TAIPEI - Taiwan intends to raise its military budget more than usual next year following an increase in perceived threats from its old rival China, which has the world’s third largest armed forces, and a nod from the United States to sell a major new round of F-16 fighter jets.
The military budget will reach $13.1 billion next year, a historic high and 2.3% of the GDP — a slight increase over this year — according to the central government budget passed on Thursday. The budget, subject to parliamentary approval, includes a 5.2% hike for national defense, Taiwan’s government-backed Central News Agency says.
The Defense Ministry will raise its spending next year particularly for “sustaining personnel” and making "military investments,” ministry spokesman Shih Hsun-wen said Sunday.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened use of force, if needed, to capture it. Most Taiwanese told a government survey in January they prefer autonomy over Chinese rule.
Beijing today operates the world’s third strongest armed forces, compared to Taiwan in 22nd place, according to the GlobalFirePower.com research database.
China has about 2.2 million people on active military duty, more than the headcount of 215,000 in Taiwan, GlobalFirePower.com says. The People's Liberation Army forces also operate 714 military vessels and 3,187 aircraft units. Taiwan has 837 aircraft units and 87 naval vessels.
China raised its military budget 7.5% this year while Taiwan’s estimated a 2019 hike of 5.6%.
The two sides buried political issues from 2008 to 2015 to start building trust through economic and trade deals.
Since Tsai Ing-wen took office as Taiwan president in 2016 the rivals have cut off dialogue. Tsai disputes Beijing’s dialogue condition that each side see itself as part of China. China has responded by sending planes and aircraft carriers near Taiwan.
Tsai is pushing especially for more development of home-grown weaponry, including jets and submarines.
A bigger defense budget will help Taiwan’s “long-term program” to acquire advanced weapons from other countries as well, the defense ministry said via Central News Agency.
The United States is Taiwan’s chief foreign arms seller. The government of U.S. President Donald Trump has approved four arms packages for Taiwan since mid-2017 despite ire in China.
His administration announced Sunday it had sent to Congress a proposal to sell $8 billion worth of new F-16V fighter jets to the Taiwan air force, the ministry in Taiwan confirmed. The Lockheed Martin-made jets can see farther and fly farther than other military aircraft.
These F-16s would mark Taiwan’s biggest package from the United States in 20 years, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
An existing F-16 fleet is aging, and previous U.S. leaders had declined to sell new ones at the risk of upsetting their relations with China.
Paying the bill
But Taiwan will need to merge its growing budget with a special fund to afford the new jets, analysts say. The Trump government had approved just last month a separate $2.2 billion arms sale to Taiwan headlined by 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks.
“Sixteen or 15 billion NT dollars is not much actually, they have to pay for the M1A2 Abrams, so that has been included into the normal budget,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan. One NT dollar, the currency of Taiwan, equals about 2 cents U.S.
The jets will probably end up costing more than $8 billion ultimately, Huang said.
Taiwan will need to set aside some funds for recruiting personnel overall, he said. The government normally sets aside special as well as regular budget money for bills of this size, Huang added.
“It’s a huge payment actually, I don’t know if we can support it,” he said. However, he said, “Taiwan’s jets need an upgrade, so if you don’t mind the expense, for Taiwan it’s actually a good choice and it’s been 20 years already in the works."
Taiwan should expect Trump and other Republican leaders in Washington to rule on Taiwan’s arms more regularly than ex-president Barack Obama did, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“Number one is American business and the other one is, the arms sales could be used as or could be seen as a tool to exert pressures on Beijing,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “It depends on how you’re going to interpret it.”
The Trump government is mounting its own pressure against China over a list of unsettled trade disputes.