Why Is Taiwan Only Spending 2.1 Percent of Its GDP on Its Defense? At some point we have to demand more of our friends expecting military aid and support. That’s not mean, it’s just common sense.
OCTOBER 26, 2021 • COMMENTARY By Doug Bandow SHARE This article appeared in Responsible Statecraft on October 26, 2021. TOP As Afghanistan mercifully recedes in Washington’s foreign policy rear‐view mirror, the United States remains busy defending much of the free and some of the not‐so‐free world. Yet many of these defense dependents do little to protect themselves. Washington should learn a lesson from domestic government assistance and apply “workfare” to military policy. If nations won’t work to defend themselves, then Washington shouldn’t do the job for them.
This is an especially important time to take a new approach. The deficit last year ran $2.8 trillion. That’s actually good news. The year before, red ink was $3.1 trillion, more than twice the previous record of $1.4 trillion set in 2009, as America emerged from the financial crisis. This year will be another big number, about $3 trillion according to the most recent estimate. Even as the COVID-19 economic crisis ends, the Congressional Budget Office expects huge deficits to persist, more than $12 trillion worth over the coming decade. Americans no longer can afford to pay for every deadbeat ally’s defense.
Yet it appears to be politics as usual in Washington. Chinese threats against Taiwan have spurred a debate in Washington over whether Washington should make an explicit promise to defend the island. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made the rounds of Europe, promoting NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine. Officials from South Korea and Japan visited Washington to discuss America’s continued commitment to their defense.
At some point we have to demand more of our friends expecting military aid and support. That’s not mean, it’s just common sense.
America should stop being a pushover for supposed allies seeking a cheap or free ride. U.S. personnel should not fight and die for nations whose people will not do likewise.
Consider Taiwan. George Mason University’s Michael Hunzeker recently told Congress that Taiwan’s military is not “optimally manned, trained, equipped and motivated to defend against an attack,” which is putting it mildly. Spending as a share of GDP has only slowly risen to 2.1 percent, a risible amount given the island’s claimed fears of Chinese aggression.
Moreover, complained Daniel Davis of Defense Priorities: “So few Taiwanese are willing to sign up for military service, in fact, that earlier this year frontline combat units in the Taiwan military were assessed as being manned at a shockingly low 60%.” One reason for the refusal of Taiwanese to defend their own society: the expectation that Americans will intervene in any case.
Yet Taipei does not even need to defeat the PRC. Rather, the Taiwanese need to convince China that they would exact a fearsome price in any invasion, and that the struggle would continue even if organized resistance was quelled. Today Taiwanese appear to prefer surrender to conflict, which almost guarantees Beijing’s success even if the United States is prepared to intervene.
Japan is luckier than Taiwan geographically. The greater distance from China makes a direct attack much more difficult. That, combined with the lack of any Chinese threats to Japan’s independence, sharply reduces the likelihood of war. However, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, administered by Tokyo and claimed by China, remain a dangerous flashpoint. Uninhabited, the cluster of five islands and three reefs have no intrinsic value but offer control of hydrocarbon deposits and fishing grounds.
The United States has little at stake in this squabble. However, Japanese and Chinese ships and planes routinely confront each other, risking an incident that could get ugly quickly — recall the U.S. EP‑3 spy plane collision with a Chinese fighter in April 2001. The United States could be drawn into hostilities by its “mutual” defense treaty with Japan.
Tokyo expects America’s assistance while spending just one percent of its GDP on the military. Even with so little effort, Japan has developed a serious, high‐tech navy, but with a significantly greater effort the Self‐Defense Forces could deter most any Chinese threat. Beijing would find it difficult to devote sufficient resources to such a peripheral contingency in a crisis. These islands should not be America’s problem. At least Japanese officials are finally debating proposals to increase military expenditures.
Europe is home to the most embarrassing freeloaders. Nineteen NATO members (including Canada) devote less than two percent of GDP to the military. It doesn’t really matter how much small countries such as Luxembourg Slovenia, or Montenegro pay. However, major players Spain, Italy, and Germany come in at 1.02, 1.41, and 1.53 percent, respectively. Canada is no model either, at 1.39 percent. Even forces actually deployed often are incapable: the lack of German military readiness has been a scandal for years. The common European view is either that there is no threat or that Washington will deal with it.
However, truth be told, the other nine (non‑U.S.) NATO members gain few honors even though they exceed the formal alliance standard. Greece is the overall winner at 3.82 percent, but its efforts are directed more at fellow NATO member Turkey than any outside threat. France at 2.01 and the United Kingdom at 2.29 percent have maintained legacy colonial commitments beyond NATO. Croatia is an impressive anomaly at 2.79 percent since it faces no obvious threats.
The “front‐line” states are Romania, 2.02, Lithuania, 2.03, Poland, 2.10, Latvia, 2.27, and Estonia, 2.28 percent. Assuming the Russian threat is as serious as they claim — which admittedly is doubtful — two percent is a pitiful level of spending. Surely their freedom and independence are worth more than a couple cents on the Euro. They should be cooperating and investing their money in a territorial defense to exact a high price if Russian President Vladimir Putin went mad and decided to attack. More distant states like Germany should be creating units to deploy along other members’ borders with Russia.
The dismal state of military spending in Europe offers a powerful reminder why U.S. officials originally opposed a permanent garrison. Scholar Mark Sheetz observed: “The purpose of America’s ‘temporary’ intervention in Western Europe was to eliminate the need for ‘permanent’ intervention.” Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower said Washington’s goal was to help “these people regain their confidence and get on their own military feet,” not leave America as “a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions.”
Obviously, there is more to defense than percentage of GDP spent, but effort matters. Americans not only spend more on the military. Their forces are far more effective, providing some 75 percent of Europe’s combat capability. On the continent, it is assumed that a confrontation with Russia would mostly be America’s fight. One in which many of the states being defended would be AWOL. Particularly striking are polls which find that popular majorities in several European states would not fight for each other — indeed, they view the United States as more likely than themselves to defend their neighbors. There are many words to describe this situation, none positive.
What of the future? After the bungled Afghan withdrawal, EU commissioner Paolo Gentiloni observed “It’s a terrible paradox, but this debacle could be the start of Europe’s moment.” However, that will require more than just verbal commitment.
Although it would be difficult to construct a hard and fast numerical rule, U.S. officials should change their approach, not by haranguing allies to do more and being left bereft of options when America’s friends fall short. Rather, Washignton should announce plans to leave allies and friends to adapt. For instance, Washington could indicate that on a date certain, the U.S. Navy would no longer be on call for contingencies involving the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo then would be responsible for the issue. Japan could build and man the necessary aircraft and ships, or not.
Similar policies could be shaped for Taiwan, Europe, and other nations inclined to treat the Pentagon as a defense dole. The objective would not be punitive, to punish, but instead restorative, to encourage more responsible behavior, and distributive, to foster a fairer division of defense responsibilities.
It is time to infuse American defense policy with a fundamental moral core. Countries whose people are unwilling to take serious steps to defend themselves have no claim to the lives and wealth of Americans. When such willingness is absent, the United States should turn its military attention elsewhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Doug Bandow Doug Bandow Senior Fellow, Cato Institute