Taiwan strives to bolster forces amid Beijing sabre-rattling

When Enoch Wu gave a lecture at National Cheng Kung University in southern Taiwan two weeks ago, the auditorium was packed. But while many had come just to catch a glimpse of the charismatic 39-year-old, a rising star in the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP), he issued them with a challenge.

“The People’s Liberation Army has done 20 years of defence reform. We haven’t done much,” Mr Wu told the 250 students, describing Taiwan’s military as a force failing to adjust to the growing threat it faces from China. The former Goldman Sachs banker and special forces officer urged them to engage in a public debate on Taiwan’s defence and military service, and canvassed their willingness to step up if needed.

As Beijing increasingly asserts its interests through military pressure, Taipei is scrambling to strengthen its armed forces. China claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to attack if Taipei refuses indefinitely to submit under its control.

Military experts warn that in the face of China’s formidable missile, air and electronic warfare capabilities, the Taiwanese public needs to make a bigger contribution to defending their country. Analysts say Taipei’s best bet at deterring an invasion is to bolster its reserves — a force that is large on paper but seen as unfit for the task because of a lack of training.

2.3m Number of Taiwanese reservists

“These young men are a latent capability that could make a tremendous difference,” said Ian Easton, an expert on the Taiwanese military at the Project 2049 Institute, a US think-tank focused on Asian defence affairs, and co-author of a study recommending a thorough overhaul of the reserve force. “If they were invaded, the reserve would be one of their greatest hopes.”

President Tsai Ing-wen has promised to reform the reserve force in her second term after years of fruitless pushes from the US, the unofficial guarantor of Taiwan’s security. During the annual Han Kuang live fire drill next week, two reserve force battalions will practise alongside active duty troops defending a beach against a People Liberation Army attack, the defence ministry said. 

Taiwan’s recent transition to an all-volunteer military has hollowed out the reserve force: of the 2.3m reservists the country has on paper, 780,000 were demobilised less than eight years ago — the military’s metric for whether men are worth mobilising. Of those, only 84,000 are demobilised volunteer force soldiers, the best-trained and most motivated group, 349,000 are former conscripts and another 326,000 have only completed basic military training.

Under current law, soldiers can be called back for training no more than four times in the eight years after mobilisation, with a limit of 20 days each time.

Many reservists have been called up for just a few days every two years, a level of training Mr Easton’s study declared “insufficient to meet the challenges posed by the increasing threat from the PLA”.

The US has argued that a large and well-trained reserve could help make it impossible for China to gain complete control of Taiwan even if the PLA managed to land an invasion force.

One proposed reform envisions integrating the strongest reserve units with active duty forces and transforming the remainder into a “territorial defence force” trained for guerrilla warfare. This would resemble the approach of Baltic or Scandinavian countries that also face existential threats, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Security Studies at George Mason University. “Rather than traditional military forces intended to go toe-to-toe with the invading conventional forces, they have invested in ‘people’s forces’, such as Norway’s Heimevernet or Estonia’s Estonian Defense League . . . [These] forces have some military training but are largely civilian,” it said.

But Taipei’s reforms are likely to fall far short of such expectations.

Wang Ting-yu, a DPP member of the legislature’s defence committee, said 200,000-400,000 of the most able reservists would be organised into units based in their hometowns and trained to fight with the same weapons as active duty forces.

“They will become a fighting force, something similar to the US National Guard, but not entirely the same as we don’t have the resources to pay for so many professional officers,” he added.

The remainder is unlikely to receive better training, according to two government officials briefed on the plans. In a war scenario, those reservists would be used for auxiliary functions such as cooking or standing guard. “If they know how to fire a gun, that is enough,” said one of the officials. 

Mr Wang said reintroducing conscription, which would be needed to support more ambitious reforms, was too politically difficult.

“Politicians in our country are afraid to discuss these issues with the public because they believe our people are not willing to sacrifice,” said Mr Wu, echoing US concerns over Taiwanese complacency about the military threat from China. “I think they are wrong. Our people are ready.”

 Yi-an, a 22-year-old student who attended Mr Wu’s talk last month, said she had not taken an interest in defence before. “It doesn’t seem like China is going to attack tomorrow,” she said.

But after the event, she signed up with Mr Wu’s group as a volunteer.