What Are Taiwan’s Presidential Candidates Saying About Defense?

In the shadow of China, Taiwanese voters face a consequential choice.
December 18, 2023

Taiwan, which has been described as the most dangerous place on earth, holds a presidential election next month that is receiving worldwide attention. Facing the threat of invasion by a superior Chinese military, the island needs a more robust defense that can deter and, if needed, hold out against a Chinese attack until American forces can decisively enter the fray. In response to this growing threat and the priority that the United States has attached to strengthening deterrence, Taiwan’s three presidential candidates have each made defense policy an important part of their campaigns. US and Taiwanese officials have publicly stated that an invasion is neither imminent nor inevitable, but Beijing’s increased assertiveness makes Taiwan’s defense policy choices over the next president’s four-year term consequential for its relations with the United States and for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Here are the approaches Taiwan’s presidential candidates say they would take on defense policy:

Lai Ching-te and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)

Once an outspoken self-described “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”, current Vice President and DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te has since moderated his tone to promote his image as a responsible leader adept at managing cross-strait ties. In laying out his plan for dealing with Beijing, Lai listed in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece enhanced deterrence as the first of four pillars that build on President Tsai Ing-wen’s policies, including her Four Commitments regarding cross-strait relations.

Within the deterrence pillar, Lai touts the Tsai government’s achievements in increasing the defense budget from 2% of GDP in 2017 to roughly 2.5% in 2023, reforming the reserve system, and extending military conscription from four months to one year. Despite that push to increase the conscription period for males, Lai has publicly stated that there are no plans to draft women

Under Tsai, Taiwan has attempted to better prepare its armed forces for conflict through more realistic and intensive training. This includes longer instruction, including on more weapon systems for conscripted soldiers. Lai intends to continue to make training more substantive and fulfilling by limiting menial or less militarily important tasks such as weeding and bayonet practice. Regarding the role that conscripts would play in a war with China, he stated that professional troops would see the bulk of the fighting and that conscripts would not serve “directly on the front line on land, at sea, or in the air”. Lai has been criticized for being intentionally misleading or misinformed, as conscripts would still likely see action defending beaches and important infrastructure. 

Lai also says that he would “expedite our transition into an asymmetric fighting force, focusing on cost-effective and mobile capabilities”. This is another continuation of Tsai’s policy, which prioritizes acquiring and training on cheaper, distributed weapons systems, including drones and naval mines, that would raise the cost of attacking Taiwan. But Lai says little about specific steps he would take to “expedite” the transition to an asymmetric force.

If elected, Lai would seek to build on the international security cooperation that Tsai developed, including joint training, defense production, and intelligence sharing. More of Taiwan’s troops have traveled in recent years to the United States to train, including two combined arms battalions in 2023. This has expanded training in the United States to a level not seen since the 1970s. At the same time, more U.S. military personnel, about 2,000 to 3,000, instruct Taiwan’s forces annually, with about 200 of them on the island at any given time. Lai also stresses the importance of developing “comprehensive” cooperation with Japan to address mutual security concerns about China. He believes war is least likely under his leadership than that of his competitors because his defense policy relies on strength and standing with democratic partners rather than on China’s goodwill. 

Lai places a strong emphasis on Taiwan’s role as a maritime nation, highlighting that the island is the meeting point between the “Eurasian continent and oceanic civilization”. He recognizes Taiwan’s economic reliance on the sea by highlighting the importance of freedom of navigation and improving maritime awareness as part of a broader Indo-Pacific strategy that seeks to ensure the region remains free and open. Lai proposes international cooperation on maritime patrols with partner countries and neighbors, using big data, and establishing a consultation mechanism to deal with a broad spectrum of maritime security and safety concerns.

Hou Yu-ih and the Kuomintang (KMT)

The candidate from Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the current mayor of New Taipei City and former leader of Taiwan’s national police force, Hou Yu-ih paints the 2024 election as a choice between war and peace. He outlined in September in Foreign Affairs a “3D” strategy on cross-strait relations, according to which the first “D” is deterrence. In this regard, Hou focuses on enhancing self-defense capabilities to avert an attack from China. The latter two “Ds” refer to dialogue and de-escalation. 

Hou says that the threat of a Chinese invasion is real and that “Taiwan’s most important priority should be to strengthen its national defense” to deter its larger neighbor. Given the disparity in resources between the two, Hou believes Taiwan must develop improved asymmetric capabilities and an early warning system capable of better handling Chinese gray-zone operations. He promises to establish an “All-Out Defense Mobilization Council” to implement defense mobilization policy across the government. Hou also pledges to maintain military expenditure at 2.5% of GDP and perhaps slowly grow spending to 3% or more.

Hou expanded his 3D strategy with the December 11 release of his defense policy positions in which he calls for “strengthening national defense and deterring war” by building a military that is “elite, battle-ready, and flexible”. As part of this effort, he promises within 10 months of taking office a national security strategy that would solidify his 3D strategy. In addition, he vows to raise salaries for military personnel and improve housing and living conditions. He also commits to improving military training and education, including exchanges with the United States, to enhance Taiwan’s ability to conduct modern joint warfare. Hou wants to assist domestic manufacturers with playing a greater role in the US military-industrial supply chain.

As part of his plan, Hou highlights 10 areas in which Taiwan could strengthen its military to deter China. This effort includes developing a “complete joint-force picture and significantly enhancing beyond-visual-range combat capabilities” while creating a wartime target intelligence-sharing mechanism with allies to improve air and maritime interception capabilities. Hou favors employing less manpower-intensive platforms and improving force protection and urban warfare capabilities, including through specialized urban combat units. Taiwan would also improve its ability to launch “joint suppression operations” aimed at striking military targets in China. At the same time, Hou promotes efforts to develop “mobile, stealthy, intelligent, small, and numerous” asymmetric forces, including improved aerial drone and counter-drone capabilities, and the continued production of submarines to further “underwater asymmetric capabilities”. Despite Hou’s commitment to continuing submarine production, his running mate, Jaw Shaw-kung, previously threatened to investigate the retired admiral in charge of Taiwan’s submarine manufacturing program due to high costs and the vessels’ questionable capabilities.

Regarding military conscription, Hou has been criticized for inconsistencies. In July, he promised a return to four months of mandatory military service before backpedaling the next day, which prompted queries for clarification from WashingtonExplaining his stance, Hou insisted that he does not oppose lengthening conscription to one year and that cross-strait peace would be prerequisite for a return to four months of service. 

Unconfirmed Taiwan media reports indicate that Jaw agreed to join the ticket in exchange for shortening conscription to four months. Since doing so, however, he publicly stated that conscription could return to four months upon the restoration of cross-strait peace. He defined this peace as no Chinese aircraft crossing the median line, no Chinese ships circumnavigating Taiwan, the deployment of fewer missiles and troops near Taiwan, and an agreement for Taiwanese observers to monitor Chinese military movements.

Ko Wen-je and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)

Describing his party as the middle ground, TPP presidential candidate and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je criticizes the DPP for “seeking war” and the KMT for “fearing war”. Ko differentiates himself and his party from his opponents by presenting his defense policy with a slogan, “Prepare for war without fearing it, be capable of combat without pursuing it.”

As part of his defense policy published on the TPP’s website, Ko acknowledges that Taiwan faces a range of internal and external threats, including “total war”, nontraditional security challenges, and personnel shortages. The TPP’s vision of national defense encompasses a military that is resilient, trustworthy, cooperative, and adaptable. To achieve these four goals, the party proposes reforms in six areas: “combat readiness, specialization, rationalization, transparency, informatization, and scientific modernization”. Through improved, realistic training for conscripts and reservists, the TPP seeks to defend Taiwan with a particular emphasis on operating in the “information warfare” domain. 

Ko has frequently gone into greater detail about his plans for defending Taiwan when speaking in public. Describing his approach to national defense, he stated in September that “the priority should be cybersecurity, air force, navy, and then army, in that order.” Levels of funding would follow that order. Ko calls for creating a “cyber army”modeled on the Israeli military’s cyber units. With this cyber force, Ko boasted that Taiwan could send a warning by, for example, paralyzing China’s high-speed rail system or its ATMs.

Ko maintains that 12 months of conscription is insufficient and argues that more than one year is needed to train cyber, air force, and navy personnel to be proficient in the high-technology warfare the he views as paramount to Taiwan’s defense. However, Ko still believes that training enough conscripts to meet defense demands will be difficult and, therefore, the focus should be on attracting volunteers.

Ko views a credible deterrent that raises the cost of a Chinese invasion as the foundation of future dialogue with Beijing. To achieve this, he calls for raising the defense budget to 3% of GDP while avoiding wasteful spending and reducing the use of special budgets to fund big-ticket items. He advocates creating comprehensive defense budgets that legislators oversee. Taiwanese Premier Chen Chien-jen has accused Ko of spreading lies because special budgets are already subject to scrutiny by legislators, including those from the TPP.

Ko also sees benefits in spending more on domestically produced arms, which can spur the defense industry and overall economic growth. Ko does not reject asymmetric defense but believes that platforms such as fighter jets and submarines have a psychological and political use that must be weighed alongside their “substantive” contributions to defense.

Ko believes that China is learning from the Russian war in Ukraine and that Beijing will be more cautious about invading since failure would end Communist Party control. However, Beijing will be more violent if it chooses to fight. He notes that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would begin in cyberspace, followed by missile attacks. China would then establish control over the air and sea before launching a ground invasion. Ko believes Taiwan cannot rely on US military support and cites as a reason the lack of direct American military involvement in Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Instead, he warns, the Taiwanese must “save their country themselves”. 

Still, Ko asserts that cross-strait deterrence holds for now and that, “in theory, the Taiwan Strait should not have a war.” However, he expresses concern about a misunderstanding that could lead to a broader conflict similar to World War I. To avoid such a scenario, Ko calls for Taiwan to lower the risk of war through dialogue.

A Consequential Choice

Mounting concern about possible Chinese use of force against Taiwan later this decade—via a blockade, seizure of a small island, or even an invasion—makes defense a high priority for Taiwan. Bolstering Taiwan’s defense capabilities also tops Washington’s agenda for bilateral ties. All three Taiwanese presidential candidates, therefore, pay attention to defense and make sure to articulate their positions on it.

With the election weeks away, the Taiwanese people face an important choice on their government’s approach to safeguarding their autonomy and way of life. Defense policy is not the only issue on the ballot, but the real threat of a Chinese attack makes it a crucial one. Taiwan’s defense preparations today will have implications for security across the Indo-Pacific for years to come.

Brian Gray is earning his master’s degree in international relations at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).