This is an important book regarding the national security of Taiwan, and it is a pity that it has provoked little earnest discussion and debate among Taiwan’s civilian and military leaders. This does not mean I believe Admiral Lee’s ideas should all be adopted – but the lack of debates is indicative of the greatest danger posed to Taiwan’s national security – the inability of its hyper-conservative (in this instance, I mean not ideology but a culture – reluctance to embrace new ideas, take risks, debate openly) national security apparatus to adopt democratic and modern norms in order to make necessary and rapid adjustments.
At nearly five hundred pages, this book could have used more thorough editing. The writing can be repetitive. In a polarized national identity climate, nothing in public policy Taiwan can escape quick and ideological dismissals. Probably I disagree with Admiral Lee on most political and diplomatic issues. I respect his expertise, and I see no reason as other reviewers have, prematurely jump to conclusions regarding his patriotism and loyalty.
If I were to choose a few pages as a microcosm of what makes this book important, it would be the section on Admiral Lee’s proposed manned and unmanned stealth mini-attack naval crafts (pages 344-357). Many words have been spilled by many parties over this aborted proposal – but the admiral’s convincing explanation here, and the unhealthy political process by which other leaders in the Taiwan national defense establishment ended this project without engaging in a proper and fair democratic debate, serves as an important example for what policymakers in Taipei, Tokyo, and DC ought to focus on – not merely weapons and platforms, not how much money to provide for military aid, not denial versus control, not porcupine or not – but that Taiwan’s military leadership is in dire need of a revolutionary change in culture.
Elsewhere I have noted this, that in the decades of Taiwanese democratization, the national security institutions have been the least touched by democracy and openness to engage the rest of the world. One may generally argue that this is the case in most nations. Yet I think one can reasonably argue that this phenomenon is particularly pronounced in Taiwan. And Taiwan’s civilian leaders from all parties lack the expertise, and rightly fear the instability of a menacing authoritarian neighbor, by pushing for democratization and openness within its military.
This is where a constructive avenue is to adopt the models of the 1950s, where Taiwan turned to Japanese and American officers – retired and active service – for advice. Again, refusing to participate in simpleminded name calling one sees in some Taiwan-based military publications – this is not about whether Taiwanese officers have expertise and insight. I think they do, no less than foreign officers. I have never had doubt about the quality of the Taiwanese rank-and-file military – only doubts and worries about its generals and admirals. The problem is not expertise, but bureaucratic, institutional inertia, decades in the making – requiring a push from the outside to cut through decades of habits and precedence. In many ways while reading this book and other related articles the inertia in the Taiwanese military leadership reminds me of the American higher ed thought leaders – everyone knows a demographic tsunami is coming, everyone agrees that the economic model makes no sense – yet there is zero incentive structure for anyone to be the one to say this, much less to make substantive changes.
So then back to Admiral Lee’s mini-missile crafts. I do not have the expertise to decide whether they were the right approach for the defense of Taiwan. I think the fact that there was basically no national discussion and debate, from the proposal, and adoption, to the removal of both the policy and Admiral Lee himself from office, illustrates the gap between Taiwan’s democracy and its national security policy-making apparatus. Even the fact that this book has received relatively muted responses from Taiwanese political leaders, military establishment, journalists, and scholars, illustrates this dangerous gap – an otherwise vibrant democracy, yet cannot engage in honest and direct conversations and debates regarding its fundamental survival.
And I admit, as I read Admiral Lee’s thorough proposals, moving away from jet aircraft and large warships and armored vehicles, my initial reactions were emotional and reactive – my decades-long sense of Taiwan’s national defense and identity intertwined in these weapons and systems. Yet Admiral Lee’s analysis is rational and thoughtful – how does a smaller nation invest very limited resources so that it could deny a larger neighbor the military victory it seeks? And Admiral Li is a rare Taiwan military leader who is neither defeatist/too political, yet is willing to risk the unpopularity of speaking the unvarnished truth.
This reminds me of something I have thought about for decades as I watch Taiwanese military maneuvers and read interviews and articles published by the Taiwanese military – a core question for me has been: Are these generals and admirals honestly preparing to fight for real? And I think Admiral Lee has convincingly answered this question as sadly being no. This is where Taiwan’s civilian democratic leaders require the most assistance from their US, Japan, and other democratic allies – expertise and credibility to push for a revolution in Taiwanese military leadership. A few recent examples are alarming indications. That the Taiwan military leadership reacted so slowly to the Chinese communist unmanned aerial vehicle intrusions is a clue of deep-seated institutional problems. The recent special forces maneuver preparing for a Chinese communist landing at the mouth of the Tamsui River – they have been practicing against that scenario for as long as I have been reading the news – do you suppose the Chinese communists have noticed that too? And if so, why would they follow the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense’s scenario? And finally, this is subtle but to my thinking indicative and fundamental. A Taiwanese college student, a music major, on his own initiative used open-source information to map out major Chinese communist military installations on Google Map. In most functioning democracies he would have been invited by the Ministry of Defense – if only for the PR/marketing/recruitment drive – and an even smarter military would see this as a way to draw strengths from the democracy it is trying to protect. Yet thus far, to my knowledge, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense has not reacted.
This is where Admiral Lee’s policy suggestions should meet actual global policy moves. All of the particulars he has offered are debatable in a democratic process. I think one of the most important first steps for Admiral Lee’s proposal to have a chance of taking root inside Taiwan’s national security institutions is for a US-Japan led global effort to share expertise – civil defense and modern military concepts by Finland, Sweden, and Norway; logistics and civil defense by Israel; how to modernize the Ministry of National Defense by the US. And perhaps a pressing issue is to find ways to send Taiwanese and American officers to learn from their Ukrainian counterparts. How did Ukraine manage to transform its authoritarian, Soviet-based national security apparatus to adapt to its modern democratic reality? How did Ukraine manage to deal with members within its national security apparatus who had loyalty-identity issues without violating democratic norms? How did Ukraine manage the vast logistical and supply issues [recent Taiwan military publication rightly focuses on this issue – where will foreign military supplies reach Taiwan during a war? Has Taiwan planned on how to move them from air and sea ports to storage and distribution?] What lessons have the Ukrainians learned regarding the resiliency of local governments, police, reserve forces, transportation, and communication?
Taiwan has had a long history of sending officers and fact-finding teams abroad, similar to those US higher ed task forces and committees, where findings and reports sink slowly into an entrenched bureaucracy full of reasons why needed reforms cannot occur. Taiwan Can Help, Taiwan in military affairs needs that push from abroad – expertise, resources, reassurances – so that it can transform its mentality from fielding a force for the parade grounds, into a military force prepared to fight, prepared for the unexpected. Admiral Lee has provided invaluable service to his nation by writing this book – a thankless task really, he could have easily kept his mouth shut, become the head of another state-owned industry, and collect his pensions, he should have the gratitude of everyone who cares about Taiwan’s democracy. 12.11.2022
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