What’s behind Taiwan’s willingness to extend compulsory military service?

Foreign Affairs

After Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February, talk in Taiwan of extending the conscription period of its citizens — from four months to one year — became elevated in official discourse.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

The war in Ukraine, contrary to popular punditry, tells us very little about Taiwan’s situation vis-a-vis mainland China. But one change that the war may spur is the length of the compulsory military service requirement of Taiwan’s male citizens.

Last November, Taiwan People’s Party legislator Jang Chyi-lu (张其禄 Zhāng Qílù) asked Minister of National Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱国正 Qiū Guózhèng) if Taiwan’s current four-month conscription period was enough to ensure sufficient forces to defend Taiwan, especially considering other countries in the region, such as South Korea and Singapore, have two years of mandatory service. Chiu replied that the ministry was considering its options.

After Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February, talk in Taiwan of extending the conscription period became elevated in official discourse.

At a March 14 meeting of the Legislative Yuan’s internal affairs committee, responding to a legislator’s question on how Taiwan must improve its defenses, Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuo-yung (徐国勇 Xú Guóyǒng) said, “If the country can be sustained, safe, continue developing, and survive, what does one year [of service] over four months matter?”

Chiu said that the defense ministry is reviewing a proposal to extend Taiwan’s mandatory military service to one year, though the decision would not be “announced today and implemented tomorrow.”

The public is largely in favor of the proposal. A March 22 poll from the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that nearly 76% supported extending the conscription period to at least one year.

But there are important political considerations affecting the debate. While both major parties feel pressed into giving some approval to the proposed extension, college-aged students and their parents, who would be the most affected by the proposal, may oppose, meaning it may be politically expedient to avoid implementing anything before local elections in November.

“I think military service is a waste of time,” said a 20-year-old student at National Taiwan University surnamed He. He said he would support the government’s decision, whatever it may be, but added that he believes the low possibility of an invasion from the mainland makes mandatory military service useless.

At a March 17 committee meeting at the Legislative Yuan, Vice Minister of National Defense Po Hong-hui (柏鸿辉 Bǎi Hónghuī) said that the ministry would come to a decision within a year.

According to Article 16 of the Act of Military Service System, active military service lasts for one year, including a four-month training period. While all men have to complete four months of training, the one year of active service is currently waived. This means that the defense ministry could de facto increase the current conscription period to one year without changing the law.

The opposition is divided. Speaking at a conference on Taiwan’s national defense, head of the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) International Affairs Department Alexander Huang (黄介正 Huáng Jièzhèng) agreed that extending the conscription period was a good idea. But he added that it would have to be coupled with consideration on increasing the number of training facilities and purchasing more armaments.

Others are not as supportive. Jaw Shaw-kong (赵少康 Zhào Shǎokāng), an important KMT media figure, said that the debate over extending military service had to be understood within the context of relations with China. “If the cross-strait relationship wasn’t so tense, there’d be no need to extend the conscription period,” he said.

From 1949 to 2000, all Taiwanese males were conscripted into the military at age 18 for two to three years. But as tensions with China subsided beginning in the late 1980s, calls to reduce the conscription period grew. From 2000 to 2008, the service period was reduced to one year, where it remained until 2018, when a voluntary recruitment system was implemented.

Increasing the conscription period could have benefits for Taiwan’s national defense, said Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明 Lǐ Xǐmíng), former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces. With a longer service period, the military would have more overall troops and time to train its forces. Additionally, he believes that if men serve for longer periods, it will increase the ties between the public and the military, improving their awareness of national defense affairs.

“Everyone should have an awareness of protecting Taiwan, not only young people,” said a 30-year-old student at National Taiwan University surnamed Ke. To him, a longer mandatory service would result in a society more aware of the importance of defending Taiwan.

The Taiwanese military currently suffers from low morale and poor planning. Efforts to implement an asymmetrical warfare strategy, known as the Overall Defense Concept, which would see Taiwan’s armed forces and civilian militias fighting a war of attrition with invading forces, have stalled.

“No one has ever been in a [combat situation] in Taiwan. We wouldn’t be ready,” said Dominick Steer, a 22-year-old who finished his four-month training period in January. Steer describes training that was insufficient, with large portions of time wasted on menial tasks like sweeping and cleaning.

He recalled an incident in which his commander asked his squad of 20 how many of them would be willing to fight if an invasion occurred that day. “Only maybe three of them raised their hands,” he said.

Because the current debate is rooted in a change in the public’s feelings, Lee, the former military commander, doubts its helpfulness. “If this was coming from operational concerns, I would believe they’re prepared [to extend the service period]. But because it is coming from social pressure, I’m not sure,” he said.