Taiwan’s military has a problem: As China fears grow, recruitment pool shrinks


Taipei, Taiwan
CNN

Taiwan noticed an ever-widening hole in its defense plans. This is not something that can be easily covered by increasing the budget or buying more weapons.

The island democracy of 23.5 million people faces increasing difficulty recruiting enough young men to meet its military goals, and its Interior Ministry blames the problem, at least in part, on its stubbornly low birthrate.

Taiwan’s population shrank for the first time in 2020, according to the ministry, which warned earlier this year that conscription in 2022 would be the lowest in a decade and that the continued decline in the number of young people would pose a “big challenge” for young people. the future.

That’s bad news as Taiwan tries to build up its forces to fend off any potential Chinese invasion, with its ruling Communist Party making increasingly loud noises about its determination to “reunify” the self-governing island. controlled – by force if necessary.

And a new report from Taiwan’s National Development Council predicts that the island is expected to have about 20,000 fewer births per year in 2035 than the 153,820 births recorded in 2021. In 2035, Taiwan will overtake South Korea. the jurisdiction with the lowest birth rate in the world, the report added.

Such predictions are fueling a debate over whether the government should extend mandatory military service for young men. According to a report by the Legislative Yuan, the island currently has 162,000 (as of June this year) professional military forces – 7,000 less than the target. In addition to this number, all eligible men must undergo four months of training as reservists.

Changing the conscription requirement would be a major turnaround for Taiwan, which has previously tried to reduce conscription and reduced mandatory service to 12 months in 2018. But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng said such plans would be made public by the end of the year.

The news was met with opposition from some young students in Taiwan, who expressed their displeasure on PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit, even as the wider public supported the move.

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A survey by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March this year showed that most Taiwanese agree with the proposal to extend the term of office. It was found that 75.9% of the respondents considered it reasonable to extend it for one year; Only 17.8% were against.

Many experts argue that there is no other way.

Su Tzu-yun, director of Taiwan’s National Defense and Security Research Institute, said that by 2016, the number of men eligible for military service – either as career soldiers or reservists – was about 110,000. Since then, he said, the number has declined each year, with the pool expected to drop to 74,000 by 2025.

And within the next decade, Su said, the number of young people available for recruitment into the Taiwanese military could drop by a third.

“This is a matter of national security for us,” he said. “Our population is declining, so we are actively considering resuming the draft to meet our military needs.

“Now we face a growing threat (from China) and we need to have more ammunition and manpower.”

Taiwan’s low fertility rate of 0.98 is well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population, but it is not particularly high in East Asia.

South Korea broke its world record in November, dropping its birth rate to 0.79, Japan’s to 1.3, and mainland China’s to 1.15.

Still, experts say, given the island’s relative size and the threats it faces, the trend poses a unique challenge for Taiwan’s military.

China has been making increasingly aggressive noises about the island since then-US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei. Soon after he landed on Taiwan, Beijing also began unprecedented military exercises around the island.

Since then, temperatures have remained high, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping saying at a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was inevitable and that he retained the option of taking “all measures”.

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Chan Yang-Tin, a former deputy chief of Taiwan’s air force, said that while low birth rates are common in East Asia, “the situation in Taiwan is very different” as the island is “under increasing pressure (from China) and the situation will escalate.”

“The United States has military bases in Japan and South Korea, and Singapore is not under serious military threat from its neighbors. “Taiwan is facing the biggest threat and the declining birth rate makes the situation even more serious,” he added.

Roy Li, deputy executive director of Taiwan’s Chung-Hua Institute of Economic Research, agreed that Taiwan faces more security threats than other regions.

“The situation for Taiwan is more complicated because our population is smaller than other countries facing similar problems,” he added.

Taiwan has a population of 23.5 million, South Korea has 52 million, Japan has 126 million and China has 1.4 billion.

In addition to shrinking the recruitment pool, the shrinking youth population could also threaten the long-term viability of Taiwan’s economy, which is the island’s defense arm.

Taiwan is the world’s 21st largest economy and had a GDP of $668.51 billion last year, according to the London-based Center for Economic and Business Research.

Much of its economic revenue comes from its leading role in the supply of semiconductor chips, which play an indispensable role in everything from smartphones to computers.

Taiwan’s semiconductor giant TSMC is seen as so valuable to the global economy as it is to China that it is sometimes called part of a “silicon shield” against a potential military attack by Beijing because its presence is a strong incentive for Western intervention.

Lee noted that the population level is closely related to the gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic activity. A population decline of 200,000 people could lead to a 0.4% drop in GDP, all else being equal, he said.

“Growing GDP by 0.4% is very difficult and requires a lot of effort. Therefore, it is a big thing that the declining population can remove this much growth,” he said.

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Taiwan’s government has taken a number of measures to encourage people to have children, but with little success.

It pays parents a monthly stipend of NT$5,000 (US$161) for their first child, and more for each additional child.

Since last year, pregnant women have been entitled to seven days of leave to undergo obstetrical examinations before childbirth.

In addition to military service, the island has encouraged migrant workers to fill job vacancies in the broader economy.

Statistics from the National Development Council show that there were about 670,000 migrant workers in Taiwan at the end of last year, accounting for about 3% of the population.

According to the council, most migrant workers work in the manufacturing sector, with the vast majority from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Li said that in the long term, Taiwan’s government will have to reform its immigration policy to attract more migrant workers.

Still, there are those who say Taiwan’s low birthrate is nothing to panic about.

Alice Cheng, an associate professor of sociology at Taiwan’s Sinica Academy, cautioned against reading too much into population trends, as they are influenced by many factors.

He noted that several decades ago, many demographers were warning of food shortages due to population explosion.

And even if the low birth rate is maintained, it is not a bad thing if it is a manifestation of the improvement of women’s rights, he said.

“The expansion of education in East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s dramatically changed the situation of women. It really pushed women out of their homes because they had education, training and career prospects,” she said.

“The next thing you see around the world, as women’s education levels improve, the birth rate starts to decline.”

“All East Asian countries are really scratching their heads trying to think of policies and interventions to increase fertility,” he added.

“But if it’s something (women) really don’t want, can you push them to do it?”

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