How does a small island nation try to ward off offensive attempts at annexation by a giant neighbour like China? It begins by extending conscription for its youth.
That the United States is happy to extend its military training manuals to benefit the conscripts is a double whammy for China’s communist government which, many observers feel, is bound to make its displeasure felt by allowing its jets and ships to intrude into Taiwanese air space in summer.
The decision of president Tsai Ing-wen to extend compulsory military service from four months to one year from 2024 is a direct result, in her words, of the rising threat the island faces from China.
The conscription was extended as it was felt that the current military system, including training reservists, is inefficient and insufficient to cope with China’s threat, especially if it launched a rapid attack on the island.
This is on the back of China ramping up military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan to assert its sovereignty claims, including almost daily Chinese air force missions near the island over the past three years.
The conscripts will undergo more intense training, including shooting exercises, combat instruction used by US forces, and operating more powerful weapons including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles. Conscripts would be tasked with guarding key infrastructure, enabling regular forces to respond more swiftly in the event of any attempt by China to invade.
It is estimated that the extension could add an extra 60,000 to 70,000 manpower annually to the current 165,000-strong professional force in 2027 and beyond. Even after the extension, however, the period of service will still be shorter than the 18 months mandated in South Korea, which faces a hostile and nuclear-armed North Korea.
The de facto American embassy in Taiwan welcomed the announcement though the latter is not really happy with the US arms deliveries this year, including of Stingers.
Military experts, however, warn that the measures could fall far short of what is needed. “They are basically going back to what was in place in 2008, before the force reductions started,” said Kitsch Liao, military and cyber affairs consultant for Doublethink Lab, a Taipei-based civil society group. “While you have to give the president credit for reviving that system, they are not addressing the problem of military power, which is the core of deterrence.” Military analysts said the conscription reform was little more than an emergency measure to end a chronic shortfall in military headcount, which an earlier attempted transition to an all-volunteer force could not achieve.
Media reports from Taiwan inform that the defense ministry has pledged to implement an overhauled training regimen, including dropping bayonet training — ridiculed by many conscripts as useless and a symbol of the weak state of the force. Instead, young recruits will be put through modern US-designed modules, including for weapons such as Stinger or Javelin missiles. But the new programme was initially devised for Taiwan’s nominally large if almost entirely dysfunctional reserve force.
Foreign observers and local defense experts also expressed concerns that the sudden inflow of conscripts would result in severe training bottlenecks. “How are you going to ensure all that if you suddenly get that many more people coming through?” Liao said. “That raises concerns that people will again have to wait many months until it’s their turn.”
The Americans are currently assessing the chances of Taiwan’s conscription provoking further Chinese action. Former US deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger said recently that though history has shown that aggressors sometimes launch pre-emptive wars against adversaries they fear might one day achieve military superiority, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not believe Taiwan would ever have the capability to invade and annex China.
“The move to twelve months of conscription service is a statement of Taiwan’s society-wide commitment to defend its sovereignty,” he was quoted as saying. “It also sends a warning to Beijing to be cautious. Such messages must be sent as often as possible, in as many ways as possible.”
Pottinger’s understanding is that Taiwan has much too little space and manpower to prepare to fend off a serious attack from China. Taiwan needs external assistance to stay independent – a role the United States is playing. Observers say contrary to Taiwan’s actions provoking China, it is actually China that provokes both Taiwan and her benefactors by repeatedly testing their military resolve.
There is growing unanimity that of late, CCP’s cognitive warfare campaigns against Taiwan are achieving some success. The Americans suggest that some Taiwanese media are reflecting Beijing’s propaganda, claiming that the US sees Taiwan as its “pawn,” and might even want to “Ukraine-ize” the nation by luring China into a war that would destroy Taiwan and weaken China, while the US stands on the sidelines.
China’s CCP appears to be of the notion that the US and its allies had failed to first compel Russia not to invade Ukraine and later failed again to subdue Russian war efforts. Even the sanctions have come to a naught as Russia has found alternate means to earn money from discounted oil sale.
The situation actually makes China confident of tackling the western response to any of its offensive overtures against Taiwan.
In this situation, the role of the US in the Indo-Pacific is similar to that of Nato in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Americans have to be always present in full strength in the South China Sea region to as much deter a war as fight a war. Anything less will mean no resistance to China. Similarly, Russian president Vladimir Putin knows that NATO does not threaten Russia any more than Taiwan threatens China, but it does stand in the way of Putin’s dream of building a European empire.
As the world watches for China’s reaction to Taiwan’s conscription announcement, analysts analyse President Xi Jinping’s public statements for any hints of an impending attack on Taiwan. They are perturbed by Xi’s statement in 2012 itself that the “Taiwan problem” would no longer be handed down to the next generation.
The Chinese president had also clarified that he views unification with Taiwan as a measure of success, and he cannot achieve the great rejuvenation of China without Taiwan being part of it.
It is still not clear whether China’s overt military intrusions into Taiwan’s air space are attempts to prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence or to test Taiwan’s allies’ reactions if a Chinese conquest plan is eventually implemented.
At the same time, Chinese military observers say the military action that Beijing would take depends on China’s capability and China would not take coercive military action unless it has sufficient capability to launch a full-scale invasion.
Some of these criticisms were acknowledged previously when Tsai announced the lengthening of the conscription period .