Taiwan looks to Ukraine war for ideas to defend against China

Taiwan is considering whether it should extend its four-month compulsory military service, with new polls showing support for the idea among 70% or more of Taiwanese adults (Photo: AP)
Taiwan is considering whether it should extend its four-month compulsory military service, with new polls showing support for the idea among 70% or more of Taiwanese adults (Photo: AP)


A major potential change for the island democracy would be extending conscription

TAIPEI : Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading Taiwan to rethink how it would defend itself in the event of an invasion by China, stirring new debates over weapons, military tactics and even whether to extend military conscription.

The self-ruled island, which China claims, had already been looking at ways to upgrade its defenses as tensions in the region have climbed in recent years. But events in Ukraine, which some politicians have described as a wake-up call for Taiwan, are adding momentum to the process.

One potential change is an extension of Taiwan’s four-month mandatory military service for men, even though many younger Taiwanese dislike conscription.

A spokesman for President Tsai Ing-wen said last week that the Defense Ministry is weighing whether to extend the requirement, with new polls showing support for the idea among 70% or more of Taiwanese adults. Taiwan’s defense minister told lawmakers last week that a task force is studying the possibility of conscription as long as 12 months, with a decision to be made this year.

“If a war broke out in Taiwan, the four-month military training we currently have is not enough," said the defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng.

Debates over other possible steps have dominated legislative meetings and television talk shows in recent weeks, with many discussions revolving around the type of guerilla-style warfare tactics and weapons used by Ukraine and favored by strategists to help smaller militaries avoid being overwhelmed by larger powers.

Taiwanese military leaders have generally preferred to invest in big-ticket gear such as jet fighters, tanks and ships. But Washington-based analysts warn those things might be quickly destroyed by a more powerful invading force.

One idea under consideration by lawmakers and defense experts is to stockpile attack drones, after their deployment in Ukraine helped Kyiv slow Russia’s advances.

The legislature’s defense committee approved this month a motion to propose more training on anti-aircraft warfare, possibly involving portable weapons such as Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which were used by Ukrainian soldiers.

“When we look inside the urban warfare in Ukraine, the antitank and anti-aircraft equipment possessed by individual soldiers is actually playing a big role in deterrence," said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, who proposed the motion. He has also pushed for speedy delivery of four MQ-9 Reaper drones that the U.S. agreed to sell Taiwan in 2020 but that Taipei has yet to order.

A Taiwanese military official said he expected the drones to enter service by 2025.

Some security experts say Ukraine’s experience shows the importance of stockpiled weapons because the country quickly burned through its inventory of mobile weapons and had to rely on further supplies from the U.S. and other countries brought in over its land border. Providing Taiwan with additional weapons in a conflict would be more challenging, mainly because it is an island.

“Resupplying Taiwan is a significantly harder task and may not be possible for a long time" in a conflict, said Ivan Kanapathy, a former U.S. government military adviser in Taiwan.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has said that more U.S. arms deals would be announced. Separately, the military’s research-and-development institute aims to more than double its yearly production of missiles, including long-range Hsiung Sheng cruise missiles and supersonic Hsiung Feng III missiles, according to a February report sent to lawmakers and seen by The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, manufacturing of Taiwanese-made drones that self-destruct when they hit military targets is expected to begin this year, according to the report, which was compiled before the Ukraine war started.

There is no indication that war in the Taiwan Strait is imminent. But Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under control eventually, by force if necessary, and has increased military aircraft sorties in the area.

China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. At a recent news conference, a spokeswoman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused Taiwan’s ruling party of “latching on to and exploiting the Ukraine situation to their advantage," blaming Taipei for rising cross-strait tensions.

Moves under discussion in Taiwan are still far from the kind of major revamp that some experts in the U.S. and elsewhere say is needed to upgrade Taiwan’s military after years of low morale and accidents, including two jet fighter crashes this year.

Critics of Taiwan’s military, including some U.S. analysts, say it has failed to respond as China’s military has modernized and grown rapidly, and now would have a hard time deterring and, if necessary, repelling an invasion by its more powerful neighbor.

“They have to be scary enough in the eyes of Beijing," said Ian Easton, senior director at Project 2049 Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit research organization focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. Mr. Easton said Taiwan needs to increase the size of its military, which has shrunk for decades.

Taiwan recently created an agency to improve training for its reserve force, but analysts and some former Taiwanese military officials say more radical moves are necessary.

Lee Hsi-min, a former chief of staff of the Taiwanese military, said Taiwan should develop a territorial defense force that citizens could join to provide another layer of defense. Mr. Lee said he wasn’t hopeful such an idea would be adopted.

Many people on the island, once a military dictatorship, remain wary of a powerful military. If popular support proves to be a fad, it could put the ruling party’s political fortunes in jeopardy if it presses forward with military expansion ahead of important mayoral elections this year.

Changes to conscription would likely trigger fierce debates. Taiwan required men to serve roughly two years more than two decades ago, but that was reduced as its economy matured and many people focused on business careers.

In interviews with local media and comments online, some residents have suggested Taiwan should focus on improving existing training. Others have suggested women should also be drafted.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it is still considering factors such as enemy threats, operational needs and training capabilities before a decision is made.

Still, it is clear the Ukraine war has struck a nerve.

Self-help books about how to survive a war have landed on bestseller lists. Hsiao Bi-khim, Taipei’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that Ukraine’s resilience has inspired Taiwan.

“The will to defend our homeland and democratic way of life is also stronger than ever," Ms. Hsiao wrote.

For the first time, an annual disaster-response exercise starting March 31 and coordinated by Taiwan’s military will include a wartime scenario, in which buildings will be hit by missiles and engulfed in flames.

Jacky Lin, a 27-year-old reservist who recently completed a two-week refresher training, said the Ukraine conflict has changed his views about the possibility of war with China from four years ago, a calmer time when he began his compulsory military service.

“This is our country. We need to safeguard it ourselves," said Mr. Lin, a correctional officer who was among some 400 reservists participating in a revamped and more intense course, including weapon skills, battlefield first aid and a 10-kilometer forced foot march.

“We can’t be like Afghanistan, coming under attack and not being able to fight back," he said, referring to Kabul’s fall to the Taliban last year.

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