Taiwan, like many other nations during the last two decades, is finding that moving from conscription to an all-volunteer military is not easy. For two years now the military has been only able to recruit 30 percent of the soldiers it needs to be all-volunteer by 2014. This is not going to happen until the legislature moves to increase pay and benefits for volunteer soldiers, something taxpayers are not enthusiastic about. If nothing is done to attract more volunteers and conscription is halted on schedule the armed forces will shrink and the ability of the nation to defend itself will diminish.
The Taiwanese military was forced to switch to an all-volunteer forces because of the growing unpopularity of conscription. That’s because until the 1990s the military was ethnic Chinese officers and NCOs commanding a largely ethnic Taiwanese conscript force. But the domination of the government and military by the ethnic Chinese minority has sharply declined in the last decade and calls to end conscription have gotten louder.
This resentment was not a new problem and the government and military have been trying to deal with it for over a decade. The current solution involves reducing armed forces strength from 350,000 a decade ago to 215,000 by 2014. At that point the military is supposed to be all volunteer. But the plan has not worked because the military has not been able to attract enough volunteers. Solving that will cost more money and a change in attitude within the military. Conscription has long been unpopular in large part because of the culture of brutality towards new recruits. If that could be eliminated a smaller force of willing troops could be recruited and be much more effective. Fewer troops was supposed to mean more money for new equipment. But even that is in danger because public sentiment has become very anti-military because of the continued brutality towards recruits.
In Taiwan the military has lost a lot of popular support over the last decade. Despite the continued threat from China, many Taiwanese have opposed efforts to upgrade military equipment and buy new weapons. Part of this is a reluctance to spend all that money, partly it’s the realization that no amount of arms buying will stop China if they are determined to take Taiwan. Then there’s the shift in power, as the majority native Taiwanese finally took power from the ethnic Chinese minority that ran the country via a military dictatorship since 1948. This finally happened in 2000 and that changed a lot more than the political landscape.
One of the changes was a lot less respect for the military leadership, which was rather dramatically demonstrated recently when the government had three different Ministers of Defense in less than ten days in mid-2013. It all began on July 30th when Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu was forced to resign because of popular anger over the July 4th death of a 24 year old conscript (Hung Chung-chiu). Friends and parents reported that the dead soldier incurred the enmity of several of his superiors who got carried away with their retaliatory actions. This included forcing Hung to perform strenuous exercises during very hot weather. This resulted in Hung dying from heat stroke. An investigation led to over 30 military personnel being prosecuted for assisting in killing Hung or trying to cover it up. Kao was replaced by Andrew Yang, an academic and the first civilian to ever hold the job. Yang was forced to resign in less than a week when it was revealed that a book he had used a ghost writer for, had, without Yang’s knowledge, plagiarized from Chinese sources. Yang was replaced by the current Deputy Defense Minister Kao Kuang-chi.
For decades there have been calls for wide-ranging reforms within the military, something the military has resisted. The leadership of the Taiwanese military trace their origins back to the remnants of the defeated Nationalist forces that fled to Taiwan in 1949. This brought two million Nationalist soldiers and supporters to an island already occupied by six million Taiwanese who had been there for centuries and developed a unique culture. The Nationalist military used force when necessary to get cooperation from the Taiwanese majority and there remains an “above the law” attitude among the army leadership because the military is all that is keeping the communist barbarians from taking over Taiwan. Although many of the senior officers are now ethnic Taiwanese, these attitudes persist in the military and are resented by the majority of Taiwanese. Unless there is some serious attitude adjustment about the military in Taiwan the armed forces are going to shrink and lose a lot of their combat capabilities.