During a visit to Taiwan in July, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged the island to extend its mandatory military conscription from four months to at least one year, citing the rising threat from China. The recommendation did not receive enthusiastic support in Taiwan, with scholars raising concerns about cost, insufficient manpower, and political unpopularity.
The massive live-fire drills held by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in August moved the needle. Beijing’s ability to organize such a show of force – intended to express its anger at U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – highlighted the success of its military modernization efforts. It also underscored the need for Taipei to increase its defense preparedness in ways that go beyond arms procurement.
“It was a wake-up call for Taiwan and makes restoration of one year of compulsory military service real,” says Alexander Huang, a professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) director of international affairs.
Taiwan had been slashing conscription time for decades before it formally transitioned to an all-volunteer military in 2013. Both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and KMT administrations cut the length of mandatory military service to win support from younger voters. The changes came amid a perception that the threat from China was waning.
That is no longer the case. In October, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said that Taiwan would announce the extension of conscription by the end of the year, adding that any change to military service would come with a one-year notice period.
“Insufficient manpower in the military is one of the reasons for extending military service,” Chiu told lawmakers. “Four months of service is not enough as threats from the enemy are now severe.”
Grant Newsham, a former Marine colonel and Marine attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, urges Taiwan’s national leadership to spearhead the change. “They have to sell the idea,” he says. “You can’t expect an underfunded, underappreciated military leadership to do it all.”
In Newsham’s view, all Taiwanese should feel they have a stake in the country’s defense. “It has to be recognized that every citizen on the island has a role to play. And national service needs to be seen as a ‘leveler’ for everybody.”
Jiang Hsin-biao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of National Defense Research (INDSR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense (MND), notes that public opinion on the issue is divided. Older Taiwanese men who did their military service when the conscription period was longer strongly favor extending it, while younger people are more ambivalent.
“There will be a big political impact,” he says. “The party that implements this change could find it loses some support among younger voters.”
Jiang concurs that four months is inadequate to sufficiently train conscripts. While one year would be an improvement, he thinks that two would be better. Taiwanese conscripts served at least two years from the early 1950s until the early 1980s, while naval, air force, and special forces conscripts served three years.
Although most discussion of the issue focuses on the length of conscription, the content of the training is also paramount, notes Ivan Kanapathy, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a former director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia on the White House National Security Council.
“It’s a question of what they do with these people when they are training,” he says. “The Legislative Yuan will need to provide significantly more resources to make conscripts into combat credible soldiers if Taiwan does return to a lengthier term of mandatory service.”