Written by John W. Tai.
The United States has long relied on weapons sales to demonstrate its support for the defense of Taiwan. This practice has incurred cost for both Taiwan and the United States due to its high visibility and significant financial resources for Taiwan. In addition, the growth of the Chinese military makes it increasingly unlikely for Taiwan to be successful in defending itself by relying simply on traditional military means.
Of course, the United States will not discontinue weapons sales to Taiwan for legal and symbolic reasons, and Taiwan should continue to seek weapon upgrades. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Taiwan’s best defense lies in the non-military realm, notably its diplomatic effort, through which the island nation enhances its reputation and develops institutional and personal ties with foreign governments and their leaders. Therefore, the best thing that the United States can do for Taiwan’s defense is in the field of diplomacy.
In this respect, the United States should consider supporting a little-known Taiwan military-diplomatic platform. Since its inception, the “Foreign Friends Course” (遠朋班), now known as the “National Development Course” (遠朋國建班), has played an exceptional role in Taiwan’s diplomatic effort. As the United States contemplates various ways to demonstrate its support for Taiwan, it should consider how it may do more to support the “National Development Course” and its diplomatic activities.
Cold War Origins: Fighting Communism
The “Foreign Friends Course” operated as an independent unit within Taiwan’s Political Warfare Academy, also known as Fu Hsing Kang College, from 1981 to the middle of 1995. Although the program was briefly terminated in the middle of 1995 due to Taiwan’s effort to streamline its military, it was quickly resurrected toward the end of 1995 and assumed its current form as the “National Development Course.”
According to Col. Jen-Yuan Chen, who served as the program’s liaison officer at one point in his military career, the Taiwan military officially launched the program in June 1971 to support the South Vietnamese, Khmer Republic, and Burmese governments in their respective efforts to deal with communist insurgents. True to form, the program’s original mission was to “strengthen international anti-communist forces” and “defend and advance the spirit of liberal democratic institutions.”
Befitting the program’s anti-communist mission, it was sponsored by the General Political Warfare Department of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and housed in the Political Warfare Academy. Taiwan’s political warfare system’s principal mission was to guard against communist infiltration in the Taiwan military and society and train political officers for the Taiwan military to serve as the military’s guardians against communist forces.
In this respect, the initial curriculum of the “Foreign Friends Course” was heavily focused on anti-communist subject matters, including the then-ruling Kuomintang (國民黨)’s experience dealing with Chinese communist forces prior to the party’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949. This was the case even in the mid-1990s when much of the curriculum focused on a critical analysis of communism and communist organizations and the role of Taiwan’s political warfare system in the island-state’s anti-communist efforts.
The “Foreign Friends Course” has played an exceptional in Taiwan’s diplomatic success in Latin America. Chen noted that this connection was instrumental in obtaining the approval of Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense to achieve budgetary and personnel independence in 1981. Although the program’s connections with Latin American countries began as a platform to help Latin American military governments deal with communist insurgencies in their respective countries, those ties have persisted long after those countries underwent democratization. Indeed, the program’s enduring Latin American connection is evidenced by the fact that the last director of the “Foreign Friends Course” had been posted to Latin America during his military career. Furthermore, his chief liaison officer in the mid-1990s was a fluent Spanish speaker who eventually became the head of the “National Development Course” and later the Fu Hsing Kang College head.
Promoting a Modern Taiwan
Taiwan’s transition to democracy was under full swing in the mid-1990s. The country successfully held its first island-wide gubernatorial and mayoral elections in 1994 and its first presidential election in 1996. Coinciding with these key democratic milestones, the program assumed its present form in the waning months of 1995. Since then, it has been co-sponsored by Taiwan Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense and housed in the National Defense University, which oversees the Fu Hsing Kang College. The foreign participants now include civilian officials, senior military, security officers and students sent by foreign militaries to undergo training in Taiwan’s military academies. Program participants hail from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Asia Pacific.
Today, the program curriculum de-emphasizes anti-communism and political warfare and focuses on sharing Taiwan’s development experience. As indicated on the website of the “National Development Course,” program participants hear presentations on Taiwan’s social security system, its fishery industry, its small and medium-sized enterprises, and Taiwan’s perspective on China-Taiwan relations. In addition to visiting Taiwan military installations and central government ministries, program participants visit Taiwan cultural landmarks and business enterprises.
Impressively, the program boasts 8,374 “graduates” representing 81 countries since 1981. Its statistics show that over 80 of the program participants eventually rose to lead foreign government ministries or become senior military officers. The list includes two former presidents of Nauru, a former prime minister of St. Lucia, and a former vice president of Paraguay, all of which remain Taiwan’s diplomatic partners.
Implications: Taiwan Defense and U.S.-Taiwan Relations
Since 2012, China has become increasingly assertive in its approach toward Taiwan. In 2020, China escalated its military activities toward Taiwan, according to the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense. Meanwhile, experts continue to voice concern and doubt about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against the Chinese military.
It is unlikely that Taiwan will have the hardware to repel a Chinese military invasion, even with military sales from the United States. However, it is important to recognize that it would be extremely costly for China to launch such invasion, including economic and reputational costs. Therefore, it is to China’s benefit to win over Taiwan without going to war over it. This is where diplomacy will continue to help Taiwan. Taiwan’s diplomatic effort, which centers on Taiwan’s contributions to regional and global trade, stability, and prosperity, is indispensable to its success at discouraging China from launching a military offensive against the island.
In this respect, Taiwan’s “National Development Course” plays an important role in Taiwan’s diplomatic effort in that it contributes to the positive narrative about Taiwan’s experience. In the meantime, the course also bolsters its diplomatic relations through the establishment of personal connections with program participants, which has been on display through Taiwan’s enduring relations with Latin American countries.
Therefore, as the United States considers ways to support Taiwan’s security, Washington should consider how it can support the “National Development Course” and its activities. Such support would not be unprecedented. Chen observed that the United States supported Taiwan’s “Vietnam Political Warfare Instructor Training Course,” the precursor to the “Foreign Friends Course.” Later, in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration gave its blessing as a part of the U.S. effort to counter communist insurgency in its backyard.
Former and active Taiwan officials and expert commentators have stated that U.S. support is critical for Taiwan’s security. In this respect, supporting the “National Development Course” and its activities will complement U.S. weapons sales and high-level visits. They may be even more meaningful for Taiwan’s long-term security. The reason is that this military-diplomatic platform has enhanced and will continue to enhance Taiwan’s diplomatic ties and ultimately its international standing. China will be less willing to take aggressive actions against a Taiwan with enhanced international standing.
The United States can demonstrate its support by encouraging U.S. friends and allies to send their personnel to participate in the program. It may even want to send U.S. personnel to participate in the program. Direct U.S. participation in this program will serve as another tangible indication of U.S. support of Taiwan, which will surely send a clear message to China about U.S. interest in Taiwan.
There is more than one way for the United States to demonstrate its support for Taiwan’s defense. The United States should pursue a multi-pronged strategy. In this respect, supporting Taiwan’s “National Development Course” will be a useful complement to other ongoing U.S. measures to enhance Taiwan’s security.
John W. Tai is a professorial lecturer at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he teaches a graduate seminar on Taiwan’s internal development and foreign relations. The views expressed in this article are his and do not represent the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated.