Taiwan to extend mandatory military service in face of Chinese pressure

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said, ‘Peace depends on national defense, and national defense depends on the whole population.’ (Photo: AFP)
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said, ‘Peace depends on national defense, and national defense depends on the whole population.’ (Photo: AFP)


President Tsai Ing-wen says decision was extremely difficult


Taiwan will extend mandatory military service for male citizens, a one-time political taboo that morphed into an imperative in the face of growing Chinese aggression and intensifying competition between Washington and Beijing.

Conscription will increase from the current four months to a full year starting in 2024, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said at a press conference in Taipei on Tuesday.

“This was an extremely difficult decision," Ms. Tsai said. “Peace depends on national defense, and national defense depends on the whole population."

The Taiwanese leader said that conscript pay, currently the equivalent of $212 a month, would be increased to close to minimum wage, which is set to rise to $856 a month in 2024. Training would also be intensified and expanded to involve instruction on the use of Javelin antitank missiles and drones, she said.

The decision was the result of two years of discussions, Ms. Tsai said. U.S. military analysts have long urged Taipei to consider extending conscription as a contingency in the event of a Chinese invasion. Discussions accelerated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seen by some in Taiwan as a wake-up call.

Ms. Tsai denied that U.S. pressure played a role in the final decision on conscription but acknowledged international interest in the island’s willingness to defend itself against Chinese aggression.

“I believe all the countries in the world that care about Taiwan will see how much importance we attach to self-defense," she said.

Roughly 80,000 Taiwanese are conscripted each year. After they finish their training, they join the island’s more than two million reservists. Taiwan maintains a standing army of around 180,000 soldiers, compared with the Chinese military’s roughly two million.

Taiwan used to require male citizens to complete around two years of military service, a legacy of confrontation with China’s People’s Liberation Army dating back to the Chinese civil war. After Chiang Kai-sheks’s Nationalist, or Kuomintang, army fled to Taiwan following its defeat by Mao Zedong‘s Communist forces in 1949, the two sides continued skirmishing over the next decade and remained closed off from each other until the late 1980s.

Leaders of the Communist Party, which has never ruled Taiwan, continued to claim the democratically self-ruled island as part of Chinese territory, but growing economic ties between the two led to a thawing of tensions. In Taiwan, young people increasingly came to see conscription as an outmoded and wasteful burden. Taipei gradually shortened the length of mandatory service throughout the 2000s as part of a plan to eventually move to an all-volunteer military.

Difficulty recruiting soldiers meant conscription never fully went away. Meanwhile, rising tensions across that 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait that divides Taiwan from mainland China have sparked questions about the island’s ability to defend itself against a Chinese attack.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made taking control of Taiwan—by force, if necessary—a central plank of his campaign to achieve a “China Dream" of national rejuvenation. In recent years, he has grown alarmed by Ms. Tsai’s pursuit of closer ties with Washington.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February rattled many in Taiwan and gave new weight to exhortations by U.S. military officials of the island’s need to bolster its defenses. Ms. Tsai said Taiwan had taken note of both the determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland and the training level of Ukrainian troops.

That combination “has given the world enough time to provide the help Ukraine needs," she said.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei flared this summer after a visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest level U.S. political leader to travel to the island in 25 years, with the Chinese military encircling the island in a mock blockade. Mr. Xi and President Biden have since tried to calm relations, though the island remains the most dangerous flashpoint between the world’s two superpowers.

Washington is committed under U.S. law to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defenses, and Mr. Biden has said multiple times that the U.S. would come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Among Taiwan’s most pressing defense concerns, according to military strategists and officials, is poor preparation among conscripts and reservists. Critics have attacked the quality of Taiwan’s basic training, with a number of former soldiers saying they spent large chunks of their time in the military sweeping leaves, moving spare tires and pulling weeds.

“Making the year of conscription more meaningful and making the country safer," Ms. Tsai said. “I believe this is the common goal of the 23 million people who grew up on the land of Taiwan."

Public support for the move is difficult to gauge. Nearly three quarters of people in a survey conducted by local pollster Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation earlier this month said they supported extending conscription to one year.

Yet among respondents between 20 and 24—those most likely to be affected by the changes —support fell to around 35% in the latest poll from 56% in March.

The announcement on conscription came a day after the People’s Liberation Army sent more than 70 warplanes on sorties near Taiwan, in what the Chinese military said was a response to unspecified “collusion and provocation by the U.S. and Taiwan." A day earlier, President Biden had signed a defense-policy bill that authorizes up to $10 billion over five years to finance sales of weaponry and military equipment to Taiwan, as well as to provide training and other security assistance to the island.


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