Taiwan's national security or "USA vs. PRC"

Warmongers and the like in the Western world now tend to focus on two nations since Iraq is gone; Iran and the PR China. War with the first one is a real possibility for the U.S. Americans while the "threat" PR China is the bogeyman for the long term (financing of the forces).

I want to focus on the PR China this time; PR (People's Republic) China is no longer perceived as an ideological threat but rather as an expansionist newcomer with huge industrial and personnel resources. China has indeed lured into it much of the classic war industries of the West (metal, chemicals, electronics, vehicles), and other such industries (like a huge share of the world's shipbuilding industry) have huge concentrations in its vicinity.
China has a long tradition of a regional power with near-constant internal troubles (especially a constant trouble to keep its central control over all provinces). It has never reached for global domination as Western civilization has, in fact it has been almost isolationist for most of the European imperialism period (15th to 19th century).

Whoever perceives the PR China as future adversary of the USA does so not only because they might have the potential - the usual assertion is that PR China tries to gain regional hegemony in a way that violates our regional friends' (Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and possibly Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore) sovereignty.
The most obvious example is Taiwan, and Taiwan war scenarios are frequently used in discussions about the further development of the U.S. Navy.

Here's a particularly extreme example about how some people perceive the situation. It's not uncommon to assume that Taiwan is defenceless against PR China without Western forces assistance. The example even concludes with PR China's PLA soldiers invading Taiwan without resistance, as if there were no defenders at all once U.S. forces in the area are defeated. I told you, an extreme example - but not really unrepresentative.

Taiwan has a mobilization potential for roughly half a million men, and the geographic situation is not favourable for an invasion at all. There's no way how PR China could effectively project its far superior mobilization potential without capturing at least one of Taiwan's harbours. Taiwan has a serious air force and a serious navy - Taiwan would likely not be able to break a PR China blockade of its commercial communication lines in the air and on the sea, but defence against an invasion is something completely different.

There are obviously two defence departments in the world that can judge the chances of an invasion the best; both Chinese defence departments (or how exactly they call themselves).

So let's look at Taiwan's preparations for its defence in the middle term.
source: CIA World Factbook 2007
Military service age and obligation:
19-35 years of age for compulsory military service; service obligation 16 months (to be shortened to 14 months as of July 2007 and to 12 months in 2008); women in Air Force service are restricted to noncombat roles; reserve obligation to age 30 (2007)

Military expenditures - percent of GDP:
2.2% (2006; to increase to 2.85% in 2007)
So they increase their very low (rather typical for European nations) military expenditures to a higher, but still very low level.
At the same time they reduce the service obligation from 16 to only 12 months, the absolute minimum for useful military training.

Could they afford a stronger military?
source: CIA World Factbook 2007 (not unbroken quote, I picked the parts that are relevant)
GDP (purchasing power parity):
$680.5 billion (2006 est.)

GDP - real growth rate:
4.6% (2006 est.)

Unemployment rate:
3.9% (2006 est.)

Inflation rate (consumer prices):
1% (2006 est.)

Current account balance:
$9.7 billion (2006 est.)

revenues: $67.33 billion
expenditures: $77.93 billion (2006 est.)

Reserves of foreign exchange and gold:
$280.6 billion (2006 est.)

Debt - external:
$93.06 billion (2006 est.)

Well, lot's of data, let's sort it out:

- Their economy is fine, no ongoing troubles with inflation or unemployment that could stress the government enough to distract from defence (the economy is increasingly dependant on factories relocated to Chinese mainland - but that trend could be reversed).

- Their budget would require higher taxes, especially if defence spending shall be raised.

- The state has some debt, but nothing very serious; the nation as a whole has lots of reserves and could ask for increased foreign deliveries based on foreign exchange/gold reserves and a so far clearly positive account balance.

- 2.85% of GDP defence spending equals something like $21 billion (PPP) by 2008 (and 2.2% are about $15 billion (PPP) in 2006), so it would be reasonable to believe that the nation could without serious troubles raise this by an additional 50% to about $30 billion (PPP) and sustain that level (plus increases proportional to economic growth. perhaps less, but there are obviously some reserves not tapped yet for their own defence. (PPP = purchasing power parity - see the quote, PPP makes figures more useful for the discussion)

The most cost-effective method to defend against an invasion is certainly a strong army with good artillery and battlefield air defence. Naval strike forces and even air forces are much less reliable and cost-effective means to secure a single large island against invasion.

This raises a question; if even Taiwan itself does not seem to believe that it's so much threatened by the PR China to motivate strong defence spendings, why does a distant power care so much about this "threat"?

It's quite the same with South Korea and Japan - South Korea has quite capable forces, but tried to cool down U.S. American diplomacy on North Korea all the time and doesn't seem to really believe in a threat to its sovereignty. Japan strengthens its "Self Defence Forces", but to a level that is still laughable in comparison to its economic power.

Maybe they execute a free rider strategy in regards to defence - but since all three regional friends of the USA have a very positive account balances towards the USA it would in this case be advisable for the USA to end this strategy - in its own interest.

My conclusion is that the (national?) security debates surrounding the PR China are overheated and not based on an objective danger so far. That danger might exist in the future, but the most affected countries - South Korea, Japan and Taiwan - should take the lead and define their needs for foreign assistance beyond their capabilities, not think tanks and military bureaucracies in North America or even Europe.

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