Taiwan’s All-Volunteer Force Pains: There’s a Way Out
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

Taiwan’s All-Volunteer Force Pains: There’s a Way Out


Disclosure: The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

If there is one subject that should never get sucked into the morass of Taiwan’s electoral campaigns, it is national defense. Irrespective of ideology or political preferences, politicians should always seek to transcend party politics and work together to ensure that the island-nation’s armed forces are fully prepared to meet the security challenges that confront Taiwan. However, Taiwan being Taiwan, even national security is politicized, and now a row has emerged over the nation’s shift to an all-volunteer force (AVF), with one side accusing the other of trying to reinstate conscription.

The sad thing is that as politicians try to score political points ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Taiwan’s AVF program continues to face many challenges. Despite improvements in salaries, service-extension stipends, and slick publicity drives, lower-than-expected enlistment has forced the Ministry of National Defense (MND) to proceeded with a streamlining of the basic force that some critics say may have gone too far. Facing sluggish recruitment in the initial phase of the AVF program, the military was forced to postpone the shift to AVF, first planned for 2015, to 2017, and to reduce the expected active force from the planned 215,000 soldiers to between 170,000 and 180,000, or about 0.8 percent of the population.

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For 2013, MND had hoped to recruit 28,000 soldiers; however, about one-third of that number actually signed up. Consequently, as the decision was made to further reduce the active force, the annual recruitment goals were also lowered. Contacted for the latest recruitment figures, Maj.-Gen. David Lo, spokesman for Taiwan’s MND, told The Diplomat that a total of 15,024 men and women joined the military in 2014, or 142.4 percent of the target for that year (a little over 10,500). Lo said the military was planning to recruit 14,000 soldiers in 2015 and about the same number in 2016, the last year before the AVF program is scheduled to come into force. As of April 23, a total of 4,468 people have signed up, or 31.9 percent of the annual objective. At this rate, total recruitment for 2015 would be 14,432.

Although MND surpassed its recruitment goal for 2014 and will likely do so in 2015 and 2016, those objectives were half that set for 2013, prompting some to ask whether Taiwan would have enough soldiers to defend the nation.


With this in mind, earlier this week Hsiao Bi-khim, a DPP legislator, unveiled the results of a survey that showed high support among respondents to the question “Do you support Taiwan resuming conscription to bolster its military strength?” According to Hsiao, the question needed to be asked because the ratio of commissioned officers to enlisted men and women was “too high” and undermined the nation’s ability to defend itself. No sooner had Hsiao raised the matter than ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator Lin Yu-fang, along with pro-KMT media, warned that if elected, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen would abandon the ongoing AVF program and reinstate conscription. Referring to Hsiao’s close relationship with Tsai, media speculated that the legislator’s remarks in the legislature were a sign that the DPP candidate was considering such a move.

MND officials have stated that there is no going back on AVF, and Tsai herself clarified that while there were problems of implementation with AVF, she has no intention of abandoning the program and returning to a conscription system.

Rather than snipe at each other with the 2016 elections in mind, politicians from both sides should put their differences aside and sit down with MND officers to figure out why recruitment figures have been so low, and what can be done to fix the problem. There is no doubt that the Taiwanese military is aware of the challenge and that it is committed to getting it right. But politics — and politicians — tend to get in the way.

Assuming that all sides are dedicated to ensuring the successful implementation of the AVF program (and they should be), it will be incumbent upon all the participants in the process to be aware of the issues that have marred recruitment efforts from the onset and that they cooperate to find the appropriate solutions. Conversely, if those shortcomings continue to be ignored, or if political parties hijack the issue by turning it into a political tool, then the AVF program will indeed likely fail, and the military will be unable to attract sufficient numbers of the qualified individuals it needs to ensure success in a high-tech environment (the problem isn’t only quantitative; it is qualitative as well). Given the high likelihood of renewed tensions in the Taiwan Strait, it is essential that politicians from the KMT and the DPP, as well as from smaller parties, agree to depoliticize defense.

Problems and Solutions

Almost by reflex, the usual response to Taiwan’s AVF headaches is to argue that young Taiwanese simply do not have the will to fight or that they are not prepared to sacrifice their lives for the nation. This facile explanation assumes that Taiwanese are somehow “softer,” or less nationalistic, than people elsewhere, and certainly reflects what political warfare specialists in China want us to believe. In reality, young Taiwanese have everything it takes to make fine, dedicated soldiers, and there is no doubt that if their way of life were threatened, they would fight (Hsiao’s survey seems to support this contention). Rather than some national trait that militates against a martial spirit and a desire to join the armed forces, systemic problems are at the root of the difficulties that the AVF program has encountered.

The principal failure of the AVF effort is that the government and military establishment have been unable to win over enough young men and women who are willing to defend the nation. To do so, a proper definition of what we are fighting for needs to be provided. While former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian endeavored to clarify the sense of mission (among other things by making the military answerable to the nation rather than to a specific political party), under the current Ma Ying-jeou administration clarity has been replaced by fuzziness.

For one thing, President Ma has staked his entire legacy on improving relations with China, the very enemy against which the military is expected to defend the nation. This blurring of the lines, in which political considerations drove military necessity, has sown confusion within the military by further turning a real threat into an abstract. While political dialogue is certainly welcome, political overtures should not occur at the detriment of preparedness, especially when dealing with an opponent like China, whose intentions vis-à-vis Taiwan and still-threatening military posture should dispel the notion that belligerence has been replaced by goodwill. (Furthermore, a well-prepared and motivated military would allow Taiwan to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness.)

The poorly defined mission that has resulted from this politicization has in turn affected morale and preparedness, causing a vicious circle that has succeeded in undermining the image of the armed forces. Public perceptions of the training that young soldiers must undergo are terrible and are often the object of humor, not all of it warranted. Unless the military addresses that image problem by ensuring that training is adequate, young men and women will have little incentive to join. Why would they want to waste their time?

An overly critical media environment has also compounded the problem. Every lapse and controversy is blown out of proportion, which further alienates potential recruits who would rather not be on the side that is being laughed at (thanks to strict controls of information, the Chinese military does not face this challenge, though it most assuredly has its share of mishaps). The administration’s poor handling of the death of a young army conscript in July 2013 has also caused serious damage to the military’s reputation with the very segment of the population that is being targeted for recruitment. More seriously, the poor image of the military is happily amplified by Beijing, which has sought to convince young Taiwanese that resistance is futile, that opposition to China would be tantamount to suicide.

Emphasizing the Taiwanese military’s principal function as a deterrent under a strategy of war avoidance rather than as a force that would be called upon to engage the People’s Liberation Army symmetrically (a slug-fest which it couldn’t possibly win) would assuage some of those fears.

Perhaps even more damaging to MND’s ability to attract recruit is the ill-defined identity of the armed forces and the historical baggage it carries. The current administration has performed very poorly in its efforts to appeal to young people, often speaking past them rather than to them. The main problem has been the Ma administration’s focus on a military that no longer exists. Instead of encouraging pride in a military whose sole purpose is to defend Taiwan against external aggression, the government has emphasized a past that has little resonance with today’s youth, as exemplified by the celebrations, parades, conferences, book series, and documentaries that are being planned to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, over which Taipei seems keen to outdo Beijing. Having drastically toned down the annual military parades and fly-bys that can help inspire pride in one’s armed forces, the government (and MND has been forced to comply) is instead celebrating the victory of a military that fought a war in what the great majority of Taiwanese — especially its youth — consider a foreign country (China’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding)

To make matters worse, after losing the Civil War, that same military fled to Taiwan and committed untold atrocities against the local population and subsequently played a leading role in suppressing the public during four decades of Martial Law. Needless to say, the associations with old Nationalist forces are hardly a strong selling point with young Taiwanese today, many of whose grandparents suffered under the White Terror. For many, the military remains identified with repression; for others, it is an establishment that has failed to move into the 21st century and that therefore remains unrepresentative of Taiwan and too attached to the defunct idea of “Nationalist China.” If young Taiwanese are to join the armed forces, they need to know what they are doing so to defend their country, not the delusions of politicians who cannot let go of the past.

Which then leads us to what needs defending. If you ask any young Taiwanese today, whether he or she votes KMT or DPP, they will have a rather clear answer as to what their country is, from its borders to the values that give it its idiosyncratic quality. And yet, under Ma (and to a lesser extent his predecessors), the military continues to allocate resources for the defense of the Republic of China’s (ROC) claims to nearly the entirety of the South China Sea and to a group of islets in the East China Sea. KMT legislators (the above-mentioned Lin Yu-fang leading the charge) have called from ramped up military defenses of Taiping Island in the Spartlys, often at the risk of alienating Vietnam and the Philippines, and soon the military will dispatch P-3C patrol aircraft to the area to defend its sovereignty claims. On the other side of the pond, the government has made a big deal of Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative and sovereignty claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands.

The problem is that the target audience — the young men and women who would put their lives on the line by joining the military — could not care less about the Spratlys or the Diaoyutais, territorial claims that are utterly irrelevant to their lives and which exist solely because they are included in the ROC constitution of 1947, a document that was written in China and which was imposed upon Taiwan by the Nationalists (changing the constitution so that it reflects contemporary realities would be the logical option, were it not for the fact that Beijing has threatened to use force against Taiwan should any move to do so be initiated).

By downplaying the existential threat that China poses to Taiwan, while simultaneously emphasizing Taiwan’s claims to outlying islets, the government is further diluting the military’s sense of mission and undermining its appeal among Taiwanese youth. Why would they risk their lives defending groups of islets of little value to them against countries for which Taiwanese feel no enmity? No young Taiwanese is prepared to die “defending” Taiping Island or the Diaoyutais against the Philippines or Japan (by far the most popular foreign destination among Taiwanese). And yet, those are the areas where “hardship” and “combat” pay is being offered as a means to boost the salaries of new recruits.

Abandoning those antiquated claims would not only help improve relations between Taipei and the region, it would furthermore consolidate the military’s sense of mission by forcing it to concentrate its resources on the defense of Taiwan against the nation’s only real external opponent: China.

By taking to the streets during the Sunflower Movement occupation of the legislature in March and April 2014 and defying the authorities in a way that could lead to several of them serving jail terms, Taiwan’s youth made it clear that they will do what is necessary to defend their nation and way of life. In recent years, their actions have confirmed that when certain lines are crossed they will put their personal comforts aside and take action. While they did so primarily to address more proximate issues (e.g., controversial trade deals with China, unaccountable officials, and so on), that same motivation to defend the nation — not some fuzzy abstract called the ROC but Taiwan as a distinct entity with clearly defined borders — against external aggression exists.

It is up to the government and the military establishment to find ways to tap into that rich resource and to turn the military into an appealing career where those desires can be effectively channeled. Therein lies the key to solving Taiwan’s AVF conundrum. The DPP has as much of a stake in ensuring the successful resolution of the AVF program as the KMT. If nothing else, the January 2016 elections offer an opportunity for all the candidates to reset the self-defeating approach to AVF that has prevailed under the Ma administration and which has yielded a military that does not reflect Taiwan’s full potential.

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