Interview: NIEN-DZU YANG
Deputy Minister for Defense - Policy, Taiwan
Interviewed by Wendell Minnick, Taipei
Nien-Dzu “Andrew” Yang’s appointment as the policy coordinator for Taiwan’s military comes during a time of great change. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is struggling to implement an all-volunteer force, initiate streamlining and modernization, cope with a reduced defense budget and an increased threat from China’s military, and procure new arms long held up in Washington by political impediments.
Taiwan has requested new arms from the United States, including F-16s, diesel-electric submarines, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and more Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 surface-to-air missile systems. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has threatened military force despite improved cross-Strait relations. Beijing continues to aim 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles at the self-ruled island of 23 million people.
Yang has served as secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies and as an adviser to the Mainland Affairs Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the MND.
Q. What is your role at MND, and what initiatives do you want to implement?
A. When I stepped into the office, major changes were already under way in accordance with the Quadrennial Defense Review and the biennial MND Defense Report published in 2009. So all the policies and plans to conduct the necessary defense transformation were already in place. My job is to assist the minister and my colleagues to implement the necessary policies in introducing force restructuring, the all-volunteer system, calculating budgets, formulating joint warfare capability and training.
Q. What’s the plan? China is so much bigger than Taiwan militarily.
A. We are very much supporting, in line with President Ma [Yingjeou]’s ideas, the construction of a small, strong and superb armed forces for the Republic of China [ROC, or Taiwan]. We have come up with a consensus that we cannot conduct an arms competition with the PRC, given the fact the PRC’s military capability has gradually been enhanced over the past two decades. They have doubledigit defense budget allocations, and obviously the balance of power has tipped toward them.
They are still a great threat to Taiwan, including the fact there are 1,400 missiles deployed against Taiwan.
Therefore, we are small and they are big; they are strong and we are not in a position to conduct an attrition campaign with Beijing during a war. Our military objective is to deter and defeat enemy attacks while they are crossing the Taiwan Strait, and to prevent amphibious landings on Taiwan. That is our primary objective for our national defense.
Q. There was a lot of talk of a new “porcupine strategy” last year. Is that a serious consideration?
A. In a way, President Ma has already emphasized the “hard ROC” defense, meaning that it will be difficult for the enemy to chew up, to swallow and to crush Taiwan. It means nobody, including China, will have the capability of stepping over and putting their foot on the island with the intention of occupying it. So that is the foundation for our defense strategy and military planning.
There is a wide range of consensus among citizens and officers that we cannot ignore our self-defense. The primary task of our armed forces is to build a strong defense so the government can conduct necessary steps to achieve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait area. A strong defense is the pillar to support peaceful engagement with Beijing currently being undertaken by the government.
Q. Has there been a tip in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait? What is the status of the F-16 request, and will you retire the Mirage 2000 fighters?
A. It’s already tipped over. So we are building both our air defense and putting necessary efforts to maintain air superiority by replacing aging fighter aircraft.
That’s the reason we are going forward with the procurement request for new F-16C/Ds. The current F-16A/B fleet is already beginning to weaken in terms of capability in avionics, and the body structure is facing problems.
We have no other choice. We have a need for a better and more capable fighter jet, such as the F-35, but the U.S. will not provide it under the current policy. So we have to compromise with a request for F-16C/Ds, which will certainly compensate our disadvantages in air power with China.
We are not giving up on the Mirage fleet. It is very much the backbone of our interception.
An upgrade for the F-16A/B has already been put forward to the U.S. We are requesting F-16C/Ds, and at the same time, we are asking for the upgrade for the A/Bs.
The Indigenous Defense Fighter also needs upgrades in avionics, missile control system and onboard computer.
Q. What are the implications of a U.S. denial for new F-16s?
A. It would create gaps in our air defense. We have also put in a request for new Patriot PAC-3 systems for our air defense, and we are upgrading our PAC-2 systems.
The gap is not big, but if we cannot procure new F-16s or upgrade our current fighters, the gap will widen. It will create a further imbalance across the Taiwan Strait, and it encourages Beijing to think that if Taiwan lacks air superiority, it will be less of a problem to conduct an amphibious landing.
So maintaining air superiority will tell Beijing not to think about an amphibious option. We hope the U.S. Congress, the U.S. government and the Pentagon will see that.
Q. Has the MND re-evaluated the process on how it selects new arms?
A. The MND has conducted a more scientific, objective analysis and discussion about enhancing our joint war-fighting capability, which was very positive.
The process will be based on three factors: first, developing a joint warfare capability; second, emphasizing cost effectiveness; and third, developing requirements for acquisitions of future equipment. These are the three principles that we have come up with in consensus with the Pentagon to calculate and analyze requirements in the future.
We are in the process of formulating priorities for acquisition in the near future. It will be more convenient and more constructive in terms of discussing our needs with the U.S. and allow the U.S. to assist us in getting those weapon systems more efficiently.
Q. Should the United States be concerned about closer China-Taiwan ties?
A. The positive or proactive engagement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has little to do with the Taiwan-U.S. security relationship.
First, the Pentagon and the White House fully understand the importance of fulfilling the commitment articulated by the Taiwan Relations Act.
Second, maintaining Taiwan’s ability to defend itself is conducive to U.S. national interests in this region.
Three, there is a long history of cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. in terms of discussing necessary defense and security ties to preserve U.S interests and our interests in the region.
I don’t think the U.S. will misunderstand the requirements and the need to maintain a strong defense relationship with Taiwan. In a way, they encourage the process to build peace, and our objective is also building peace and stability in the region. However, we want to create peace through strength because Beijing continues to threaten Taiwan with the use of military force.
Q. What about confidence-building measures (CBM) between China and Taiwan?
A. Not in the foreseeable future. We are still focusing on continued consolidation of a strong and meaningful win-win economic condition for both sides. Unless we create sufficient political trust, it would be difficult to conduct military CBMs. That is why Beijing is pushing for some kind of peace agreement dialogue with the government. That is more important to them than CBMs at this point.
Q. How will the military manage a major restructuring and streamlining of new arms buys under an increasingly tight defense budget?
A. We are also in the beginning of implementing an all-volunteer force, which will start in 2011 and will take at least four years.
We are not abandoning conscription at the moment, but are targeting an all-volunteer force by 2015. It’s not a fixed target date, because it was based on the budget allocation announced by the Legislative Yuan in 2007, which was based on 3 percent of gross domestic product and a total budget of $10.5 billion. But the Legislative Yuan only gave us $9.9 billion last year and $9.2 billion this year. It might affect the timetable of implementing an allvolunteer force, acquisition and maintenance.
Q. In 2001, Washington promised Taiwan eight diesel submarines. What is the status of that offer?
A. The U.S. has given a green light for a thorough study of Taiwan’s submarine requirement. They have agreed to release the congressional notification for phase one [phase two is the build stage].
They agreed that the request for submarines is a meaningful request. So they are going to conduct a feasibility study on how to acquire it. How many submarines are adequate for our Navy, or how to get them, and what types of submarines is not clear yet.
Q. What message do you want to send to Washington?
A. We need to maintain close constructive contacts and cooperation. We want to continue this process, which will greatly benefit relations on both sides, and we learn a great deal not only in terms of acquisition, but in terms of training. I think training is more important for us. We are in the critical stage of developing and creating our joint warfare capability. I think we have a lot to learn from the U.S. and certainly encourage more opportunities to be available for us to receive the necessary training.