After the former Kuomintang (KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party) administration’s two failed attempts to transform Taiwan’s military into an all-volunteer force (AVF) in 2013 and 2015, the landslide victory of Tsai Ing-Wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2016 general election presented a great opportunity to reverse the AVF policies. The DPP’s majority in the legislative yuan, Tsai’s high popularity in the polls, as well as the “honeymoon” period between a new administration and the people could together form the political capital necessary to resume conscription for Taiwan’s various defense needs.
In the face of China’s rising military capability, conscription would arguably greatly contribute to Taiwan’s defense in term of both finance and deterrence. The AVF’s high human costs are a trade-off with funding for military investment, logistics, and training; conscription would leave more financial capacity in the defense budget. At the same time, conscription with a mobilization mechanism can multiply the size of the armed forces in a short time, creating certain regional superiority in an island defense scenario and a wider margin for bearing losses during battle. Conscripts with proper training would have better knowledge and physical strength than civilians, allowing them to be reorganized for guerrilla or other kinds of warfare, which could pose higher costs for the invader and thus serve the purpose of deterrence. All in all, conscription could demonstrate the general resolve of defense, sending a strong message of deterrence to China because of the people’s broad involvement in defense.
However, conscription in Taiwan has been unpopular in the country for decades. There are numerous reasons for the public’s poor impression of conscription: the economic opportunity costs, cases of improper training and obsolete equipment, an inadequate link between training routines and defense, and the different characteristics of young generations, as well as the considerable loopholes for escaping military service. Ideally, the government should fix these problems through comprehensive military reform in order to restore popular confidence and respect for conscription, but that’s easier said than done. Such large reforms cannot be completed in a few years, not to mention the high budgetary and management requirements of initiating such a project.
Therefore, the Tsai administration faces a dilemma. Fully moving toward AVF — and ignoring the poor recruitment numbers — may significantly impact the armed forces’ capacity to carry out their daily routines, not to mention Taiwan’s defense capability. But formally resuming conscription would be unpopular, and the necessary reforms would be arduous. As a result, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) recently announced a compromise: it will conscript 9,600 young male citizens born in 1993 next year but retain the final goal of creating an AVF. The decision is convenient but temporary; it does not solve but merely postpones the current problems, which will only become worse in the foreseeable future.
Unless the image of armed forces is not significantly improved, AVF recruitment will not be sufficient, leading to continuous uncertainty over military manpower. These 9,600 conscripts would fulfill some of the manpower demand from the armed forces next year, but they are only set to serve one year. That means the same problem will arise next year, and another batch of conscripts could be called up again. Since the DPP already missed the best timing to reverse the AVF policy goal, the dilemma mentioned above will continue. The ‘temporary’ solution from MND could be repeated in coming years, with adverse side effects.
A circle of temporary conscription will cause considerable uncertainty for Taiwan’s young male citizens as they try to live their lives. It will particularly affect employment, because most employers would prefer not to hire people who could soon be drafted. Temporary conscription also makes it difficult for the armed forces to arrange training and duties for new soldiers, and complicates long-term planning since there is an obvious gap in the service terms of volunteer soldiers (three years) and conscripts (one year). Furthermore, due to the temporary nature of conscription, the MND and military units may not have a strong motive to streamline or improve the training and duties of new soldiers, a problem that would affect both conscripts and volunteers.
Moreover, a temporary extension of conscription won’t bring either financial or deterrence benefits. While the AVF is still being promoted, temporary conscription would not save much of the budget for defense investment and training, because a great portion of funding is still allocated for the AVF. Temporary conscription would not send a strong deterrence message either.
The worst outcome for Taiwan would be the government leadership’s desperation for AVF for political reasons. The side effects of temporary conscription could develop into popular criticism of the government, and decision makers might see AVF as the direct solution, especially when major elections approach.
At the recent Han Kuang 32 Exercise, Tsai’s ordered MND to review Taiwan’s military strategy, including the sizes of each service and the whole armed forces. This implies the possibility of fitting the military’s size to accommodate AVF. The current project of downsizing the armed forces would be helpful to achieving the AVF goal by lowering the manpower demand, but smaller armed forces would mean Taiwan has only a narrow margin for losses and mistakes at the operational level. In addition, the eventual AVF may also deteriorate the quality of reserves. According to the plan, male citizens under the AVF policy will receive four months of basic training, but a lack of operational experience within units would lower their combat efficiency.
Undeniably, the DPP administration has paid higher attention to defense than the previous one, as evidenced by several proposals of sophisticated weapon systems, such as submarines and trainer jets. However, its effort may not be sufficient for Taiwan’s current situation, as reflected in the conscription issue. As a small state with a sluggish economy and an aging population under an existential threat from the second strongest military power on earth, AVF is not the right answer. Warfare in the Taiwan Strait could draw in every resident on the island; putting the burden of defense on a select few is meaningless.
Should the DPP administration want to display an alternative to the KMT’s cross-strait policy, the conscription dilemma is an essential issue to address — not to avoid — to win popular confidence, provide deterrence, and prepare for the worst-case scenario. However, the current trend seems to suggest the opposite strategy: a hesitant move toward an eventual AVF based on domestic political considerations rather than geostrategic circumstances.
Shang-su Wu is a Research Fellow at the Military Studies Program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.