Signs that Taiwan was preparing for possible war with China were once everywhere: huge posters calling for the “liberation” of China and lengthy schoolyard drills training students to fight the communist enemy. That culture has changed so much since a detente process began in the 1990s that many young Taiwanese are now unwilling to take up arms to protect Taiwan.
A survey published this week by CommonWealth Magazine appears to confirm that Taiwan’s process of demilitarization is rapidly gaining steam. Based on a sample of students aged 12 to 17, it found only 38.7 percent would be ready to see either themselves or a family member fight if a new war broke out, while 44.3 percent would not. The remainder had no opinion.
“It goes without saying that the number of Taiwanese willing to fight has come down significantly in recent years,” former deputy minister of national defense Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) said. “I’m even surprised that the number of pro-defense people cited by the magazine is so high.”
The Ministry of National Defense declined to comment on the survey, saying it had no information on the way it was conducted.
CommonWealth said it was carried out by mail between Oct. 17 and Nov. 4 and that the 3,715 responses represented a 74 percent return on the 5,054 questionnaires it sent.
Aside from shining a light on the huge changes now taking place in Taiwanese society, the findings offer a big challenge for Taiwan’s military, which is already struggling with a constricted defense budget and the reluctance of the US to supply it with the weapons it says it needs to cope with China’s ambitious military modernization.
While Taiwan plans to end its current system of 11-month mandatory male conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force by 2014, a lack of funds and difficulty in attracting recruits are almost certain to push that date back by several years. That will leave the military dependent on large numbers of apparently unmotivated draftees.
Tamkang University military specialist Alexander Huang (黃介正) says the negative trends in volunteer force recruiting are especially worrying.
“I have been asking university students for several years now whether they would be willing to join an all-volunteer military,” he said. “I get positive responses from no more than 2 or 3 percent.”
Taiwan has been engaged in a gradual program of detente with China over the past two decades, culminating in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) efforts to bring the sides ever closer together, mostly through a series of ambitious commercial initiatives.
However, China has never renounced its long-standing threat to take over Taiwan by force should it move to make its de facto independence permanent, or delay unification indefinitely. It currently aims an estimated 1,500 missiles at Taiwanese targets, and conducts frequent drills simulating an invasion across the Taiwan Strait.
Despite the threats and the missiles, present-day Taiwan is a remarkably unmilitarized society, with few signs of a military presence outside of ministry facilities. Uniformed military personnel are rarely seen in major cities, and while highlights of annual war games are shown on television to boost morale, few people outside of the armed forces take them very seriously.
Huang and Lin ascribe the lack of military consciousness to the rapid improvement in relations with China, which they said made it difficult for young Taiwanese to conceive of the possibility of a return to the tension of the past.