A new batch of Taiwanese military recruits began their mandatory conscription Thursday after the island extended military service from four months to a year for men born after 2005, amid rising tensions with China, which views it as a breakaway province.
Outgoing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced the extension in late 2022, saying it was inspired by Russia’s war in Ukraine and describing the decision as “incredibly difficult”.
“As long as Taiwan is strong enough, it will be the home of democracy and freedom…it will not become a battlefield,” she said at the time.
China has ramped up its military activities along the Taiwan Strait over the past four years — at times breaching the island’s airspace and median line. It has refused to engage with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic People’s Party on cross-strait talks and has called the incoming president, William Lai, a “separatist”.
China defies expectations in muted response to Taiwan elections
To the surprise of many observers, China has not scaled up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait following the election of Taiwan’s anti-Beijing president William Lai. “It’s possible Beijing has decided its pre-election military maneuvers backfired,” wrote Politico’s Phelim Kine, citing the China-friendly Kuomintang party’s loss. “But Beijing’s drumbeat of threatening rhetoric towards the island continues,” he added. The “icy peace that currently exists is still very sustainable,” argued Lev Nachman, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, saying that the status quo between the Chinese government and Taiwan’s ruling DPP “keeps the peace”. In a separate analysis, Nachman argued that Beijing may choose to make its next move closer to Lai’s inauguration on May 20.
Taiwan has scaled up investments in defense but still struggles to compete with China
Taiwan increased its national defense budget by almost 15% in 2023 compared with the year before, to $19 billion, according to TIME magazine – but that’s still less than a tenth of China’s. The territory also wants to increase its number of reserve personnel, which currently sits at more than 1.6 million. But whether or not these investments would count for much in the case of a potential invasion by Beijing “remains to be seen,” a China expert at the Atlantic Council told TIME. Though the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army is undoubtedly stronger, with two million active personnel, the threat of an expensive conflict may deter Beijing and lead it to take a different, non-military route to attempt to tighten its grip on Taiwan, the magazine reported. A Bloomberg Economics analysis predicted that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would cost the world’s economy roughly $10 trillion – 10% of global GDP. “The incentive to avoid it is strong,” wrote Bloomberg’s international economics enterprise editor.
Taiwan may need to expand conscription further to combat Chinese aggression
As Taiwan continues to adjust to shifting demographics – such as its aging population and declining male-to-female ratio – the current one-year conscription policy for men may need lengthening further, two Taiwan experts argued in The Diplomat. A survey carried out by the outlet found that a majority of Taiwanese people agreed that expanding conscription was the right move — whether for a longer period or to include women in service. Most were supporters of the DPP, while those against expanding conscription were more loyal to Beijing. For older Taiwanese, the military is “tainted by memories of martial law” that was in place while Taiwan was subject to military dictatorship from 1949 to 1987, argued The Guardian’s China correspondent, Amy Hawkins. An expert on civil-military relations in Taiwan told Hawkins that Taiwan’s military has a “perception problem,” because “not enough has been done to completely divest itself of lingering association with its past.”