WASHINGTON – With Beijing growing in strength, a U.S. scholar is calling for a major rethink on Taiwan in which the island cuts its troop numbers in half and rebrands its army as a self-defense force.
The proposal marks a rare break from the conventional view of American and Taiwanese policymakers that the island needs to close the military gap with Beijing, but its author said an opposite course could strengthen Taipei.
Scott Bates, president of the Washington-based Center for National Policy, said that the balance is “irretrievably shifting” in China’s favor and that it is politically and economically unrealistic to think Taiwan will commit enough to close the gap.
Instead, Taipei can take the lead by halving the size of its army, rebranding it as a self-defense force like Japan’s and renouncing any military action on mainland China’s soil, he argued.
“If Taiwan were to take a bold step like this, that would change perceptions on the mainland and perhaps win some popular support for the Taiwanese position,” the former congressional aide said.
“If there were a showdown, it might make (Beijing) think twice.”
Taiwan should turn the new force into a disaster response team ready to deploy throughout Asia, and also highlight the island’s democracy through a major initiative that supports civil society across the continent, Bates said.
And instead of waging a battle to preserve a dwindling number of nations’ recognition of Taipei instead of Beijing, Taiwan can use its diplomatic resources to seek solutions to Asia’s bitter territorial disputes, he said.
The new Taiwanese approach would give the island the moral high ground, win over global opinion and ensure that China will appear as the aggressor if it attacked, he argued.
“Mainland Chinese public opinion is beginning to matter more. The Chinese Communist Party cannot ignore its own people without repercussions,” Bates said.
China considers Taiwan to be a territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. China’s defeated nationalists fled to Taiwan after defeat by the communists in 1949, with the island developing into a self-ruling democracy.
The United States switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but at the same time had Congress pass the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires Washington to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
Bates said that his proposal will complement efforts by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has sought to ease tensions with China by expanding economic ties, though domestic critics accuse Ma of jeopardizing the island’s de facto independence.
Bates supported the continuation of the Taiwan Relations Act, saying the island needs a credible deterrent. While cutting its army, Bates called for Taiwan to launch a major upgrade of its air defenses and navy to show that any effort to gain supremacy over the island will be costly.
The Taiwan Relations Act enjoys virtually unanimous support in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers have pressed President Barack Obama to sell to the island new F-16 jets — a step that China strongly opposes.
Bates’ ideas, however, are unlikely to win quick support.
Joseph Bosco, a former Pentagon official, sharply criticized the proposal, saying it goes against accepted concepts of deterrence and that Taiwan already has the moral high ground.
Bates, who spoke last year at Taiwan’s National Defense University and wrote an opinion piece in the Taipei Times, said he wants to start a debate.
“It doesn’t have to be my plan, but there does have to be a strategic rethink,” he said.