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Taiwan’s Changing Military Covenant and the Armed Forces’ Institutional Autonomy*

Ben-Ari, Eyal Professor

2019 Taiwan Fellowship Scholar

Field of Study:




This article represents an analysis of Taiwan’s changing military covenant and its impact on the institutional autonomy of the Republic of China’s (ROC) armed forces. The military covenant refers to that set of (usually implicit) expectations that mark the relations and exchange between the military on the one hand and society and the state on the other (Forster 2006, 2012). Institutional autonomy denotes the discretion allowed the military to make independent decisions regarding such things as use of budgetary allocations, professional training and operational matters (Cruz 1998; Olsen 2008; Pion-Berlin 1992). An analysis proceeding from a focus on the military covenant goes beyond the “usual” focus of scholarly work on civil-military relations centered on control of the armed forces or the formal and informal division of labor between civilian and military decision-makers. It does so since it extends to questions of national identity, the legitimacy of using armed force, or factors influencing resilience, training, recruitment and retention, that is, issues not normally covered under the analytic rubric of civil-military relations. The majority of previous studies of the ROC, overwhelmingly situated in political science, have dealt with the place of the armed forces in the process of democratization and nationalization (guojiahua) in handling their difficult past or in creating and maintaining their democratic nature (Hung et al. 2003; Kuehn 2013; Mattlin 2011). Our sociological study utilizes the finding of these studies to deal with a complementary set of issues that can shed further light on the process of democratization and the state of the armed forces today. One seemingly similar recent study by Karalekas’ (2018) offers an analysis of the Taiwanese military in terms of the model of post-modern military (Moskos et al. 2000). However, like all investigations using an ideal-type universal typology, this research lacks an analysis of the processual nature of the bargaining between different groups in the armed forces, civil society and that state and does not underscore the historically unique character of the ROC. Let us explain. Every country possessing an armed force has a "military covenant" (derived from the wider “social contract”) that, at its simplest, focuses on the willingness of military personnel to make personal sacrifices (including death), forgo some rights enjoyed by those outside the armed forces and in return expect recognition of their important social role, fair treatment for them and their families and commensurate terms and conditions of service. More widely, such agreements include expectations about preparation for and pursuit of armed conflict, civilian control over the armed forces, the force’s institutional autonomy, the loyalty and commitment of soldiers to the country, and the professional (a-political) orientation of the armed forces. The covenant is a “contract” that while not legally binding, nevertheless has strong normative power and is seen by actors to be morally obligatory. Hence, when the terms of the covenant are breached social protest, negative media reports, parliamentary debates or judicial proceedings may eventuate. The terms of Taiwan’s contemporary covenant (emerging since the late 1980s and itself constantly negotiated) are the outcome of wide-ranging changes that are international-political (the rise of China as a superpower, the growing political isolation of Taiwan), domestic-political (democratization, mediatization, juridification, political polarization), economic (rising incomes and development), and social (increasing acceptance of neo-liberal and post-material values). As a consequence of these developments and the particular nature of the ROC’s democratization, there is a marked decrease in the military’s institutional autonomy. The autonomy of the armed forces is crucial for its “unique” professionalism centered on the management, preparation for, and use of legitimate (if sometimes contested) organized state violence (Boene 2000). In this sense, the military is both like other large organizations or public institutions and qualitatively different from them given its wielding of organized state violence. In fact, this exceptionality explains many classic militarily features such as strict hierarchy, firm discipline, emphasis on correct procedures, and willingness of its members to risk life and limb. To reiterate, while the military can be analyzed like “any” large organization or public-state bureaucracy, its specialization in organized violence implies that unique analytical lenses also be used to study it (Hung et al. 2003). Being charged with a state’s coercive means implies, however, that the armed forces potentially pose a threat to any political system since they have the means to take it over from civilian politicians. While decreased institutional autonomy is important from the point of view of democratization (since it entails greater civilian control of military matters), it may also be problematic for the force’s development and competence in the use of organized martial force. In other words, too much external intervention in the military’s autonomy may harm it ability to train properly, experiment with new technology and organizational forms, and motivate its members. A note on methodology. This research is based on the following sources. First, twenty-five formal interviews (lasting between an hour and three hours) with serving and retired officers, academic experts, journalists, civil servants, a member of the National Security Council, and a former member of the National Security Bureau. Second, numerous conversations over dinners, lunches and coffees with serving and retired officers. Third, visiting think tanks, discussion groups, museums, and memorial rites and giving lectures in military programs and universities. Fourth, a close reading of secondary scholarly literature on the Republic’s armed forces. And fifth, a systematic review of news outlets.