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The Politics Behind Taiwan’s Military Draft Extension

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The Politics Behind Taiwan’s Military Draft Extension

While extending the conscription period is a politically risky move, few other parties are ready to openly criticize the decision.

The Politics Behind Taiwan’s Military Draft Extension

President Tsai Ing-wen inspects the 32nd Han Kuang military exercises in Pingtung County, Aug. 25, 2016.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

On December 27, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced the re-extension of the military draft to one year, up from the current four months. The draft extension will affect males born after 2005, as the length of the draft period is based on birthdate. Individuals born between 1994 and 2005 will continue to serve four-month conscription periods.

The military draft has been in place since the KMT came to Taiwan after its defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War. Historically, the draft consisted of between two and three years of military service, but began to be lowered during the Chen Shui-bian administration (2000-2008), likely as an electoral ploy. During the administration of Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s predecessor as president, the draft was lowered to four months for those born after 1994.

During her comments announcing the draft extension, Tsai referenced the invasion of Ukraine as well as China’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan in August 2022. The August live-fire exercises were held after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan. Reactions to the live-fire drills in Taiwan were relatively muted. Frequent references to Ukraine in Tsai’s speech, however, point to the significance of the Ukraine conflict as a proxy issue for Taiwan’s understanding of invasion scenarios.

The move is a risky one for the Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ahead of the 2024 elections, when Tsai’s second and final term will end. The timing of the announcement, right after the November 2022 local elections – in which the DPP received a drubbing – was likely deliberate, to prevent the party’s performance in the local elections from being affected by the announcement.

In making the announcement in December, the DPP may have been hoping to maximize the amount of time between the draft extension and the January 2024 elections. Indeed, during the press conference where Tsai made the announcement, she was questioned directly about whether she thought that announcement would affect expected DPP presidential candidate William Lai’s electoral chances. That the announcement dragged on until right before the end of the year led to questions about whether the Tsai administration had challenges resolving conflicting views among stakeholders, ranging from the DPP legislative caucus, to the Ministry of National Defense, National Security Council, and other political actors.

Because the Tsai administration made the announcement anyway – right after a defeat for the DPP – this indicates the decision was viewed as necessary. At the same time, during the press conference, Tsai denied U.S. pressure as a reason for the move.

Interestingly, polling data shows a high willingness to defend Taiwan. Surveys conducted in May by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University and released by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy show that 71.9 percent of the public is willing to defend Taiwan, and that 63.8 percent would defend Taiwan even if a Chinese attack occurred as the result of a declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Tsai’s DPP has had a far stronger support base among young people than the KMT in past years, with the KMT reporting less than 9,000 members under 40 in November 2020. But the move to extend mandatory military service could potentially affect the DPP’s support among young people. Views of Taiwanese youth shifted as the announcement became an increasingly real possibility. A December poll by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy found that 35.6 percent of those between 20 to 24 supported extending the conscription period, which was down from 56.4 percent in May.

Yet polls also consistently show distrust in the military’s capacity to defend Taiwan, with a poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in September showing that 51.5 percent of the public had no faith in the government’s ability to fight off a Chinese invasion. This may affect the extent to which Taiwanese view the draft as useful.

Military conscription has suffered from image problems in past years, with reports of conscripts being made to clean toilets and sweep at bases, but experiencing very little training with live rounds. It is claimed that the new measures will reform this, with Ministry of National Defense officials touting increases in the number of rounds fired as part of training. Defense officials also say that new training will incorporate base training, self-defense training, and civil defense training.

The extension of the draft takes place at a time in which Taiwanese civil society groups have increasingly sought to promote civil defense training. This, too, is touted as a lesson that Taiwan has taken from the war in Ukraine. Consequently, along with strengthened training for reserves, it is expected that measures to lengthen the conscription period may dovetail with civil defense efforts, particularly seeing as conscripts may be called on to maintain social order and carry out civil defense as part of a division of labor with professional soldiers with greater firepower.

It is telling about public sentiment that no major political party in Taiwan came out explicitly against the extension of the military conscription period. Pan-Green political parties such as the New Power Party (NPP) and Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP) have backed the extension, as did the pan-Blue KMT and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), though all parties called on the DPP to provide effective reform measures rather than simply talk.

Some pan-Green politicians, usually those who more explicitly support Taiwanese independence, have also called for expanding the draft to include women. Over 10 percent of the voluntary military force currently consists of women. Though Tsai, Taiwan’s first female president, was asked about this fact during the announcement, Tsai stated that before considering this, she first hoped to resolve long-standing issues about male conscription.

The KMT has historically counted on veterans as a supportive demographic for the party. The KMT rewarded members of the military, police, teachers, and public servants with large pensions in return for political loyalty during the authoritarian period, with workers in these occupations constituting a distinct political and economic group (known as 軍公教) as a result.

In the past, the Tsai administration moved to cut the pensions of such groups to prevent the bankruptcy of the pension system. The KMT leveraged the issue to rally up this base, claiming that the Tsai administration has diminished the prestige accorded to such groups in the past.

But as a consequence, the KMT will face challenges opposing moves framed as restoring the past glory and prestige of the military. This may explain part of the KMT’s stance. In addition, current chair Eric Chu is attempting to change the image of the party to appear less pro-China and more pro-United States, through moves such as reopening the KMT’s Washington, D.C. office.

That being said, deep Blue firebrands in the party, such as media personality Jaw Shaw-kong, have broken from Eric Chu and the party leadership to oppose extending the draft. Former President Ma Ying-jeou, who still commands a great deal of influence in the KMT, argued in public comments that citizens should vote for the KMT because voting for the DPP would lead to war at the expense of young lives – with the recent draft extension as evidence. Probably in accommodation to these voices, even while the party under his leadership did not explicitly come out against the reform, in comments, Chu emphasized that dialogue was necessary to avoid war with China and accused Tsai of failing to conduct such dialogue.

This is a new version of a longstanding argument that the KMT has used to justify why it – and not the DPP – should hold power in Taiwan: The KMT asserts that it is the only party in Taiwan able to maintain stable cross-strait relations and communicate with the CCP. This framing positions the DPP as dangerously pro-independence and, in this way, inviting Chinese retaliation against Taiwan. It seems likely that members of the KMT will use similar arguments regarding the draft extension against the DPP, particularly in the lead-up to the 2024 elections.