A former diplomat previously in charge of the U.S. government’s substantive relations with Taiwan has set out four key choices for Taiwan’s future governance.
Speaking at a forum in Taipei on Wednesday, Richard Bush, former chairman and managing director of American Institute in Taiwan, said Taiwan’s government budget, public health, energy security and conscription were the four areas where the stakes are now too high to tolerate “gridlock,” “muddling through” or “serious policy mistakes.”
Bush noted that Taiwan’s defense spending as a percentage of the overall budget has remained constant while China’s military strength has grown substantially. He said competing interest groups have contributed to stagnation across most key government spending spending areas between 2012 and 2021, and for military spending this issue was compounded by the fact the Ministry of National Defense has lacked a “domestic political constituency” that advocates for it in political debate.
Bush’s preferred solution to raise Taiwan’s defense budget was tax increases, which he also prescribed for the country’s public health issue of elderly care. In that case, as shortages of doctors and nurses are growing, demographic aging is creating additional pressure on health services through the growth in non-communicable diseases such as cancer and dementia.
“Taiwan is a wealthy country that probably has room to increase tax revenues to free up resources for spending,” Bush said.
Moving to energy security, Bush noted again that conflicting priorities had caused gridlock. He suggested President Tsai Ing-wen’s approach of moving away from nuclear power while increasing use of natural gas and renewables was logical, but problems had emerged in implementing it. These include the conflict between conservation groups and projects building both renewable energy infrastructure and new gas receiving stations.
“Political forces can block what they oppose but complicate the effort to formulate a solution that is ‘good enough’ for all concerned,” Bush said, before concluding: “The net result may be that coal and oil will continue to occupy a significant share of the energy mix.”
Finally, on conscription, Bush agreed with Taiwan’s recent decision to extend compulsory military service to one year, but suggested better training was needed to enhance deterrence of a possible attack by China, alongside increases in the defense budget and purchases of weapons from the U.S. “Even assuming the United States intervened, it would probably take over a month for the U.S. armed forces to arrive in strength in the Taiwan area,” he said.
On the specifics of what better training would mean, he said reserve troops should be trained to fight “on the front lines,” rather than the current plan which would see them assigned to territorial and infrastructure defense.
Outlining his view of how some of these potentially unpopular policy decisions might be taken, Bush concluded that his “bias” was toward representative democracy taking precedence over forms of direct democracy, as the clash between these two has been a key contributor to gridlock.
Within that paradigm, Bush set out several principles that leading political parties in Taiwan might then agree on as a basis for making “tough choices” together.
These included agreeing on “the acceptable degree of Taiwan’s dependence on the [Chinese] Mainland economy” and making clear that Taiwan “will not engage in political talks [with China] as long as they are based, explicitly or implicitly, on Beijing’s ‘one country, two systems’ formula.”
They also included developing a “cross-party approach to cross-Strait political relations” that conveys “credible reassurances about Taiwan’s future course” — which he suggested could include the ruling Democratic Progressive Party suspending the independence clause of its party charter.
Bush was clear that he did not believe war between Taiwan and China was likely in the near term, but he worried that trends in relations between the U.S. and China could escalate. On top of the chances of an accidental clash of naval ships or fighter jets, he said U.S. politicians have been “overreaching” in their desire to support Taiwan, which may “provoke Beijing into taking retaliatory action,” and that “broad, bipartisan, anti-China consensus in the United States” alongside “rising nationalism in China” were also causes for worry.
Bush was speaking at “Difficult Choices: Building Taiwan’s Resilience for an Uncertain Future,” a forum hosted by The Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation (CAPRI) on Wednesday, March 22. Bush, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, met with Tsai on Monday and “exchanged views on regional developments and economic issues,” according to the president’s office.