Taiwanese naval officials stand at attention in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Two Taiwan marines, Private First Class Tsai Po-yu (蔡博宇) and Staff Sergeant Chen Chih-jung (陳志榮), died after their inflatable boat overturned during a training accident on July 3.  Two other marines were hospitalized and one remains in critical condition.

Unfortunately, accidents are part and parcel of combat training. And small boat operations are tricky in the best of times, and in rough seas they are even trickier.

This is no consolation, but offers some context.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen expressed her condolences while noting: “At the same time, I would like to express my highest respect and gratitude to all the brothers and sisters of the National Army for their sacrifice for the county.”

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa referred to the lost marines as “national heroes.”

Heartfelt comments, no doubt. But Tsai and the national government could treat the men and women serving in Taiwan’s Armed Forces with more respect while they are still alive.

For starters, consider successive Democratic Progressive Party and Kuomintang administrations’ mystifying but steadfast refusal to properly fund defense – even though Taiwan is a wealthy nation and facing a serious threat from mainland China.

Exact figures are elusive, but one estimate has it that during the 12 years from 2008 to 2020 defense spending increased only about 8% overall. Another assessment claims that between 1995 and now the increase is only 4% when adjusted for inflation.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen talks a big defense game. Photo: Handout

Regardless, it’s fair to say Taiwan’s defense spending hasn’t moved much while the People’s Republic of China military threat has grown exponentially. 

Money isn’t everything, of course, but if you’re unwilling to pay for something – and you have the money – you don’t value it, no matter how much you claim otherwise. And people serving in Taiwan’s military or those who are thinking about joining get the message.

It is not surprising that Taiwan’s all-volunteer military has trouble attracting recruits. Salaries are low, benefits are few, housing is spartan. Adding to the problem, military pensions are paltry and have been cut in recent years. There is talk of shrinking pensions even more.  

As one woeful example, a serviceman commented: “We military personnel and our family can get free necessary medical care and general health care services in military hospitals, but are often treated as second-class customers because the military hospitals are also open to civilians. Since they have to pay, the hospitals get all their revenue from them.”

In Taiwan, military service is not a respected profession. Nor, apparently, is it a government priority. 

The government seems to consider military personnel as just “government employees.” That’s accurate in one sense, but Taiwan’s army, marine, navy, and air force personnel are government employees with a difference – by virtue of having promised to die for Taiwan.

Certainly, this warrants better treatment than the local trash collectors receive. And the problems are not only with the active duty force. The reserve system is a shambles and needs attention and money too.  

What to do?

First, spend and do what is necessary so that young Taiwanese – both male and female – view military service as an advantageous career choice that compares favorably with the private sector. 

Make it well paying, offer decent living conditions (no more dilapidated, non-air-conditioned quarters), and look after military families to include tax breaks and generous allowances.

Soldiers wear face masks to guard against Covid-19 listen to an address by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

Second, focus on professional development for service members, both while they’re in the service and afterwards.  

Third, implement the equivalent of America’s GI Bill providing lifelong benefits such as post-service education assistance, housing loans, healthcare and decent, secure pensions for long-serving personnel. 

Otherwise, slick promotions or advertisements will not lure enough people of the right sort into the Taiwan Armed Forces. Presidential declarations of unbounded admiration for the armed forces won’t do much either, and often come across as only nice words.

Instead, making the military a respected profession would cost the equivalent of a dozen submarines and a squadron of F-35s, and any number of M1A1 tanks.

To be sure, while this focus on people is the indispensable first step, it does not lessen the need to improve Taiwan Armed Forces’ capabilities by obtaining needed weaponry and spending on R&D.

Taiwan’s military needs restructured into a mobile force – with a serious, competent reserve component – employing a range of asymmetric weapons that would make Taiwan a tough nut to crack.

A well-funded military with enough people (and highly motivated ones) is better able to transform itself – as the Taiwan Armed Forces need to do. Otherwise, commanders have their hands full just maintaining the semblance of an armed force.

Taiwan’s political class should also recognize that doing what’s necessary to fix Taiwan’s military has an important knock-on effect. Specifically, it addresses a longstanding complaint from naysayers in Washington, DC. The criticism goes as follows: “Taiwan won’t defend itself – and won’t spend the money to do so – so why should we?”

US and Taiwanese flags blow in the wind juxtaposed against a Chinese temple. Photo: iStock

Take defense seriously, starting with substantially increased spending, and Taipei will find Washington’s tacit commitment to defending Taiwan correspondingly stronger.   

Friends of Taiwan, including this writer, have been puzzled for years. Taiwan faces a more immediate and more frightening threat of attack than any nation on earth. And Beijing has said that one way or another, sooner rather than later, it will take Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province.

Yet, Taiwan is being penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to defense. Perhaps the DPP is relying too much on clever diplomacy and wonder weapons, and having friends in high places in America.

However, diplomacy only gets you so far. Even the most advanced weapons will never quite be enough against a determined enemy.

Taiwan does indeed may have many supporters in the US Congress, and on both sides of the aisle. However, there are also people in Washington, now waiting in the wings for a new administration after November elections, who see Taiwan differently.

Given the chance, they will trade Taiwan for improved relations with China, and they’ll call it “statesmanship.” 

By continuing to hold back on defense spending in favor of social spending, the results may be fatal. Indeed, once under PRC domination, and Taiwan’s excellent and expensive public health system and education system won’t matter much. Nor will its sizeable foreign exchange reserves. Indeed, Hong Kong has all of these, but won’t for much longer.

Taiwan hasn’t got much time left. If the Tsai administration doesn’t get defense and defense spending right, nothing else matters much. Paying more attention to the “national heroes” on the front lines she speaks of should be the first order of business. And that costs money.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer, a former US diplomat, and a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies