As the gap in military capabilities between Taiwan and China continues to widen, talk of a substantial active forces reduction by Taipei is once again fueling speculation that the island may have given up on defense, perhaps after concluding that resistance is futile and unification inevitable. Is such a decision, occurring while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to enjoy double-digit budget growth, confirmation that Taipei is ready to capitulate, or is it part of a plan to maximize the return on stagnant defense expenditures and ensure excellence among volunteer soldiers?
It all starts with the “Jingtsui Program,” an effort initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou soon after his election in 2008 to phase out conscription and create an all-volunteer military. Under initial plans, conscription, which accounted for approximately one-third of the total active force, was to cease by 2014. However, because of an inability to meet recruitment goals (total recruitment for 2013 was less than one-third of its target of 28,000, with only 8,600 people signing up in the first 11 months), implementation of the program has been delayed twice, and a complete phasing out of the conscription system is now set for 2017.
Along with ending conscription, a policy that had the support of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, the total force was to be streamlined to reflect changing demographics, financial pressures, and an evolving threat environment. According to the National Defense Report 2013, the initial program foresaw a reduction in personnel for the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces from 275,000 to 215,000 by the end of 2014, a ratio of 0.9 percent of Taiwan’s population of approximately 23 million.
Then, as efforts to end conscription encountered headwinds, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced in early 2014 that its new goal was to further reduce total forces from 215,000 to between 170,000 and 190,000, or 0.8 percent of the population, from 2015 through 2019, with personnel cuts affecting all services of the military. “The planned manpower adjustment will be carried out in stages,” Minister of National Yen Ming said at the time, adding that it would be “contingent upon the government’s budgets, that the acquisition of new weapons, and demographic changes.” Yen confirmed the goal during a scheduled report to the Legislative Yuan on March 6. (Meeting former U.S. Pacific Command commander Robert Willard on February 13, Ma said that a ratio of 0.6 to 0.7 percent of the population, or 143,000 and 167,000 forces, would be sufficient to ensure national defense, but subsequent reports indicate that the president got his numbers wrong, with MND confirming that it was still seeking a ratio of 0.8 percent.)
Despite reports by some international media outlets that the additional cutbacks were “the latest sign of warming ties with former rival China,” the new goal has little to do with cross-strait politics — which remain extremely contentious, with unification an unappealing outcome — and is rather the result of budgetary constraints and continued difficulties in attracting recruits.
Relatively low pay and a scandal in July 2013 over the death of an Army conscript, along with poor public perceptions of the armed forces as a respectable career choice and the view, shared by some, that China will eventually take over Taiwan through economic means alone, have undermined the MND’s efforts to attract recruits under the program.
To address the matter, the Executive Yuan in late 2013 announced an increase in wages and benefits for volunteer soldiers. Consequently, from January 1, 2014, the monthly pay for noncommissioned officers (NCO) and enlisted soldiers went up by as much as NT$4,000 (US$133). As such, basic non-combat duty has risen from NT$29,625 to NT$33,625. (By comparison, the starting salary for a Taiwanese with a postgraduate degree in 2013 was a little over NT$31,000 per month.) With additional adjustments in monthly bonuses for service on outlying islands and combat duty, the pay increase can be a rather generous one. For example, a volunteer private serving in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands in the South China Sea will receive an additional NT$20,000 in pay, for a total salary of NT$53,625, or US$1,784, per month. Taiwan hopes those incentives will encourage more men — and women, who currently account for just about 10 percent of military personnel — to enlist.
Efforts to boost enlistment levels occur at a time when Taiwan’s military must pay for as much as US$16 billion in arms acquisitions released from the U.S. since 2008, and as the defense budget remains set at approximately 2.2 percent of GDP (about US$10 billion), short of the goal of 3 percent promised by Ma back in 2008. Stagnant economic growth during the same period has also undermined investment in the military, as state funds are instead directed towards projects aimed at reviving the economy.
The increased wages and benefits offered starting in 2014, along with the substantial costs associated with ending conscription, are further straining the military budget. Consequently, barring a substantial — and at this point unlikely — increase in annual defense spending, the bean counters at MND may have concluded that they must cut somewhere. Besides a necessary refocus on domestic arms production and a lack of enthusiasm for expensive foreign defense procurements, another way to save money is to reduce the size of the active force, a decision that probably wasn’t too difficult to arrive at, given the high likelihood that the military won’t meet its recruitment quotas by 2017 anyway.
A decision to downsize Taiwan’s forces may also be related to shifting perceptions in how to best counter the PLA, with which the island cannot afford to engage in an arms race. Beijing’s declared military budget for 2014 has been set at 808.23 billion yuan, or $131.57 billion, which, though accounting for less than 1.5 percent of China’s GDP, is at least 13 times that of Taiwan and possibly more, given the undeclared components of China’s total expenditure.