Andrew Yang is vice minister of defense, policy, for Taiwan. (Wendell Minnick / Defense News)
After three years of struggle, Nien-Dzu “Andrew” Yang’s appointment as the policy coordinator for Taiwan’s military continues to offer both old and new challenges. 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.
Since Yang came to office, the U.S. has released billions of dollars worth of new arms, including Apache attack helicopters, Black Hawk utility helicopters, P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defense batteries and F-16A/B fighter jet upgrades. What has been missing from the list, which gives the MND headaches, is a request for new F-16C/Ds and diesel attack submarines.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has threatened military force despite improved cross-strait relations. Beijing continues to aim 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles at the self-ruled island of 23 million people.
After President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, his official goal for the defense budget was 3 percent of GDP. Despite the promise, Ma cut Taiwan’s defense budgets in relation to GDP in 2009, 2010 and 2011, before providing an increase in 2012, but even then it was only 2.2 percent of GDP and would drop slightly as a share of the total government budget.
Further, higher costs for the transition from conscription to an all-volunteer military would account for 49 percent of the defense budget, reducing the portions for operations and maintenance to 22 percent and new procurements to 27 percent.
Q. You met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Oct. 2 in Washington. Did you come out of that meeting happy with the results?
A. Very happy. We had a very candid and constructive discussion. We discussed a wide range of issues regarding Taiwan and U.S. defense ties in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. He emphasized that Taiwan was very much on the U.S. radar screen. When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave the address at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, he also mentioned Taiwan regarding the U.S. pivot towards Asia, the rebalance, so Taiwan is still part of the U.S. Western Pacific strategy.
Q. Despite U.S. reassurance, Taiwan still does not seem to figure prominently in the U.S. rebalance in Asia. Since the U.S. announced the new pivot policy, how has the U.S. improved defense ties with Taiwan?
A. We have a wide range of cooperation in the past couple of years. Of course, we have continuous discussions on strategic relations between our two countries. We also discuss joint operations and have a lot of discussions on how to help us develop new doctrines reinforcing our self-defense as a result of continuous modernization. And we also have discussions on joint logistics support and training, as well.
I think the United States is putting a lot of effort into how to improve defense ties between Taipei and Washington. And, of course, we are continuously discussing how to help Taiwan develop so-called asymmetrical advanced capabilities, which is certainly very important for our self-defense and preventing war in this region in the course of conducting rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait.
So, the United States, as Kurt Campbell [U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs] repeatedly emphasized, believes a strong self-defense is a very important pillar to support the peaceful process across the Taiwan Strait.
Q. With U.S. allies in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, there are guarantees of U.S. military assistance, such as mutual defense pacts, but with Taiwan, the U.S. emphasis is self-defense.
A. You are right. After 1979, when the U.S. and Taiwan ceased diplomatic ties, it also put an end to the defense treaty between the two countries. However, U.S. support and assistance to Taiwan to conduct continuous modernization for its self-defense is very much in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. If you look into the act, it emphasizes that Taiwan is very important for the security of the Western Pacific, and the U.S. fully supports Taiwan receiving sufficient defense articles, assistance and services.
Q. Though the U.S. did approve an upgrade package for Taiwan’s older F-16A/B fighters last year, the U.S. has denied Taiwan’s request for new F-16C/Ds since 2006, and since 2001 has not lived up to its promise to provide Taiwan diesel submarin
A. But you know last year, if you look at U.S. congressional approval of the F-16A/B upgrade, it is certainly a very important window of opportunity to discuss further needs for advanced jet fighters in the future, and submarines are still very much on the table. We are still putting submarines as our priority in our defense acquisition. And we are continuously urging the U.S. to look into this issue and to help us get our submarine replacements.
Q. Is there a concern that the U.S. is unintentionally pushing Taiwan into China’s arms by ignoring its defense needs in an effort to placate China? Is there a fear in Taipei that Washington will abandon Taiwan?
A. I don’t think so. I heard some of these comments during my visit to Washington, but from the U.S. government’s point of view, they are very much interested in improving ties with Taiwan. But as far as I can see, I don’t think the United States is unintentionally pushing Taipei towards Beijing.
Q. What would happen to U.S. strategic interests in East Asia if Taiwan and China unified or drew strategically closer due to some unforeseen Shakespearean tragedy?
A. It would be pretty bad not only for the U.S., but also unstable for the region because the U.S. would lose the trust of its Asian partners. Everybody in Asia, including allies, is looking at the United States. Is the U.S. still putting an emphasis in Asia or not? China is getting stronger and expanding its influence. So I think part of the rebalancing is reassuring allies and partners in Asia that the U.S. will continue to be present. Secretary Carter also emphasized the United States has been in the region for 70 years and is still putting emphasis on U.S. interests in Asia.
Q. Recent disputes with Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands have rattled some cages in both Tokyo and Washington. Also, do China and Taiwan share a common policy goal in its territorial claims?
A. No. We both deal with Diaoyutai with a separate effort. Beijing’s doing its own way and we are conducting our own initiative. [Taiwan] President Ma Ying-jeou issued the East China Sea Peace Initiative as a viable means of resolving disagreements over the Diaoyutai Archipelago in early August, and look what happened. I think it’s a very good offer to resolve disputes peacefully. I think there are only two objectives for Taipei. One is to emphasize our sovereign rights, and second [is] to protect our fishing activities within the vicinity of the Diaoyutai region.
Q. What are Taiwan’s future defense requirements? What kind of arms does it need?
A. We need upgrades, modernization, system integration and C4ISR. We need help coping with our development of asymmetrical capabilities. We are developing UAV capabilities for ISR.
Q. Can you tell us about the Hsiung Feng 2E land attack cruise missile program? Is China and the U.S. pressuring Taiwan to cancel the program?
A. Not to my knowledge. The U.S. is concerned about the development. They are encouraging [China and Taiwan] to discuss the problem.
Q. Does Taiwan have an interest in the F-35?
A. Well, the Air Force is always assessing its requirements. The F-35 is a candidate.
Q. Taiwan is scheduled to move from conscription to an all-volunteer military. How is that going?
A. With a lot of challenges. Fortunately, we have received funding from the Legislative Yuan [Branch] as well as the Executive Yuan. We are still continuously resolving some of the problems. We will begin recruitment in January. We are targeting by the end of 2015 to have an all-volunteer military.
Q. Since 2007, you have procured around $18 billion in U.S. arms. Apaches, PAC-3s, P-3Cs, etc. Much of it will be begin delivery this coming year. How stretched is the budget?
A. The next couple years will be the high time for our payments for the acquisitions. We have already made aware to the Executive Yuan to provide us with sufficient money to make the payments.
Q. There is going to be a reduction in force level. What are the current numbers?
A. The current number is 210,000, and by 2015 it will be reduced to 190,000, with no further plans for reduction after that.
Q. What keeps you up at night? What worries you?
A. I think nowadays we are not worried about an imminent armed conflict. The chances of military conflict are slim. However, the unconventional security threats such as earthquakes or natural disasters are our major concern right now. We are allocating 15 Black Hawks to the Ministry of Interior.
Q. What concerns you about China’s military modernization?
A. It’s still their missile program. They still have a sizable missile force stationed across the strait, and they are improving their accuracy. Even when we have peaceful cross-strait relations, [as we do] right now, Beijing is still holding a big stick. So we have to be on alert.
Q. Are you concerned about China’s development of aircraft carriers?
A. Yes. This is a departure from traditional PLA naval thinking. They are gradually learning and adopting new naval strategy and tactics.