."

Since the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, paid a high-profile visit to Taiwan in August, China has repeatedly dispatched military aircraft and naval vessels across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial demarcation between China and Taiwan that Beijing does not recognize.

Though the likelihood of an all-out war remains low in the short term, Lee said Taiwan shouldn't rule out the possibility of any miscalculation amid the rising frequency of China's gray-zone tactics.

"Since they are busy preparing for the 20th Party Congress and dealing with other domestic issues, China is not quite ready for a full-scale war against Taiwan yet," Lee said.

Concerns about combat readiness

Nevertheless, Lee expressed concerns about the combat readiness of Taiwanese troops.

According to him, while the government has pledged to build up Taiwan's asymmetric combat capabilities, the island's defense policies still put a lot of emphasis on symmetrical defense.

Asymmetric combat capabilities include using smaller or nonconventional weapons systems strategically deployed against a much larger enemy. The use of shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons by Ukrainian forces against the Russian military is a recent example. 

Symmetrical warfare involves matching the enemy's combat capabilities with the use of larger weapons, like fighter aircraft, long-range missile systems and naval vessels.

"If Taiwan's defense capability is to be truly changed, a strategic paradigm shift must be made, and the change must start from Taiwan's defense strategies, as they guide the operational concept, the structure of Taiwan's military forces, the procurement of weapons, training as well as criteria development," Lee said.

Former Taiwan military boss Lee Hsi-ming, his hands in emphatic fists before his chest
Lee says Taiwan needs to ensure that troops can effectively fight in asymmetric warfareImage: Privat

In August, Taiwanese officials proposed a huge increase in defense spending for 2023 that includes funds to procure new fighter jets, as well as to support the development of domestic-built warships, improve equipment and weaponry for troops, boost the territory's reserve service and establish asymmetrical warfare strategies.

The overall defense budget proposed by President Tsai Ing-wen's Cabinet sets a 13.9% year-on-year increase, to a record $19.41 billion (€20.25 billion).

Tsai has made modernizing the armed forces a priority. And while China is spending on advanced equipment, including stealth fighters and aircraft carriers, Taiwan is trying to counter by putting more effort into weapons such as missiles that can strike far into its giant neighbor's territory.

Taiwan seeks more asymmetric capabilities

Kitsch Liao, a military and cyber affairs consultant for Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based civil society group, said Taipei lacked a strategic planning process to help determine the types of weapons needed to counter the urgent threats facing the island.

"As of now, all the programs are being decided individually by each service in terms of what they perceive to be the threat and what they need to counter the threat," he said.

"Each service is competing for its own priorities, and there is no one to adjudicate this. The problem is that we are not optimizing our purchases according to a holistic understanding and evaluation of what Taiwan's defense needs are," Liao added.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, told DW that the upper echelons of Taiwan's Defense Ministry agree on the need to focus on asymmetric capabilities.

"They are on the same page with the United States about asymmetric means," Mastro said.

"There were some military members that still want the ability to have a long-range strike capability so they could hit Chinese ships,"she said, but that's not as strong an opinion as it had been in the past."

Limits to US intervention on Taiwan defense 

Admiral Lee said Taiwan would need to establish its asymmetrical combat capabilities and ensure that troops can effectively fight in asymmetric warfare and that Taiwan has a strong and resilient civil society.

"Establishing asymmetric combat capabilities include weapons, strategies, and training, and a strong civil society is one in which people are determined to fight against the enemy together," Lee said.

"Taiwan needs to have something tangible, such as a homeland defense force. If these small-scale troops are all over Taiwan and are equipped with weapons like stingers, Javelins and grenades, Taiwan can demonstrate its social toughness and resilience. I hope the government here will consider creating a homeland defense force," Lee added.

China 'seems to be preparing for a war against Taiwan'

One topic that has been part of the discussions on defense is whether the United States would come to Taiwan's aid should China invade.

"There will definitely be indirect support," Lee said. However, he added, it will be "very difficult for the US to work with Taiwan to counter China."

"There is no joint command, no real-time intelligence sharing, no mutual operational concept and division of labor mechanism between Taiwan and the United States," Lee said. "There is no possibility for us to come together and fight side by side."

"That's why I've been telling the US that what Taiwan needs is for them to clearly tell us what they want, what Taiwan needs to do to cooperate so that Taipei and Washington can resist the potential invasion together,"Lee said. I hope Taiwan and the US can establish a joint working group, which should focus on defense policies and policy implementation."

More money to buy US weapons

The Taiwan Policy Act, which was passed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, has been described as "the most comprehensive restructuring of US policy towards Taiwan since the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979."

It includes provisions that could authorize up to $6.5 billion to support Taipei's purchase of US arms between 2023 and 2027.

How much this legislation could impact Taiwan's defense will largely depend on its implementation, said Mastro, from Stanford University.

"It's good that it has more money to help Taiwan with buying arms, but what's also needed is more realistic training and more exercises with the United States," Mastro said.

"A lot of it is going to be in the details in terms of where this money goes," she said. "The big question for me is whether this is the end and whether this is the outcome of the effort. Or is this the first step that will lead to actual serious changes in the defense relationship between the US and Taiwan?"

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru