Taiwan’s cabinet reshuffle a response to China’s ‘unrestricted warfare’
12 Mar 2021|

Last month, Taiwan’s government announced several personnel changes in leadership positions in its defence and security team, including the key posts of defence minister and National Security Bureau director.

While at least one of these changes had been months in the making, the fact that several occurred concurrently, and were announced just after the Chinese New Year break, has prompted conjecture that certain recent developments have prompted a shift in the island’s strategic thinking.

Many suspect that the changes were in response to the election of Joe Biden as US president, who some Taiwanese politicians believe won’t be as staunch in his support of Taipei as President Donald Trump was. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some opposition politicians have strengthened their calls for the independence-leaning government of President Tsai Ing-wen, which has thus far adopted a hardline position towards the mainland, to now adopt a more conciliatory stance towards Beijing.

But that’s just one way to look at it. An alternative theory is that the reshuffle reflects the administration’s attempts to confront the growing challenges posed by China’s model of ‘unrestricted warfare’, which replaces a narrow focus on kinetic warfare with a wider array of options, including ‘grey zone’ tactics, lawfare, political warfare and economic leverage.

To understand why this may be the case, it’s useful to examine the personnel changes in more detail.

First, the selection of Chiu Kuo-cheng as the new defence minister represents an anomaly. Prior to assuming this role, Chiu was serving as the director of the National Security Bureau. Given the breadth of his expertise and contacts in the intelligence community, local analysts assume Chiu will set a new precedent for the role of defence minister by concomitantly managing defence affairs and coordinating with NSB sources to exercise direct oversight of the Military Intelligence Bureau.

Until now, these roles had been strictly segregated. The reason for this was a longstanding fear that a minister with direct access to both defence and national security intelligence resources would effectively have monopoly control over all the intelligence resources that reach the president. Presidents on both sides of the political divide have preferred to have the freedom to draw on a wide variety of sources and viewpoints, which places them in a better position to exercise executive discretion.

Why, then, was Chiu chosen? A plausible reason is that China’s ‘unrestricted warfare’ model has confounded the conventional dichotomy between kinetic and information warfare. And if grey-zone activity, rather than outright invasion, is China’s preferred approach to achieving ‘reunification’, Taiwan’s defence strategies, and not only its tactics, will need to be more immediately responsive to up-to-the-minute intelligence and analyses. Put another way, the defence of the island perhaps no longer entails simply determining the when and where of an invasion, but requires an evolving and dynamic understanding of what counts as warfare, and how it may be prosecuted.

For example, some Taiwanese analysts contend that the ever-growing frequency of People’s Liberation Army Air Force flyovers of Taiwanese airspace is aimed at weakening the island’s defences through attrition (for example, by forcing Taiwan’s smaller number of jets into maintenance or increasing the accident rate due to pilot fatigue). However, if Taiwan limited its responses to incursions to mitigate this problem—as reportedly recommended by US military figures—it could cede de facto control of patches of airspace to Beijing. That could be a precursor to an extension of the Chinese air defence identification zone deeper into the island’s territory, and possibly even lead to the PLAAF expelling Republic of China Air Force assets from their own airspace. This is but one example of how up-to-the-minute access to multiple intelligence sources could mitigate the risk of tactical victories morphing into strategic blunders.

A similar appraisal can be made of the ascension of Chen Ming-tong to the position of head of the NSB. Chen is an ‘old China hand’ who had shifted directly from a position of minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. This shift, when added to the fact that Chen doesn’t have a military or intelligence background, makes his selection highly unconventional.

Why, then, would someone like Chen be chosen? One explanation is that a recent challenge for the NSB has been not only finding threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty, but identifying and defining them. There are growing concerns over issues like media ownership, foreign investment, political lobbying, disinformation campaigns, and even unmanned drone use. Such is the anxiety at the new threats Beijing poses that Taipei has adopted firm measures some have criticised as draconian, including the five national security laws and the Anti-Infiltration Act.

The advantage of bringing a ‘China hand’ into a leadership position in the NSB under these circumstances is that, while he may know less about how to gather intelligence on threats, he will probably know more about how those who devise them think, and where such threats may be found.

These convention-defying changes could be viewed as part of the Tsai administration’s second, and perhaps more profound, wave of defence reforms. The first reform, the adoption of the overall defence concept, marked the shift to an asymmetric doctrine that belatedly acknowledged and adapted to the loss of the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. However, the core of that strategy still revolved around recognising the centrality of the ‘invasion scenario’ in defence thinking.

To the extent that the new personnel changes mark a response to China’s ‘unrestricted warfare’ model, they perhaps reflect a transformation from Taiwan’s defence brass preparing for the war they fear to adapting to the new types of warfare that are already being waged.

While it remains to be seen how these changes will pan out, the concept of realigning defence and intelligence to prioritise those threats and scenarios China prefers appears, in theory at least, to be the right approach for the tiny island to better marshal its limited resources. It should also offer food for thought for other nations in the region and Taiwan’s more distant middle-power allies.