© The Financial Times Ltd 2014 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
November 21, 2012 5:00 pm
Hsu Ruei-buo is one of the last Taiwanese men to be drafted to serve a year in the military and the college student looks forward to it, although he does not think his country needs him.
“To be honest,” he says, “if there is really a war between China and Taiwan, it is barely possible for us to win.”
In January, Taiwan will stop drafting young men into active duty as it moves to a professional military designed to be “stronger, smaller, smarter”, in the words of one retired officer. Instead of relying on conscripts, Taiwan will need to convince men such as Mr Hsu that they are needed as the country builds a force which strategists say will be better able to deter China, whose 2.3m-strong army is more than 10 times as large and whose growing defence budget is more than 14 times that of Taiwan.
Tensions between Taiwan and China have long been seen as the most likely trigger of conflict between Washington and Beijing, as China claims the self-governed island as part of its sovereign territory. Cross-strait tensions have eased under Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who has advocated closer ties to the mainland and signed bilateral trade and investment agreements that he hopes will bolster the island’s economy. Yet China continues to invest heavily in its military forces, including missile batteries stationed on the coast facing Taiwan.
Taiwan’s move on military service will be a major cultural and strategic shift for a nation that has previously relied on conscription – which accounts for about 60 per cent of the military. The change comes with challenges, such as persuading young men to enlist and finding the budget to pay them enough to make the military an attractive option, former officials and analysts say. The plan envisions an eventual professional army of about 215,000 soldiers, fewer than the 270,000 now in the force but better trained and serving tours of at least four years. Starting next year, men born after January 1, 1994 will still have to do four months of training but not the full year that conscripts now serve.
“People like to hear about F-16s and submarines [sold by the US to Taiwan] and that’s all well and good but there’s more to it,” says Roy Kamphausen, a senior associate at the US National Bureau of Asian Research and former US army officer who has served in the US defence attaché office in China. “Getting smaller and getting higher quality improves [Taiwan’s] ability to deter, assuming [it] makes the right priorities in training.”
Current and former soldiers say the end of the draft will change Taiwan society, as men will no longer, regardless of home town or class, share the camaraderie that Mr Hsu says has long been “one good common topic” to bond over.
Strategically, the change means Taiwan can focus on training elite and longer serving troops such as pilots and naval crews who use the nation’s high-tech weapons systems, says Parris Chang, an opposition leader and former deputy head of Taiwan’s national security council.
“In practice,” however, says Arthur Ding, an academic specialising in military affairs, “I’m not so confident.”
A big concern, say both Mr Ding and Mr Chang, is that Taiwan is not fully prepared for the cost of the transition. While military spending in countries such as China, Japan and South Korea has risen sharply, Taiwan’s has fallen slightly, at $10bn last year compared with $10.8bn in 2008.
[Younger generation, who do not have to serve], get something good and they lose another thing better at the same time
- Former conscript Wu Jing-jie
Because volunteers are paid higher salaries than conscripts, spending on personnel has risen. Even without the financial pressure that will come with professionalising the military, personnel costs accounted for 49 per cent of the 2012 defence budget and that figure is expected to grow. The numbers have prompted US officials to warn that the rising cost of salaries could cut into allocation of funding for training and force readiness, says a report by the non-partisan US congressional research service.
Another question is whether the current generation of Taiwanese wants to volunteer.
Last year, the military recruited slightly more than 4,300 soldiers, just half of its target, according to research by Taiwan’s legislature.
“There will be some people who want to learn . . . how to shoot, and, of course, because there’s some really good benefits . . . some people who are under some bad situation economically would probably choose to be in it,” says one conscript.
The historic tensions that divided families who have been in Taiwan for centuries and those who arrived in the 1940s after fleeing war on the Chinese mainland have faded somewhat as a generation, born in Taiwan, comes of age. Yet economic inequality between the country’s north and the south remains pronounced. Shared army service helped pave over some of those divides, says former conscript Wu Jing-jie, now a graduate student.
He says conscription brought together people who would rarely meet as civilians. “A man eight years younger than me and he never went to high school, he was my best friend in the army. In my whole life, it’s impossible to meet that kind of guy,” says Mr Wu. He adds that the younger generation, who do not have to serve, “ get something good and they lose another thing better at the same time.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.