Taiwan may extend conscription as Ukraine invasion stokes China fears

Russian attack reignites debate about Taiwan’s readiness for potential Chinese invasion

Taiwan is considering extending compulsory military service for young citizens to a year, its defence minister has said, in an apparent reverse of the island’s years-long transition from conscription towards a fully voluntary military.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited debates in Taiwan over the readiness of its defence force for a potential invasion by China, which claims the island as a province it must at some point “retake”. Taiwan’s government has been increasing defence spending and its weapons procurement from the US, but at the same time has been trying to change its defence force to an entirely voluntary organisation and address long-running problems with training and resources.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said the current system of four months’ mandatory training was “inadequate” in the event of a conflict, and that the department would review and report on a proposal for extension. Chiu said any implementation would be a year later, and the changes would not happen quickly.

He also flagged consideration of expanding conscription to women.

After Japan ceded colonial rule over Taiwan and it came under the governance of the Kuomintang, Taiwan enforced compulsory service of two to three years throughout the decades of martial law, which ended in the late 1980s, and beyond to 2006. Over the next three years it was reduced to one year and the voluntary service was expanded.

Since 2013, every male over 18 has been required to complete four months of training service in the military, in a supporting role to the mostly voluntary force. The four months, often derided as a “summer camp”, include about five weeks of basic training, and participants can deduct time if they have done training classes with school or college. They become reservists at the end of the four months.

Despite major weapons purchases and increases in military budgets, problems with Taiwan’s armed forces are well documented, with insufficient recruitment in key frontline sectors and concerns about the skill levels of reservists.

Observers have drawn parallels between the war in Ukraine and Taiwan’s situation, and raised concerns over the close relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Xi and the Chinese Communist party government have refused to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

While noting there are differences in the situation, Taiwan’s government has moved to address concerns, including a heavily promoted increase in reservist training from five days every two years to two weeks every four years, according to Taiwan’s public broadcaster.

Today I went to support our reservists & see our new military reserve training for myself. Facing a growing authoritarian threat, the people of #Taiwan are committed to defending our nation & way of life. pic.twitter.com/eZgQggukXk

— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) March 12, 2022

Re-extending the mandatory service to one year would be likely to get public support, according to recent polling by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, which last week found 75.9% of respondents saying it should be lengthened to one year to improve Taiwan’s defences against Chinese aggression.

The debate includes growing calls for improved civilian readiness in the areas of emergency response, hostile first aid, and guerilla warfare. The government has said it will prepare civilian handbooks on evacuation and response drills, and on Wednesday Chiu announced the annual civilian emergency drills in May – which usually test earthquake responses – would include a simulated missile attack.

Taiwan’s presidential office told Reuters the defence ministry was considering everyone’s views, but that nothing was decided. It added that training content needed to be reformed to better answer the needs of modern warfare.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin.


Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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