Island is overhauling conscription as it tries to boost armed forces to face more assertive China.
Taipei, Taiwan – Preparing for potential military action from China is a prospect that has hung over Taiwan since its government fled to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. There were three close encounters between the 1950s and 1990s, and now there may be reason to worry once again as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) completes an ambitious military modernisation campaign.
In a recently released white paper, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the PLA had developed the ability to blockade Taiwan’s major airports and harbours, while the Pentagon said they would have the capacity to “compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table” as early as 2027.
Since taking office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has focused on improving the armed forces’ capabilities and gone on an extensive weapons buying campaign from the United States as her government’s relationship with Beijing has darkened. In August, the administration of US President Joe Biden approved its first sale of $750m in weapons to Taiwan, after predecessor Donald Trump approved $5.1bn in sales in 2020.
The Taiwanese defence ministry is now asking for an extra $9bn over the next five years to improve Taiwan’s defences. The money would be in addition to its existing, and growing budget.
As Taiwan’s horizon darkens, it needs to reckon with another big question of whether the general public will be ready.
Most male citizens are required to complete national service which should, in theory, prepare them to supplement the professional military, now capped at about 188,000, according to budget data, and rising to 215,000 if civilian contractors and trainees are factored into the equation.
Limits have been placed on the military for budgetary reasons and political ones – most democracies do not maintain large standing armies – and so the reserves would play a vital support role repositioning bombed runways, repairing vehicles and simply digging ditches. In the event of an attack, about one million or so of these reservists, those who have completed their national service in the past eight years, could be called up in the first round of mobilisation.
‘Trainees are more of a burden’
Despite their important role, however, Taiwan faces questions about whether its reserves are capable of actual fighting and if an adequate system is in place to oversee them if they were mobilised in a wartime scenario.
After completing national service, which was cut down to four months from one year about a decade ago, most reservists are required to return for about a week of recall training on two separate occasions to brush up on their skills. In practice, however, results have been mixed.
“The new four-month compulsory service does not provide sufficient time for training in various specialisations while also providing them with sufficient experience in joint exercises,” said Kitsch Liao Yen-fan, a cyber-warfare and military affairs consultant for Doublethink Lab in Taiwan. “This means the new four-month trainees are more of a burden to units they are assigned to than actual combat power that can be relied upon.”
Wen Lii, director of the office of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for the Matsu Islands, a group of islands governed by Taiwan that lie off the coast of southeastern China. told Al Jazeera that he spent his national service learning how to drive and repair an armoured vehicle.
While he found the experience worthwhile, he also said there was room for improvement.
“I played a supporting role – my role was similar to that of a mechanic and teaching assistant – but that has to do with the purpose of our specific unit as well as the intended role for conscripts in the first place,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said reservists could benefit from a “more defined role” detailing how they would assist regular soldiers during war time by focusing on logistics, first aid and similar support – a point that has also been made by analysts.
Taiwan’s defence strategy has long focused on “asymmetric defence” or that it would “resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead,” according to the defence ministry. In practice, this means that while outnumbered by the PLA, Taiwan aims to make itself an unattractive enough target for attack by being able to carry out a prolonged resistance.
For this reason, the defence ministry has established the All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency to oversee the reserves from January.
A pilot project will also start the same month to overhaul recall training, testing out a more intensive 14-day regimen on 15,000 recalled reservists. Recently some recalls have also spoken of a changing tone in how the military treats them, suggesting that their potential value is also recognised.
Cy Chen, who works in customer service, told Al Jazeera his first experience with recall training three years ago felt like “summer camp” for boy scouts, but during his second recent recall he noticed a major shift in tone as his group reviewed how to use guns and practise marksmanship.
“As one of our leaders mentioned there, ‘we learned how to shoot and how to hide but never learn how to dodge or how to do combat.’ I think this process is to make sure that when the country needs you, and you won’t be afraid to use a gun and further, this process also remind us how to (value) peace,” he said.
‘Lot more work to be done’
Improving practical skills and training are just one part of the equation, however, if Taiwan really wants to have a capable defence force. For one thing, Taiwan’s military is somewhat lopsided as it has nearly 90,000 non-commissioned military officers (NCOs) – enlisted soldiers who began at entry-level and rose through the ranks – but just 44,127 soldiers and 36,232 commissioned officers who entered the military at a higher rank, according to government budget data.
Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Programme, said Taiwan only has about 40 percent of the officers and 60 percent of the NCOs required to oversee, train and coordinate recalled reservists as part of Taiwan’s greater “plug and play” or “ready to go” defence strategy anchored in a relatively small military and wider base of civilians.
The military in Taiwan, however, has long been unpopular career choice due to low pay, benefits and social status as well as negative associations with Taiwan’s martial law regime, when the military played a vital role in suppressing human rights. “There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of making defence a major career of the kind that attracts higher calibre talent in Taiwan,” Sung said.
A new defence white paper made public earlier this month proposes better housing, childcare and more career development courses, but it is unclear whether it will be enough to entice people to sign up.
Currently, a lieutenant makes just 51,915 New Taiwan Dollars ($1,867) a month while a colonel – one of the most senior field positions in most militaries – makes 78,390 NTD ($2,816), not much more than the average monthly salary of 54,320 NTD once bonuses are factored in. Pensions were also cut in 2018 as the government was unable to balance the books with a shrinking population and structural changes in Taiwan’s economy.
“How do you make them [professional recruits] believe joining the military is not a lifelong commitment, they could have a second life outside the military? That’s what happened with the US military, most people when they leave service have a second life,” said Doublethink’s Liao, describing how Taiwan is now undergoing a “race” against time.
“It’s not about buying all the big weapons, getting all the missiles you can, it’s about changing attitudes and culture and the entire society catching up to be ready, and to form a deterrence in time.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a continuing discussion by legislators and military experts in Taiwan and the US on whether to train a civilian militia or simply have volunteers ready to provide food and shelter at Taiwan’s many temples.
For now, small workshops have been organised by groups outside the government by groups like the Taiwan Military and Police Tactics Research and Development Association (TTRDA), which trains civilians in skills like tactical shooting practice, to Forward Alliance, which teaches skills like first-aid for major disasters.
“We believe that a resilient society and a prepared society would play a big factor in whether the Beijing authority ultimately decides to use force. That means behind that 180,000 to 200,000 strong military, we have a system of reserves and civilians who are trained and equipped to mobilise in case of emergencies. The idea is the civilian population would complement the strength of our regular force,” said Enoch Wu, the founder of Forward Alliance who once served in Taiwan’s special forces.
The alliance teaches people how to protect themselves, how to treat those who are wounded, how to work together as a team, and how to secure their immediate surroundings.
“These things are the building blocks to emergency response whether we are dealing with an earthquake or in a worse case scenario a military conflict to have a civilian population that is trained to back up our emergency responders,” Wu added.
But Taiwan must now also contend with the increasing use of “grey zone” psychological warfare and other confrontational tactics that could allow China to “seize Taiwan without a fight”. These range from cyber-warfare and misinformation, to ramming Taiwanese coastguard vessels, patrols of the Taiwan Strait, and sending PLA flights into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), a swath of land and sea monitored by the military.
Between September 16 last year and July 31, Chinese aircraft made 554 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ, according to the defence ministry. They continued with regular flights in September and ramped up activity around October 1, China’s National Day, sending nearly 150 flights into the ADIZ over four days.
These patrols have “multiple objectives, including testing Taiwan’s responses, training PRC pilots, sending warning signals to Taiwan’s government, and stoking nationalism at home,” according to Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the US. Glaser described China’s growing capabilities as “worrisome” although she did not think any military action was imminent.
For now, Taiwan’s military has said it will keep monitoring the situation and also use caution to avoid further escalation.
Whether the US, Taiwan’s most important ally, would come to its defence is deliberately unclear under its continuing policy of “strategic ambiguity” that walks the line between defending Taiwan while not angering China. Under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US has pledged to “make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defence capabilities.”
Its guarantees, however, stop short of promising military support.
Since taking office, Biden has made several statements suggesting that he would support the diplomatically isolated democracy in the case of attack, but White House officials have quickly tempered his comments afterwards.
The more potential allies Taiwan can secure, the more it will offset China’s ability to attack Taiwan, ANU’s Sung told Al Jazeera.
At that time it would also need both “the objective capability and subjective political will” to carry out an operation, he said. Beyond the US, a potential list of allies could include Japan, South Korea, Australia, and even some European countries who have all expressed concern about the future of the Taiwan Strait.
“We’re seeing estimates that put the year at 2027 more or less in terms of China having sufficient conventional superiority for a successful offensive, and if you talk to more military crowd, and they will tell you, maybe it’s closer to 2035,” Sung said. “But that’s the straight line projection number. If you take into account other kinds of hawks of war or the possibility of additional friends and allies (of Taiwan) coming to participate in this situation, then we’re probably pushing the timeline back further into the future.”