Taiwan left divided by US ex-defense chief’s call for longer compulsory military service

A proposal from former Pentagon chief Mark Esper for Taiwan to triple its mandatory military service requirement to at least one year has divided opinion on the island.

While some say extending the current four-month service term is highly necessary in the face of growing military threats from Beijing, others believe this would be extremely difficult to implement, given Taiwan’s inadequate training capacity and manpower supply problems.

There is also the concern that young Taiwanese – a sturdy source of support for the government of President Tsai Ing-wen – might be put off if they are forced to serve eight months longer in the military, observers said.

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Esper, who served as US secretary of defense under Donald Trump, visited Taiwan last week as leader of a three-member delegation of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. At a press conference on Tuesday, he raised the issue of extended mandatory military service to help Taiwan better prepare for a potential attack from Beijing.

Beijing views democratically run Taiwan as a breakaway territory that must be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has in recent years stepped up pressure on the self-governed island, with intensive naval drills and repeated warplane sorties around it.

“I believe that Taiwan needs to lengthen and toughen its conscription. That means to have young Taiwanese boys and girls serve at least one year if not longer, in their nation’s military,” Esper said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also prompted debate on how Taiwan can boost its defenses against similar action from Beijing. The island’s defense chief said in March that the government was considering extending compulsory military service beyond four months.

Currently, only Taiwanese men over 18 are required to serve a mandatory term in the military, the result of a 2003 government policy to build up a voluntary force by 2017 to replace the conscription system. The temporary conscription system has been retained to reinforce the voluntary force. Women are not required to undergo mandatory service but can choose to join the voluntary ranks.

Compulsory military service originally extended to two years but this was halved in 2008, and further cut to four months in 2017, which meant conscripts would not have to spend time in field units.

Esper also called on Taiwan to increase its defense budget to tackle challenges from the PLA, suggesting that it set aside at least 3.2 percent of its annual GDP, as the US does, if not 5 percent like Israel.

Taiwan’s annual defense spending currently stands at about 2 percent of GDP.

Chieh Chung, a senior researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s main opposition Kuomintang party, said hardly any government in the world could afford a defense budget accounting for most of its annual expenditure.

“If our military spending is to reach 3.2 per cent of our GDP, it would stand at NT$722.6 billion (US$24.2 billion), accounting for 32 per cent of our total annual expenditure, and if it is 5 per cent, it would be NT$1.13 trillion – as much as half of our annual expenditure,” he said.

“It is highly unlikely for a normal person [government] to be able to afford a military budget half the amount of its annual spending at peacetime, as it would crowd out the budgets for other sectors like education, science and technology,” Chieh said, warning of the likely impact on overall development.

Taiwan would struggle to reach that percentage unless taxes are raised substantially, but that in turn is likely to trigger a public backlash, affecting future election chances for Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Chieh noted.

Longer mandatory service would also be difficult to implement, given the lack of training resources for conscripts, including instructors, facilities and training grounds, he said.

DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng said the Tsai government had actually increased military spending every year amid growing military threats from Beijing.

“But we need to consider two factors – whether we have enough facilities to cope with the extended service and whether we have enough manpower to avoid the crowding out effect when more people are called to a longer mandatory service,” he said.

Because of Taiwan’s low birth rate, such a change would not only have an impact on the military but also on various other sectors, Lo noted. “If men and women have to join mandatory service, there will be a huge manpower shortage for other sectors.”

Yeh Yao-yuan, international studies professor at the University of St Thomas in the US state of Minnesota, said the most difficult problem would be the public reaction, especially among conscripts.

“It would be tantamount to losing the election if any political party dares call for a resumption of the mandatory one-year military service,” he said in a Facebook post.

Taiwanese social media users agreed. “Do you think political parties care more for strengthening the combat skills of the conscripts or the election?” ran one comment on PTT Bulletin Board System, Taiwan’s most popular and largest terminal-based internet chat room.

“The DPP government would not dare to do this. They need votes in the year-end elections,” said another user, referring to local government polls in November, viewed as midterm elections revealing public mood ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

Former US defense secretary Mark Esper with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei. Photo: Handout via Reuters alt=Former US defense secretary Mark Esper with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei. Photo: Handout via Reuters>

Shen Ming-shi, director of the national security center at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a government think tank in Taipei, however, backed the resumption of a year’s mandatory service.

“Four months of training is not enough to develop real-life combat skills, especially as conscripts who finish training become reservists for some time,” Shen said.

Taiwan authorities have so far remained tight-lipped on the issue, saying only that they are still weighing the proposal.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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