By Jie Zhong

Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen assumes office on May 20. As the first female president and the head of army of the Republic of China (ROC), she faces five major challenges in national security.

Taiwan military's Marine Corps perform during a drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on July 11, 2014. (EyePress/STR)
Taiwan military’s Marine Corps perform during a drill in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on July 11, 2014. (EyePress/STR)

1. National defense budget for 2017 and high-end training aircraft

The New Frontier Foundation, which was chaired by Tsai, released a set of National Defense Policy Papers before the election. The papers made it clear that if her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power in 2016, it would strive to raise the military budget to 3% of the GDP. Though the preparation for the 2017 budget has begun, there are 3 months left before the Executive Yuan finalizes the budget in mid-August. The DPP is still likely to live up to its promise.

Generally, the calculation of Taiwan’s military budget is combined with nonprofit funds. To reach 3% of the GDP, annual spending has to be between 349 billion NTD (about US$10.7 billion) and 360 billion NTD. Compared to the 321.7 billion outlay in 2016, an increase of 27.3 billion to 38.3 billion NTD would be necessary. This is a big challenge for Tsai.

On the issue of high-end military training aircraft, the Ministry of National Defense originally planned to prepare budgets for such procurements from 2017. The ministry aimed to replace the nation’s F-5E/F fighters from 2018 to 2019 and AT-3 training planes from 2021 to 2022. The new government wants Taiwan to develop its own indigenous jet trainer aircraft to replace its aging AT-3s.

The total budgets for both fighters and trainers would amount to 70 billion NTD. Since Tsai has announced that Taiwan will rely on domestic R&D resources to develop replacement aircraft, this plan would need adjustment. If the DPP still wants to launch the plan in 2017, it will have to finish all the paperwork before mid-August.

Meanwhile, a delay in replacing Taiwan’s existing F-5E/F fighter is bringing safety problems associated with the warplane to the forefront. Some of the fighter’s structural problems can only be solved with more spending or outright replacement.

The producer of high-end training planes, AIDC, faces the challenge posed by the law on government procurement, which stipulates the separation of research and production. Thus, the DPP needs to amend the law or make new laws to promote domestic R&D on high-end training planes.

2. One more year of conscription?

The DPP announced that it would discuss the issue of national conscription ten months after it takes office. But before that, an immediate decision must be made on continuing to conscript military draftees born before 1993 to serve one year in the armed forces.

The defense ministry had planned to eliminate conscription by the end of 2015. But the plan was changed due to a projected troop shortage. It also said that conscription would continue into 2017 if there was a shortage of soldiers.

For the moment, it appears the shortage will continue. Thus, whether to keep conscription in 2017 and figuring how many conscripts are needed for Taiwan’s defense will be a challenging decision for Tsai.

3. Arms sales and Taiwan-US military relationships

During president Ma’s second tenure, several arms-sale negotiations with the US remained pending. Tsai must review these deals and decide how to proceed.

A program to train Taiwanese pilots training at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. is set to expire in 2017. Since the cost to Taiwan in maintaining this program is huge, there has always been opposition to it in the Defense Ministry. Deciding whether to continue the project is another urgent matter for Tsai, since Taiwan must notify the US of its decision by the first half of next year.

During Ma’s eight years of presidency, the Taiwan-US military relationships make the most progress in bilateral military coordination and communication. The numerous joint military exercises held between the two countries underscore that point. The trilateral relationships among ROC, the People’s Republic of China and the US will likely influence military communication between Taiwan and the US in the future. This will pose a great challenge for Tsai.

4. Formulating policies on national military strategy

According to Taiwan’s defense law, the Defense Ministry is required to submit defense guidelines covering the next four years to the Legislative Yuan within ten months of the president’s inauguration. The guidelines serve as the baseline for the president’s defense policy in the next 4 years.

The DPP is also likely to form a defense industry cooperation group under the Defense Ministry. It will bring together department ministers, legislators, scholars and industry representatives to give advice on national defense strategies. The president will convene a national security conference to draft strategies based on the advice. 

5. Disarmament and conscription

Constrained by its population of roughly 23.4 million, Taiwan finds it hard to maintain a military pool of 175,000 conscripts. This is why Ma, the previous president, pushed for a “Yong Ku” military cutbacks plan.

The Defense Ministry had completed plans for such a downsizing and restructuring of Taiwan’s army. But legislative disagreements and the presidential election suspended the project.

The DPP says it will suspend the Yong Ku project and decelerate efforts to downsize the military. They say they also will push for reforms on the conscription issue.

If the DPP fails to conscript draftees born after 1994, the number of soldiers will decrease on a yearly basis, against the back drop of increasing manpower demands in various parts of the army. Figuring out how to change the size and structure of Taiwan’s army will be another major challenge for Tsai.

Jie Zhong holds a Phd. and is with the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and strategic Studies at Tamkang University.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Translated by Jiawen Guo for Asia Times

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