Taiwan's military seeks new identity Social, political changes bring shift in direction as China increases pressure

November 21, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LINKOU, Taiwan -- On a bulletin board of Taiwan's 249th Mechanized Infantry Division, recruits are urged to defend their tiny island for four main reasons: country, honor, duty and leader.

Officers of the 249th point out that in Taiwan's modern armed forces, the leader now ranks last; instead of pledging personal loyalty to the island's leaders as they had in the past, today's soldiers are first and foremost committed to defending their country, regardless of who leads it.

An admirable ideal, but as China presents Taiwan's military with its first significant challenge in decades, some are wondering just how modernized Taiwan's armed forces have become. With many in the military opposed to policies being pursued by Taiwan's civilian leadership and with civilian oversight of the military at best fragmentary, some question whether the armed forces can be counted on to present a credible deterrent to an invasion from the mainland.

"If you talk about the equipment and weapons systems, then yes, Taiwan has developed a very effective military," said Lin Yu-fang, a teacher at Taiwan's Armed Forces University. "But in terms of morale, there are big problems."

Mr. Lin and other analysts say that Taiwan has a potent, if small, military and probably could repel an attack from the People's Republic China. All but the most pessimistic war games show Taiwan holding air superiority and turning back the mainland's landing craft.

If Taiwan were attacked by China, the United States would take a keen interest in the fate of its former ally, which is one of Asia's few democracies and a major U.S. trading partner. A strong Taiwan wouldn't need U.S. support, but one whose military is divided internally could crumble in the face of a sustained onslaught by mainland China, forcing painful decisions in Washingtol on whether to commit military force.

U.S. leaders are being asked by Taiwanese military officers to sell them more sophisticated weapons, especially to defend Taiwan from China's new generation of missiles.

Top Taiwanese officers visited Washington this past weekend to lobby for permission to buy advanced submarines, Patriot missiles and to participate in the Pentagon's proposed Theater Missile Defense, which is planned to coordinate anti-missile systems in South Korea, Japan and other pro-western Asian states.

While the sales would help the flagging U.S. defense industry and increase Taiwan's ability to defend itself, they might also provoke Chinese retaliation. China recently has warned the United States not to sell arms to Taiwan, saying relations between China and the island are "tense."

One problem in assessing Taiwan's military is that it is still shrouded in the secrecy cultivated by Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist strongman who fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949 to Mao Tse-tung's Communists. Until the late 1980s, Chiang and his successors kept tight control over the military, pouring half the national budget into it but denying independent oversight.

Even today, government sources estimate that just 10 percent of military expenditures are audited by the finance ministry, leading to waste and bribery.

According to the Institute for National Policy Research, Taiwan will spend about $10 billion, or 22 percent of its annual national budget, on the military this year.

Huang Huang-hsiung, a legislator on the parliament's National Defense Subcommittee, said parliamentary oversight is inadequate.

Taiwan, with a population of 25 million, has 470,000 men under arms, with about 68,000 each in the navy and air force and the rest in the army. The bulk of the forces are made up of recruits, who must serve at least two years between the ages of 18 and 35.

Those recruits are largely native Taiwanese soldiers, ethnic Chinese whose families immigrated to Taiwan about 350 years ago. The professional soldiers, who make up the officers, are still predominantly drawn from the 4 million "mainlanders," those Chinese and their descendants who fled to Taiwan with Chiang in 1949.

According to June Teufel Dreyer, who studies Taiwan's and China's military at the University of Miami in Florida, the two groups have been integrating over the past years. Officers by and large speak the Taiwanese dialect favored by their recruits and identify with Taiwan rather than their parents' and grandparents' hometowns on the mainland.

But Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, has been pursuing a course that is unpopular with many mainlanders. He has sought international recognition for Taiwan, fueling speculation that he is really trying to declare Taiwan independent from the mainland -- anathema to China's Communists and the mainlanders on Taiwan. Both groups view Taiwan as a province of China that should someday be reunited with the motherland.

In a worst-case scenario, Mr. Lee's efforts might cause the mainland to invade Taiwan to make sure it stays part of China, leading to an internal crisis among Taiwan's officers: should they fight, essentially, for Taiwan's independence, which they don't support? Ms. Dreyer believes the officers would fight.

Legislator Huang believes the military has improved its professionalism, but is still not entirely devoted to defending Taiwan from external aggression, especially if the enemy were a mainland regime provoked by a Taiwanese president seeking some form of independence.

Officers in the military, many of whose fathers fought Japan in World War II, were outraged when Mr. Lee gave an interview to a Japanese publication saying that when he grew up in Taiwan, which was then a Japanese colony, he felt like a Japanese person. This caused many mainlanders in the military to feel that Mr. Lee was un-Chinese and that his policies might not be worth defending.

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