Taiwan’s military is not prepared for a Chinese invasion whatsoever.
In light of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) increasing military presence in the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s commitment to ensuring its own defense, the role of conscription in Taiwan’s defense system should be reconsidered. In order to gain a better understanding of conscription in Taiwan, I interviewed young Taiwanese men about their thoughts on the military and issues with Taiwan’s defense.
According to a Taiwanese poll in late February, 74% of Taiwanese citizens were willing to defend their country if the People’s Republic of China invaded it. The issue is not whether they will fight but rather how prepared they are.
All men are conscripted into the military in Taiwan. However, the period of service has been reduced in recent years – from two years to one year as of 2008 and now to just four months as of 2018.
However, the invasion of Ukraine and the Chinese military drills after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan have brought war a step closer. In late March, Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng suggested extending compulsory military service.
Rather than considering how long conscription should last, discussions should also examine how conscription could be reformed to better defend Taiwan against the People’s Liberation Army. I interviewed young Taiwanese men about their time in the military and problems in Taiwan’s defense to learn more about this issue.
Shared Pessimism and a Broken Connection
Some interviewees had completed the standard four-month military service; others had completed the 12-day replacement service, an alternative option for men with physical or mental health issues, dependent families, or low-income households.
17% of men from Kaohsiung City opted for the replacement soldier service rather than the standing military reserve service in 2021.
All of the men in this group seem to have a shared feeling of pessimism. “We were not adequately prepared to be on the frontlines,” said one of the men. That is a conviction that all of them seem to agree on.
What caused Taiwanese society to become indifferent to conscription?
My interviewees pointed out some fixable but neglected problems: broken practice equipment, 50-year-old guns, and prolonged periods of sitting around doing nothing.
People don’t take military preparedness seriously because of how they talk about it. “It doesn’t feel that serious,” one of the men said. “People compare it to summer camp or something to do between summer semesters in college. If you took it seriously, it would almost be comical.”
Young men in the Taiwanese military are experiencing a jarring cognitive dissonance between their political and military standpoints.
The survey revealed that younger Taiwanese (ages 18-29) were less likely to favor closer economic or political ties with China than their older counterparts (Pew Research Center, 2020). Similarly, those in the military are anti-Beijing, anti-Xi Jinping, and anti-PLA.
Even though these men are not inspired to defend their republic out of anti-PRC sentiment, the society at large does not invest in PRC defense or become more alert to PRC threats.
According to one interviewee, the PLA’s invasion of Hong Kong is “never a topic of discussion” in the military. In addition, another individual lamented that “everyone knows that the threat from China has always existed, but they think that it is only reported in the news. They do not realize that it is approaching.”
The bias toward optimism clouds the understanding of war and one other thing. Taiwan clings to the belief that the PRC will not invade or that, even if it did invade, the United States would break its strategic ambiguity and come to Taiwan’s rescue.
According to the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 51% of respondents answered ‘no’ to the question ‘Do you think China will invade Taiwan anytime soon?’ Furthermore, only 39% of respondents thought an invasion was imminent.
‘Secondly, we see the stigma against occupational soldiers in a popular idiom, ‘A good man does not become a soldier, and a good piece of metal does not hit a nail.'”
Since 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland and occupied the island as a de facto government, Taiwan’s fractured relationship with the military has produced this stigmatization.
The White Terror, a period of martial law and the 228 Incident, in which local elites, intellectuals, and civilians were imprisoned, tortured, and executed, traumatized Taiwanese people.
Taiwan had undergone a dramatic transformation since the days when it was a repressive, authoritarian state a few decades ago. As a result, Taiwan has become a regional leader in transitional justice and democratic reform, thanks to its efforts in both areas.
However, the notion that the military still represses Taiwanese society has been tainted by political repression at the hands of the military generations later.
What’s the Solution?
The invasion of Ukraine shocked Taiwan and the world. As a result, policymakers, analysts, and netizens have frequently asked, “Is Taiwan next?” A more productive query, instead, would be: How can we make Taiwan so costly to invade that we dissuade anyone from attempting?
Repairing the broken connection between the military and the civilians is more challenging than dealing with any one policy. Taiwanese people should appreciate and respect the military. In addition, the military should gain respect within Taiwanese society. There are two methods in which the military and civilians can collaborate to build a solid defensive Taiwanese army for the Taiwanese people.
More than just a longer and more intense conscription service, Taiwanese culture should recognize the danger of invasion.
Efforts to change the length and quality of Taiwan’s military are not a sign of a military regime but rather a means of demonstrating to Beijing that invading Taiwan will not be worth the trouble.
After rigorous boot camp training, Taiwanese men should leave feeling more confident in their country’s defense system.
In addition to improving conscription services, the Taiwanese military should also consider establishing short-term, low-commitment courses for civilians. As a result, Taiwanese civilians should feel that their army will protect them.
More and more private firms are taking the initiative to teach civilians how to survive the war and use weapons.
VIDEO: A growing number of Taiwanese civilians are now attending urban warfare workshops, to prepare for what they see as the very real threat of a Chinese invasion. pic.twitter.com/xLdfW7aElt
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) July 9, 2022
A territorial defense force similar to Ukraine’s “weekend warriors” before the 2022 invasion could be led and supervised by the military in this opportunity.
Taiwan’s future is not predetermined, but China’s military capacities are growing, making Taiwan’s need for deterrence ever-pressing and imperative. Accordingly, Taiwan must fortify its defensive units, starting with civilian and conscripted soldiers.
Preparing Taiwan for future conflicts requires more than purchasing new weapons, developing asymmetrical capabilities, or extending conscription periods. Instead, it demands a whole-society approach to preparedness, and we should internalize the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy the day before Russia invaded: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”