Taiwan May Establish Mil-to-Mil Think Tank
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced plans on March 9 to create a “think tank” to study ways of improving military-to-military contacts, drawing fire from critics who said this would subvert the self-governing island’s autonomy.
The formation of the think tank is in the early stages and nothing has been finalized, said an MND source.
One former MND official said the organization will consider more than cross-Strait relations: “I believe the new military think tank will have broader missions beyond just China.”
That’s a good idea, said one analyst, who hailed the creation of a defense think tank to provide “independent advice [like the RAND Corp.] and have exchanges with other militaries,” including China. “I personally don’t see the value of setting up a think tank with the sole purpose of establishing contacts with China,” said Bonnie Glaser, with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Creating the think tank is part of the self-governing island’s effort to deal with its growing isolation in the international community. Taiwan government officials have been barred from many international academic, non-government (NGO) and government organizations, thanks to Chinese diplomatic and financial pressure.
“MND officials need other hats so that they can participate in international activities, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore every June, or execute ‘military diplomacy,’” said Arthur Ding, a cross-Strait military affairs expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations.
In early January, China sent an academic delegation sub rosa to Taiwan. Members of Beijing’s Institute of International Studies, Tsinghua University, met with Taiwan officials to discuss military issues. A source said the meetings discussed mil-to-mil exchanges and confidence-building measures.
“If allowed, MND or Taiwan prefers Track One [official government-to-government] meetings with relevant countries. In line with President Ma’s policy, our MND is serious about the think tank business, and as the media reported, Vice Minister Chang Liang-jen is directly in charge of this matter, and this is why he was transferred from MAC [Mainland Affairs Council] to MND,” Ding said.
But MND has a mixed record for running think tanks. The Institute for National Strategic Studies, run by the ministry’s National Defense University, was hamstrung by political interference and internecine warfare. It was shut down after MND Minister Li Jye took office in 2004 under the Chen Shui-bian administration.
Ding said the new think tank’s real challenges will begin after it is established. “For instance, it is a rather risky job to be the head of the new organization,” he said. “The head of this think tank has to answer legislative questions and respond to the Green [pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party] camp’s pressure, and if Ma [Ying-jeou, of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)] loses the re-election [in 2012], I am afraid the head is likely to be politically purged by the new DPP administration.”
Taiwan already has a few premier think tank and scholarly exchange organizations dealing with international relations and defense studies.
These include the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies (CAPS); Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies (ITDSS); Peace and Security Institute, Tatung University; Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University; and Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica.
There also is a dizzying number of U.S. academic and think tank analysts who visit Taiwan each year for conferences and meetings with Taiwan government officials.
“Taipei is the world’s capital of political overanalysis,” said former MND Vice Minister Lin Chong Pin.
The KMT swept to power in 2008, taking a legislative majority and seeing its candidate, Ma, unseat the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian as president.
The new administration quickly forged a dramatic shift in relations between Beijing and Taipei. Recently, both Chinese and Taiwanese officials have publicly promoted the idea of a peace agreement and confidencebuilding measures.
Some critics have accused the KMT of pushing Taiwan toward a “Finlandization” by China.
But others fear that the DPP could return to power in 2012, dismantle cross-Strait agreements and push for de jure independence — which could draw a Chinese military reaction.
The KMT is juggling closer relations with China while seeking to stay under the U.S. security umbrella and continue buying F-16 fighter jets and other U.S. arms.
But China, which holds $1.9 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, wields ever greater political and diplomatic influence in Washington.
A recent visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton showed evidence of greater economic interdependence. Clinton downplayed human rights in favor of better economic relations, and asked Beijing to buy more U.S. debt. Critics in Taiwan compared it to the Buddhist monks’ beggars bowls on the streets of Taipei.