Taiwan Republic dispatch. No one likes losing elections, and I am hyperpartisan when it comes to Taiwanese politics. I do, however, take a world history perspective on the wins and losses — that is, what is the larger, general direction. This is why I turned off the news after last evening’s losses and read this book on Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po, educated by the Japanese, murdered by the invading China KMT — his mangled corpse left at Chiayi town square, family members unable to retrieve it, as a show of force for the Chinese invaders. Many of his pieces I love, his painting on Tamsui, one of my favorite northern Taiwan places, is my favorite — it populates my computer background, class slides, and phone screen savers.
It has taken centuries of struggle by Taiwanese forbearers, against enemies foreign and domestic, to get Taiwan Republic to this point of democracy and human rights — and it will be centuries more of tears and sweat to preserve and improve Taiwanese democratic statehood. Human beings always wish for an easier path, I include myself in that camp — so yes we all wish for a “final” victory, a moment when we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the Chinese in China and the Chinese in Taiwan and the western imperialist powers will all leave Taiwanese democracy alone. Not without centuries more of difficult fighting and sacrificing — of using Taiwanese art and literature, anime and manga, food and street fairs, films and documentaries, songs and poems — just as Mr. Chen did here, to put into earthly forms expressions and explanations of this Taiwanese nation that we love. For that love, he was murdered by the Chinese invaders.
Given the level of political polarization, I am proud of the relative normalness of it all — for a relatively young democracy, little violence, losers conceded, and the democratically elected president resigned as chair of her party to take responsibility. I walked around the streets of Taipei last evening, MRT and shops buzzing, citizens going about their business – they voted, some obsess over results, life goes on as it must in a democracy. We can always rely on some western imperialist press and academics to produce bad takes — local electoral victories in Taiwan as a sign of warm feelings for the Chinese communists, implications for the rising tension, etc. I suggest studying the ruling DPP’s massive defeats in the 2018 local elections and then pondering what happened in 2020 as a way to frame what is going on in Taiwan. Our Taiwanese elders fought the Chinese to have this democracy, preserving democratic sovereignty no matter who wins any particular election is the most important reason for the struggles. Without democracy and domestic peace, Taiwanese nationalism would be pointless. 27.11.2022
Admiral Lee’s main argument is that smaller, resource-poor Taiwan’s best defense policy is to transform its national security establishment’s long-held mentality and focus on smaller, mobile, survivable platforms-munitions in all branches while emphasizing resiliency, mobility, and survivability in surveillance, intelligence, and logistics. These are difficult changes because they revolutionize how things have been done within the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense since 1949. These proposals also revolutionize how the nation’s elected leaders and citizens evaluate their national security and express their sense of national pride – pouring concrete and making small mobile communication vehicles and producing thousands of cheap, replaceable drones make national security sense, but challenges the psychology and emotions of all sectors of this nation.
Which gets us to the mystifying process of how the Taiwanese Navy has been pursuing its surface fleet since the early 1980s. I am not a partisan in intra-Taiwan Ministry of National Defense factions and arguments – I find those arguments, dating back to their China days (big northern fleet versus small attack craft southern command ….) tiresome. It is fascinating to think carefully about Admiral Lee’s stillborn manned and unmanned stealth missile crafts versus recent news that once again the Taiwan Navy will reverse course, delay its larger AEGIS/VLS surface vessels, and build smaller non-AEGIS/VLS frigates.
I do not have the professional-academic background to argue which model makes the most sense. Whether Taiwan is better off with a large vessel fleet, small fast attack craft fleet, a combination of both, and/or focus on submarines (and if so, what size and how many ….) I do have the background to conclude that Taiwan has not had an adequate, democratic, public policy debate over such an important issue. Admiral Lee’s argument is that if the US warning that dictator Xi and the Chinese communists want to be ready for a war of annexation no later than 2027 – then quickly getting hundreds of small, cheap, rapidly manufactured missile crafts into service is far more sensible than programs requiring decades. He further makes the argument, convincingly, that the Chinese communists would like nothing more than a grand, conventional, force-on-force battle – reminiscent of how Chiang Kai-shek’s army melted into thin air in 1948-1949 China I think.
And if these smaller frigates take too long to build, require too many sailors to staff, take too long to train to bring online, and are too easily sunk by the Chinese – well then in the same issue of this Taiwan-based military magazine, the additional mystery of Taiwan Navy building a massive amphibious landing vessel. In an ideal world – say if you are cheating in a computer game and money can be infinitely replaced, then sure you buy everything. In the real world, Admiral Lee argues correctly, one needs to prioritize – and the priority is not choosing weapons that make people proud, but choosing weapons that will survive the initial strikes from China and be able to inflict enough damage on the invaders so as to deny them the victory they seek.
But then the peculiar modern history of Taiwan is this. In the early 1980s when Taiwan was still under China KMT martial law military publications began to appear, but military affairs were very much seen as highly confidential, only the military ought to discuss the military. Taiwan has a long history of civilians rightly avoiding politics, military, history, and diplomacy – no one wanted to become yet another political prisoner of the China KMT. This is what I thought of when Admiral Lee pointed out Taiwan is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-end speed seacrafts – one of many, many areas where the democratic, civilian Taiwanese civil society thrives, yet this historically created chasm between the national security establishment and Taiwanese civilians remain. In this sense, the greatest proposal from Admiral Lee’s book is not about a particular model or approach, or a particular weapon or munition – I’ve noticed in publications and online discussions these shorthands, asymmetry, porcupine, Javelins and Stingers. I think the main conclusion from Admiral Lee’s book, and the experience of Ukraine, is that a democracy cannot compartmentalize its national security policies from other realms of democratic policy debates. That in order for a democracy to make difficult national security decisions, in order for the democracy to harness all of its talents, its national security apparatus must be as democratic and modern as the rest of the nation. Admiral Lee pointed to the thriving and creative ship design and building industry in Taiwan – contrast that with the uncreativity and directionlessness of the Taiwan Navy since the 1980s. I see similar gaps in unmanned vehicles (design, manufacturing, deployment-uses), in gaming, in information warfare, etc etc. Taiwanese businesses are perhaps some of the most creative and resilient in global logistics – whereas the Taiwan military has had a reputation for weaknesses in logistics. Democratizing and modernizing the national security establishment are the only ways forward to ensure Taiwan’s national security can withstand the challenge posed by its imperialistic autocratic neighbor.
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
Because few Taiwanese dared to go into filmmaking, TV, radio, journalism, the arts, history, and politics during the days of the China KMT occupation-dictatorship, even decades after Taiwan’s democratization the decolonization process remains stalled. Taiwanese do not have the institutions, the people, nor the vocabulary to yet fully recover their historical memory and examine their own histories. This new film about the invading China KMT’s political prisoners and white terror during the 1950s and 1960s is an attempt to reverse that tide – for Taiwanese to reclaim their memory, and to tell their own stories. It was a difficult film to watch, much tears, sometimes I just closed my eyes for minutes to shut out the pain. But I told my wife going to a theater is no less important than voting – a small, personal vote against Chinese colonialism.
The incongruities and complications of modernity and modern Taiwan are these – to walk out of a beautiful and heart-wrenching film, subtle and tastefully done, into a western-style shopping mall complex in downtown Taipei. And then, a few minutes later, on a subway, to transfer to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial stop – the same invader-dictator who is responsible for these crimes against humanity, yet Taiwanese citizens are still forced to host a memorial in his honor. And for extra incongruity, one of the Taipei mayoral candidates claims to be Chiang’s illegitimate great-grandson. And he may actually win. None of it makes any sense, yet all of them must coexist, parallel universe-like, democratically and peacefully.
How to reclaim historical memory, tell one’s own stories, and decolonize one’s own nation peacefully and democratically? The greatest strength of this film, I thought, was complicating and humanizing all of the characters, from China KMT political prison guards to political prisoners who are from China to Taiwanese victims – without descending into moral relativism and “What a tragedy of that era ….” b.s. These are my initial thoughts – I am going to take a while to think over my notes and ponder all of this. The range of linguistic diversity, accents, and languages brought over from China to the beautiful code-switching between southern Taiwanese to Japanese to English, speaks to a level of multiculturalism and diversity inherent to Taiwan that the China KMT dictatorship tried mightily to erase. The film did a masterful job with a light touch – this is a subject and a story that’s constantly at risk of tipping over into melodrama. The China KMT crimes and the human suffering were drama enough when simply illustrated. Something about the way the film was filmed and narrated and the stories interspersed felt immersive throughout – a deep sense of sadness and anger, sadness for the needless suffering and injustice, anger that the criminals remain unrepentant and unpunished, beautiful shots of the Pacific Ocean waves and the natural beauty of the Green Island almost as momentary reprieve.
It also occurred to me that decades of China KMT brainwashing into their particular brand of neutered in service of the Chiang crime family dictatorship “Confucianism” and decades of enforced forgetting have nearly erased most of modern-day Taiwanese memory of highly educated and super strong-willed Taiwanese women leaders in its history. A history that films like this is beginning to remember.
The film’s thankless task is also President Tsai’s thankless task – tell a fair and complicated historical memory story which some will take offense for not being harsh enough; while even touching the subject is making Chinese reactionaries inside Taiwan upset. Yet these are necessary steps for the future of Taiwanese democracy and nationhood – requiring brave, selfless Taiwanese to take – to engage the pain and suffering while opening a democratic and peaceful path for national coexistence. 8.11.2022