Taiwan’s “All-Volunteer” Military: Vision or Nightmare?
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole

Taiwan’s “All-Volunteer” Military: Vision or Nightmare?


As the young soldiers lined up along the coast at the crack of dawn, moments before rocket systems, main battle tanks and combat aircraft pulverized imaginary targets out at sea as part of the annual Han Kuang military exercises, it was impossible not to wonder how Taiwan’s military would fare in the advent of a real invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Would they offer stiff resistance, fight bravely and efficiently, or would they surrender in the face of a much more powerful and zealous adversary?

According to the Taiwanese government, force modernization — a leaner, smaller, more professional and tech-savvy military — is the answer to the country’s future defense needs. The main pillar of this transformation is Taipei’s multi-year program to drop mandatory military service and shift to an all-volunteer force (AVF). Under current plans, by early 2015 the armed forces should be composed of 176,000 volunteers, from the 235,000 volunteers and conscripts at present, for a total active duty force of 215,000 (from 270,000).

The challenges Taiwan faces in making a successful transition – and in building a leaner and meaner military that can pose a credible deterrent to China – are many. They range from the nature of the threat, an aging society, social perceptions, budgetary constraints and a resistance to change within the ranks. The government’s ability to square the circle on these issues will not only be crucial to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, but will also affect how its principal security partner, the U.S., regards its small ally. Occurring at a time when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has perhaps irreversibly shifted in Beijing’s favor, any mishandling of the quantitative and qualitative move toward an AVF system could be catastrophic to Taiwan’s military, and must therefore be handled with the utmost care and foresight.

It should be stated from the outset that, as it is understood in the U.S. or the U.K, Taiwan’s envisioned AVF system is a misnomer and will remain so as long as the constitution hasn’t been amended. That is because while the policy focus is on recruitment of volunteers, young males of service age will continue to complete a mandatory four months of basic training, which has gone down from 12 months at present and 24 months at its height. According to critics, those four months are insufficient to provide those who undergo training with the necessary skills to be able to take up arms in the defense of their country. They are the result of a series of “reduction of service term” decisions, initially taken when a downsizing military was no longer capable of assimilating the large numbers of conscripts, brought to an extreme and making little sense in an era of low birth rates and ageing population. The numbers speak for themselves: while the 18-year old male population for the 2000 class conscription, or those born in 1982, was 209,457; it will be 129,537 in 2020 and just 87,213 in 2028.

With boot camp failing to ensure combat readiness, success in attracting professional soldiers who are better educated and dedicated to serving their country becomes essential. And that is where Taiwan has run into difficulties.

One main issue is the low wage offered entry-level volunteers, which stands at 29,625 New Taiwan dollars ($1,000) per month, plus extras for combat arms. Such salaries, even with a recent increase, cannot compete with those offered for comparable levels in the private sector, and this does not even take into account the numerous discomforts associated with the life of a soldier, including the personal safety risks, constant transfers and distance from families.

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July 15, 2013 at 18:44

@ Oro

Certainly, Taiwanese do go to the mainland with a sense of optimism about their economic future but I wouldn't quite call it frontiersmanship at this point. This phenomena is seeming like a more normal occurance and I don't doubt that some of the new graduates will willingly seek out this opportunity instead of seeking low wage jobs in Taiwan. Knowledge of life outside of Taiwan can only reinforce this notion, as they idea here seems to be maximum work/minimum pay. Its quite easy to look at Signapore and HK and the ammount of money people get paid for the same labor and the lifestyles they can afford being more worth it than what you have to put up with here. 

Perhaps I mistated my position in regards to gloom in Taiwan. No, no one is carrying a "The End is Neigh" sign around here but it remains a long standing future concern of young people in my experience. With a culture that is very focused on individuals having a good and prosperous future, the idea of potential instability and conflict does play in the decisions they make in the short and medium term, which makes immigration to other countries seem an attractive option. Again, I don't think the PRC will raise its flag over Taiwan any time in the near future, but that's not to say they cannot dominate their internal politics and decision making so years down the road.

I never have suggested that Taiwan doesn't enjoy economic and cultural relations with other nations. However, this is mostly at the privilage of the PRC. I believe that so many countries' economies are so enmeshed and connected with the PRC, that at any time, they could say "Oh yea, if you want to continue trading with us, we want you to break off trade with Taiwan.". This is not to say this will happen tomorrow, but as time goes on, what to say that they won't do this? All you need to do is look at other countries that have powerful enemies and see how well things are working out for them, take Cuba and Palestine for example. While Taiwan is not at their level of desperation, these two countries are good examples of what international marginilization does to a country. Who is standing up for these countries? Have they been successful in doing so? You said, who will disagree with Taiwan declaring independence besides China? I to pose to you, who would fight for Taiwan's indepence if China sanctions any nation that trades with Taiwan? Right now, I don't think anyone cares enough to do so and this is connected with my answer about who grants full recognition to Taiwan. This is why i am skeptical of the de facto political/economics links most countries have with Taiwan, they can be easily severed if pressure is applied by China. I'm not sure where you are from, but ask yourself, do most people in your country know anything about Taiwan? Are they aware of its diplomatic plight? All of these factors make me think this could be easily done as people have little to no awareness of this issue.  

Hong Kong as an analogy actually also gives some validity to my point. There is a similar level of disdain against "mainlanders" there but as time goes on and immigration there continues, attitudes will change. I found myself really alarmed at the response in HK over the islands dispute with Japan, namely that they were displaying a shared solidarity with China over this issue. I do not disregard nationalism as a unifying force between HK and China and if the sentiment is utilized skillfully, I think that overtime, the differences will shrink more than you seem to antiicpate. Do HKers protest China? They certainly do at times, but as the links between the two sides increase (economically and population wise), as the internatal policies change and the leadership in HK changes, I don't doubt the relationship will improve over time. 

But who knows what the future will bring? I'm not even 100% sure the current PRC leadership will exist in its current form in 15 years. I see a lot of upheaval in China happening. Two factors that I think could spell a lot of trouble for the PRC are its increasing middle class and the threat of any major economic slowdown. From what I've read a few years ago, there are thousands and thousands of protests in China that get little to no exposure and this number only continues to increase. Its just a matter of time until one or a few of these protests gets half a million people participating and the government can't ignore it anymore. Or, if the middle class becomes large enough and emulating foreign middle classes, seeks more power in the government's decision making process. I don't know when these things will happen but I don't doubt that they will. Maybe these things will make Taiwan a non issue for China in the future as it only seems that the government has a grudge against them, not the people.    

Oro Invictus
July 15, 2013 at 08:41

@ Steven

Wait, the Taiwanese economy looks fair because of mainland ties? It was my understanding that a great deal of Taiwanese actually blame said ties, especially the ECFA, for current economic issues (moreso the average Taiwanese); indeed, aside from competitiveness issues (which are more focused [fixated?] upon competition with South Korean entities), I don’t even think the US citizenry during the recession blamed the PRC as much as the Taiwanese citizenry do now. Likewise, those who do seek work in the PRC, at least in my experience, seem to do so more out of a “frontiersman” mentality than the hope for better stability in their lives; I believe one of my friends described it as “seeking gold in the mud” or some such (my versing in Taiwanese idioms is, let’s say, less than encyclopaedic).

Likewise, while I can’t say from firsthand experience how “gloomy” the average Taiwanese is regarding their future (I haven’t been there for some time), the various news reports I have read from Taiwan and the impressions I have got from my Taiwanese friends (most are expats, but a good number still live there) suggest they really aren’t terribly concerned the PRC will engulf them anytime soon. A lot have shared economic concerns about the PRC (à la the above), but not many about them truly dominating Taiwan.

It is in this same vein that I am not certain how well Tibet would work as a model for Taiwan, given Tibet’s subsumation began following military annexation and prior to widespread communications networking. Indeed, in the case of Hong Kong (which came under PRC dominion via more peaceful terms and during the early era of large-scale networking), the PRC has had far less success in “converting” the region (quite the opposite, really), which is really saying something considering how restive Tibet remains to this day.

Finally, while it is true many nations don’t officially recognize Taiwan, this is (generally) only because they would face censure from the PRC diplomatically and economically rather than actually agreeing with their position; other than officially calling Taiwan a full-fledged state, most nation-states afford them almost the exact same level of geopolitical standing as any other. Economic agreements, political advisories, and cultural exchange programs abound with Taiwan as much as any other sovereign nation (for example, most universities which have a “Chinese [PRC] Students’ Association” also have a separate “Taiwanese Students’ Association”). In all honesty, were the Taiwanese government to announce that it officially considers itself an independent nation, I doubt it would find much opposition from the international community (with, of course, the exception of the PRC).

July 12, 2013 at 16:02


I think you have some good points, namely that Taiwan continues to seek economic partnerships and free trade agreements (I just read about the one with New Zealand today) and that Taiwanese do have a distinct identity.

In regards to the Taiwanese economy, yes, I do agree that in the short term at least, their econonic outlook is fair, mostly due to their increased trade with the Mainland. However, that's what I view as one of its main problems. If Taiwan becomes (almost) entirely dependent on China for its economic wellbeing, what is to say that this increased leverage on the part of Beijing won't be a cause for more influence within the government? Being on the ground in Taiwan, in my chats with many young people, many express a sense of hopeless about the future of Taiwan. While none of them expect an invasion, they do not see a bright future for Taiwan politically nor economically and thus, many continue to look outside of Taiwan for job opportunities. In my work, I have the opportunity to interact with a lot of professionals aged 30+ years old and many of them are very aware of how vastly underpaid they are compared to neighboring countries such as China, Singapore, Hong Kong and some make the decision that it would be better for them to leave Taiwan. In my opinion this is one of Taiwan's biggest problems, the wage stagnation is leading to a brain drain while also putting Taiwan in the precarious position to continue to rely on its existential enemy for its economic wellbeing. And I haven't even mentioned the danger of increased competition from South Korea and China (in the near future) for the technology industry. Taiwan is losing its edge and has few world recognized brands that people can say is Taiwanese in origin.   

I do agree with you that Taiwanese do have a distinct and seperate idea of nationality from China. This makes it hard to imagine that people will voluntarily capitulate and reunify with China. This is not to say that Beijing cannot exert its influence within Taiwan's political and economic system to a maximal degree though. I do not invision Taiwan being annexed by China in the near future, but I do consider a situation where Taiwan becomes like a vassal state/puppet regime to be a viable option. The brillance (or perhaps insidiousness) of China's long term strategic thinking is to use its 2 main assets, its population and economy, to undermine resistance over time of countries that it sees as an enemy or threat. While Tibet is not a perfect analogy for the Taiwanese situation, I think it does apply well. Namely, that over time, China has encouraged immigration to Tibet to begin to change the culture and attitudes about Chinese coupled with policies that are minimizing Tibetal culture and identity. Since immigration from the Mainland is becomming easier, I think its only a matter of time when interacting with Mainlanders or having a boss or landlord from China becomes a routine thing. For now, Taiwanese do not consider Chinese to be as 'civilized' as they are, so there is a degree of disdain there. I fully believe though that through that prolonged contact with Chinese and deeper roots in Taiwan will aleviate these attitudes. 

The idea of guerilla resistance by the Taiwanese is interesting. In my short time being exposed to Taiwanese culture (1 year), I do not necessarily think that most people would consider wagining this type of resistance. Having said that, who knows what would happen in such an event. In regards to the Taiwanese being better drilled than the PLA. That might be so, but somehow I'm not entirely sure that will make a significant difference because of the psychological factors of facing a vastly superior (at least numerically) force and having your main ally being a country that doesn't even fully diplomatically recognize you. It may be a remote possibility, but I do not automatically assume that 10 or 20 years down the line, that for the US, defending Taiwan will be a priority worth going to war with China. 

Oro Invictus
July 12, 2013 at 08:20

@ Steven

On the matter of military power, I would agree that, in the event of an attack, Taiwan’s best bet would be to hold out for the US. That being said, it is not the only hope of the Taiwanese; resistance vis-à-vis the Greeks and the Persians or the Vietnamese and the Americans is quite possible. Similarly, while the PLA does outnumber the Taiwanese and, perhaps, have better morale and (certain types of) diplomatic clout, it most definitely does not have greater combat experience (Taiwan stages drills and joint exercises far more often than the PRC, and these are all geared towards defending against a PLA attack) or technological prowess (while the PLA has caught up with Taiwan in several metrics, it remains behind it in others and does not especially exceed it in any). All that being said, I would also agree the PRC is highly unlikely to launch an attack against Taiwan; outside intervention, most notably by the US, would severely decrease the likelihood of any military victory and it would absolutely ruin the PRC diplomatically.

On the matter of economic/political subsumation, that is highly unlikely. As I’ve noted before, the indicators point to the exact opposite happening: More Taiwanese than ever consider themselves separate from the PRC and/or desire independence and the amount of criticism of current economic agreements with Beijing is increasing. Other notable features include:

-The Taiwanese continue to allow figures like Chen Guangcheng into the nation and provide them great support, regardless of Beijing’s objections.

-The current services trade pact pending approval is unlikely to see (full) implementation and, even if it does, it would only be due to the pressure Ma is applying now that he doesn’t have to worry about re-election; by the time there is a change in government, especially if it returns to the DPP (as seems likely), even these parts of the pact are unlikely to survive unchanged as does the ECFA.

-The KMT has begun pulling from Ma’s positions, the recent cabinet reshuffles being the result of this.

-The government continuing to further economic ties separate from the mainland, the most recent being the Taiwanese-Japanese Senkakus fishing deal, ANTZEC, and the inquiries into joining the TPP.

The basic problem here for the PRC is that Taiwan has been separate for too long, it has developed its own culture and identity; it is for these reasons that PRC attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese have been miserable failures and, without these, “peaceful” unification is not possible. I believe Mr. Cole wrote a piece on the development of civil society in Taiwan and how the increasing social awareness, especially among youth, colours its interactions with the PRC. Effectively, by having a society that increasingly demands oversight and accountability like Taiwan, it ensures their continued effective independence from the PRC due to sheer incongruity.

Perhaps the CPC already realizes the above and is just continuing all these overtures for unification simply because appearance demands it, or maybe they are just petulant children who truly don’t understand that they themselves are “interfering in other nations’ affairs”, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what so many who seek to impose PRC dominion over Taiwan or dismiss Taiwanese identity fail to understand: It doesn’t matter what the PRC or anyone else thinks, it only matters what the Taiwanese think. For how can they claim to see the peoples of Taiwan and the PRC as brothers and equals when they won’t even accept their having a say in their own self-determination?




July 12, 2013 at 02:16

While I agree with the author's points in regards to the Taiwanese military needing to do more to encourage joining an AVF, I feel that Western journalists and thinkers (and I say this as an American living in Taiwan), greatly overestimate the importance of Taiwan appearing to have a credible military force.

First, with the exception to a few border disputes, Taiwan's main existential threat comes from China. Who in their right mind would believe that Taiwan could EVER (even if every single person in the country was mobilized) think of adequately defending against an invasion by the PLA? This is like saying that Cuba or Venezuela does not have an adequate enough defense against the U.S. The forces are vastly disproportionate in both manpower, technological prowess, morale, diplomatic clout, and combat experience. There is simply no way that Taiwan could repel such an invasion, the most sensible strategy when it comes to an attack or invasion by China would be to buy time for the America to intervene through force or diplomatic means. 

Having said that, an attack from China seems very unlikely, especially given the differences between the US and China when it comes to resolving existential conflicts. The Chinese prefer a subtle and non hostile intervention over a long period of time. This type of strategy is taking place in Taiwan already as, Beijing continues to expand its economic hold on Taiwan and further discourages countries from recognizing Taiwan. Many Taiwanese have decided to go to work in Mainland China as the stagnation of Taiwan politically and economically continues. The policies of the Taiwanese government also demonstrate capitulation to the Chinese vis a vee the ease of employment and travel that is afforded to Mainland tourists and workers. 

In short, besides having an adequate defense to repel a small scale attack, there is simply no point for Taiwan to consume its resources and attention to continue to bolster its military. For a strategic thinker, the main problem with Taiwan's security has always been the precariousness of its diplomatic status. There seems to be no indication that any more countries will grant it full recognition ( indeed, it is doubtful that the countries that already recognize it will indefinietly continue to do so in the future). Taiwan's immediate security ultimately comes from a strong relationship with the U.S., cordial ties with Beijing, and fostering economic and cultural partnerships with other countries that are in favor of maintaining the status quo in regards to the Taiwan question. 

Xi Ren
July 11, 2013 at 21:37

Nightmare? You speaking for yourselves, you Americans neocons? Why, you worry there will be no puppet army ala former S Vietnam's President Thieu, to contain China in her own compound? Go jump into a lake or hang yourself, mister. Your mentality really turns off all Asians reading this.

July 11, 2013 at 20:42

If the taiwanesr don't want to fight for their country, then recruit foreigners and give them citizenship after 10 years of military service. if Taiwan need an example about how this work, just look at the French Foreign Legion. if Taiwan want to be recognized as a country every time that the UN ask voluntiers in peace operations send them, politicaly less troublesome because they are not taiwanes (yet). And if the americans go to war taiwan should send them to fight for their ally the US. that way you get experience in real war and become a more valuable ally.

July 10, 2013 at 11:48

China does not need to take over Taiwan militarily, it already has economically.Taiwan should get rid of its military entirely. The Chinese never even have to set foot on Taiwan land to blow it to smithereens with missiles. The U.S.would have to declare war ag. China and fully commit for Taiwan to have a chance of surviving. 

July 10, 2013 at 10:44

This article lacks some historical context to the ROCA's and KMT's role in Taiwan's society which might stimulate some further discussion.

As TDog said above, Taiwan was under martial law from it's occpuation by the KMT-led Army until 1987. This was a forty-year period where Taiwan was run as a de facto dictatorship, and both the Army and National Police, both organs politically dominated by KMT party members, were the arm of the regime in suppressing dissenters with often fatal results. When someone in Taiwan, especially someone middle-aged or older, thinks of the Army that is what they think of: the armed muscle of the KMT dictatorship. Because of the legac of the White Terror the Taiwanese popular culture doesn't really see soliders there in the same way we see them in the USA, Canada, or the UK.

The current KMT, while certainly not the same party it was fifty years ago, doesn't want to lose hold of Taiwan now. There's no incentive for them to boost up a defense capability versus China as they'd rather just cut their deal with the mailand and gain a Hong Kong-style arrangement where the KMT is the island's dominating force like it once was.  Eliminating conscription does have another side effect however, and that is a sharp reduction of the number of Taiwanese citizens who will know how to use firearms and fight as soldiers. In a country where gun rights are severely restricted, and with a dominating political party with plans to be once again the single controlling force in the nation, eliminating any long-term source of possible armed opposition this way is practical if somewhat cynical.

July 10, 2013 at 01:50

"The one major thing of Taiwan's transformation in the last half century was how the military was never a serious threat to the process [of democratization]."

Um, martial law only ended in 1987.  That was only about 26 years ago.  Until then, I'd say they did a heck of a lot to stifle the process.  The White Terror period saw the KMT and armed forces doing quite a bit to make sure the transition from dictatorship to demcoracy wasn't all that seamless.

Also, the army did engage in attacks on civilians.  Look up the 2-28 Incident.

Amazing how wonderful things look when one does not look too closely…

Yu-Hsing Chen
July 9, 2013 at 22:14

Nice article.

Personally, I think the entire idea to shift to a full vol army at this rate was a horrific mistake, driven by the general population's obvious lack of ethuniasim to spent a couple years of their life serving, granted, the military themself made it much easier decision for he politicians with their general lack of competence and an arcane and closed system.

Of course, there has also been some serious politically driven random shifts in actual strategy to built the army which only made things worse, such as Chen Sui Bien's shift to commiting to "defeating the enemy before they reach land" which is simply unrealistic but a political one soofing the voters that hey, if war comes it won't hit your back yard.!"

The new army will end up costing more, while doing less, (if the same military culture persist, which is highly likely). and also risk losing the bond of the military to the people.  a lose / lose / lose situation, but hey, it appeased voters in the short term.

The one major remarkable thing of Taiwan's transformation in the last half century was how the military was never a serious threat to the process, and that owed very much to the fact that most of the soliders were conscripted civilians who would never follow through obvious coup or attack on civilians or anything like that, Which had much to do with a relatively seamless transition from dictatorship to democracy, unfortunately people don't know a good thing until it's gone.


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