Taiwan needs to show commitment to its own defense if it is to secure military support from countries like the U.S., according to the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who served under the Trump administration. This “requires doing things that require sacrifice,” he said.
Speaking in a joint interview with Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), hosted by TVBS Meeting Room, Esper explained that “sacrifice” referred to young people serving in the military and increasing defense spending. He said that these “bold political decisions” had already been taken using “great political courage” by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), but he added that “more can always be done.”
Esper and Wu were asked about the pledge by Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), the presidential candidate of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), to reduce military service to four months as long as he was sure there was stability and peace in the Taiwan Strait. Both speakers agreed that U.S. support would be contingent on the strength of the perceived commitment of Taiwan to defend itself.
Wu, who is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is a political rival of the KMT, commented that “if Taiwan is not willing to make any sacrifice … we are not entitled to ask any country to sacrifice for Taiwan.” He added that: “I have friends in the [U.S.] defense department — or who used to serve in the defense department — and they told me in a very frank way: ‘we can’t help you more than you want to help yourself.’”
Esper echoed this sentiment, saying that shortened conscription would send the wrong message to the U.S. He added that the extent of the U.S.’s commitment to Ukraine was based on the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the “willingness of Ukrainians to pick up arms and fight for their country.” Esper also expressed his approval of Finland’s military service, noting that “80% of young men serve [and] attend military drills each year” within the small country which joined Nato this year.
Challenged as to whether policy decisions such as increasing conscription length and defense spending — as well as Taiwan having closer ties to countries like the U.S. and Japan — could provoke China, Esper said he thought the opposite was the case. Strong deterrence, including building strong relationships with countries like the U.S. and Japan, would position Taiwan better in cross-strait relations, he suggested.
Wu said Taiwan’s current policy had two basic elements: Emphasizing the maintenance of the political “status quo” to prevent China from “having any excuse” to act militarily, and preventing China from launching a war through creating strong defense capabilities. The latter included more investment in defense, transforming to an asymmetric defense strategy, training soldiers for these new capabilities, and buying more weapons for self defense.
Later on, Wu pointedly added that “If we accept what Beijing has been saying to Taiwan [regarding what it should not be allowed to do], I think Taiwan might as well surrender.”
Both speakers also maintained that it was China who had done most to change the “status quo” on the Taiwan Strait.
Esper spoke about why he previously advocated for the U.S. to review its One China policy and strategic ambiguity around the Taiwan issue. He said that he did this because the balance of power between Taiwan and China had “become very lopsided,” with Beijing now having a much larger military force, compared to what it had when the Taiwan Relations Act came into force in 1979.
“Just look at the provocative actions of Beijing over the past 40 years,” Esper said, before highlighting Chinese military activities last week as an example. “Dozens of crossings of the median line by Chinese military aircraft, over a dozen ships off of Taiwanese waters. That didn’t happen forty years ago. That didn’t happen thirty years ago. It didn’t happen twenty or ten years ago. But now it is the status quo because Beijing has changed it and is being provocative.”
Esper also defended former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, saying it had not altered the status quo because former House Speaker Newt Gingritch had also previously visited Taiwan in 1997. Wu added to that by saying that “anyone who wants to come and show support to Taiwan will be welcome.”
Looking to the future, Wu noted that Taiwan’s relations with other democracies were improving “tremendously”. Esper, meanwhile, said he would not support former U.S. President Donald Trump in a second presidential bid, having worked for his first administration.
“I don’t think Donald Trump is fit to be president for any number of reasons,” Esper said. “First of all, I think he puts himself first and I think any leader … has to put the people first. [In the case of Taiwan and China], I don’t think Donald Trump values partnerships as much as… traditional republicans… [Former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan believed strongly in allies and partners and defending democratic and human rights. That’s not where Donald Trump comes from. My concern would be in a second administration, after learning lessons in the first go, he would ultimately work to pull [the U.S.] out of Nato. Pull our forces out of [South] Korea and Japan and maybe weaken the relationship with Taiwan. All bad for Taiwan, but also for U.S. national security and international security writ large.”