Is Taiwan Finally Getting Serious about Defense?

The government of Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian has proposed a surprisingly large (20 percent) increase in the island’s defense budget. It is a modest, long-overdue step toward enhancing Taiwan’s ability to deter military coercion from China. Yet, it merely boosts spending from a absurdly anemic 2.5 percent of GDP to a still anemic 3 percent.

The Taiwanese need to do far more–for their best interests and ours. Beijing maintains that Taiwan is merely a renegade province, and Chinese leaders in recent years have become increasingly vocal about using military force, if necessary, to compel reunification. As I explain in my latest book, Washington’s implicit commitment to help defend the island places this country right in the middle of a looming armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait sometime in the next decade. Although Americans can and should sympathize with the plight of a plucky democracy facing possible conquest by a dictatorial neighbor, maintaining the island’s de facto independence is not a vital American interest. It certainly is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed China.

Taiwan’s inadequate commitment to its own defense encourages China to contemplate coercion, thereby increasing America’s risk exposure. Unfortunately, even the Chen government’s tepid proposal to boost military spending may not become reality. Chen’s approval rating in his country is even lower than George Bush’s rating in the United States. Even worse, the national legislature is controlled by the opposition Kuomintang Party and its ally, the People First Party. Their obstructionism has blocked for nearly 5 years funding of an arms package offered by the United States in 2001. The KMT and PFP apparently believe that Taiwan’s defense budget should consist of money to purchase a telephone to call Washington in the event of a crisis and urge the United States to send planes, ships, and troops forthwith. They are the ultimate security free riders.

U.S. officials should stress to Taiwanese of all political persuasions the need to get serious about their own defense. The most effective way to do that is to make it clear that the American cavalry is not about to ride to the rescue if trouble breaks out between Taiwan and China.