TAINAN, Taiwan — The technology behind the plastic injection mold machines that hum in a factory in this town in southern Taiwan were once used to make Buddhist temple decorations. A generation later, the company, Hwa Meei Optical, now makes recreational eyewear, such as ski goggles and sunglasses.
But it has ambitions to outfit soldiers.
“Every generation at Hwa Meei improves. Now we will have to see what the third generation will do,” says Lin Shunfu, a company vice president.
He is now shifting the company into the defense sector to manufacture and sell shatterproof, bullet-resistant eyewear for the military.
As China’s military might grows, the Asia Pacific region is in an arms race to both deter and prepare for war. Taiwan is no exception. It’s a self-governing island that China claims as its own territory, to be conquered by force if necessary. Taiwan has extended its mandatory military conscription period for men from four months to a year and is intensifying its own military drills. In July, the White House announced it would send Taiwan $345 million worth of weapons, taken directly from the U.S.’ own stockpile for the first time, as well as other defense services, such as training.
Now Taiwanese private companies are also pivoting into the defense sector and making weapons, and U.S. defense contractors are exploring ways to manufacture and design noncore components of their weapons systems in Taiwan.
To do so, they will need to work within the Taiwanese military’s rigid approach to reform and a historical preference to rely on government research institutes for equipment upgrades.
However, under pressure to match China’s accelerating military capacity, Taiwan’s military is looking for creative ways to boost its defense abilities in a short period of time, and it has been loosening once-strict procurement rules to allow private companies to develop dual-use technologies for its military — giving companies like Hwa Meei a chance.
“Every year Taiwan spends billions of dollars to buy American defense equipment. It is almost [like] we are paying the U.S. protection money. But if U.S. companies could support local businesses, some of the benefit would return to Taiwan and ensure we help each other,” Lin says.
3,000 drones by next year
Twice in the past year, China’s military has conducted military exercises simulating a full blockade of Taiwan. In a real conflict, such a blockade would make it impossible for the U.S., Japan or nearby countries to ship in any weapons or reinforcements not already stockpiled on the island.
That has led Taiwan’s manufacturers to ask: Why not build up defense supply chains