A government plan to end the nation’s mandatory military service and shift to an all-volunteer force is running into a problem: Not enough volunteers.
Such forces are generally considered superior to conscripted ones, because those serving want to be there. The government wants to field a leaner and meaner military of 176,000 volunteers by 2015, in place of the current complement of 235,000 volunteers and conscripts.
However, the military fell 4,000 short of its goal of 15,000 volunteers last year, and likewise was 2,000 short of its much smaller target of 4,000 in 2011.
Recruitment is proving difficult in a relatively prosperous society that offers young people alternatives and does not glorify military service. Unlike in the US, Taiwanese political candidates almost never mention military service when campaigning, almost as if it were a badge of shame.
“I pretty much agree with the old Chinese saying that good people don’t go into the military,” said Yen Shou-cheng, 28, who manages a food shop in downtown Taipei.
“I myself did just a couple of weeks of training and it was a total waste of time. There are far more important things in life than serving your country in the army — earning good money to take care of your wife and kids, for example,” Yen said.
Some young Taiwanese also question the need for a strong defense, because of the nation’s rapidly improving relations and expanding trade with its once implacable foe in Beijing.
Moreover, given China’s growing military strength, some think resistance would be futile.
“I think Taiwan has no chance of winning in a fight against China,” said Wang Yen-zhou, 19, a student at Taipei’s Taiwan National University. “We are not strong enough. So fighting doesn’t make sense.”
Gone are the days when the military could recruit soldiers with martial music and patriotic slogans about “retaking the mainland [China].” Today, hip depictions of soldiers dressed as funky cartoon characters are a dominant theme at the Keelung Street military recruiting center in Taipei, one of four such centers spread around the nation.
Taiwanese defense experts say the government also needs to offer higher salaries. All-volunteer militaries may be more professional, but they are also more expensive.
“The budget to sustain the force is not enough,” former deputy minister of defense Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) said. “Many people believe the Ministry of [National] Defense should rethink the entire concept.”
The ministry insists it can reach its recruiting targets, though Colonel Hu Zhong-shi, the deputy director of the ministry’s military recruiting effort, says that a strong economy is making it difficult.
“In 2010, when the economy was bad, we did very well,” he said. “Now that it is improving, we are facing more of a challenge.”
The basic salary for a voluntary recruit is about NT$30,000 a month, with bonuses for service in combat arms — the infantry, armor and artillery — and for extended periods of enlistment.
Alexander Huang (黃介正) of Tamkang University believes the government needs to raise defense spending from its present 2.2 percent of GDP to about 3 percent to meet the 2015 all-volunteer force goal.
However, that seems unlikely under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has focused on improving relations with China and sanctioned a cutback in military exercises.
The struggle to recruit worries some US defense experts.
While an attack may seem unlikely, China has never renounced the use of force in its bid to bring Taiwan under its control. It has an estimated 1,500 missiles aimed at the island across the 160km-wide Taiwan Strait.
Former American Institute in Taiwan director William Stanton told a China-wary audience in Taipei in March that declining military budgets and other signs of a weakened commitment to military readiness have left Taiwan vulnerable to Chinese attack and made it easier for Chinese spies to penetrate its armed forces.
“I worry [about Taiwan] because I sometimes think the Taiwanese people do not worry enough,” Stanton said.
One Taiwanese proudly bucking the trend is Kung Yun-ru, 22, a recent university graduate in design.
She said her family’s deep-seated military tradition — both her grandfather and uncle served in the army — helped cement her decision to report to one of Taipei’s two main recruiting depots and volunteer to become an officer in the military police.
“My motives are entirely patriotic,” she said, filling out her enlistment forms with a friend. “I love Taiwan and I’m definitely not afraid of the Chinese communists.”
However, Taipei university student Zhuang Ming-zheng, 20, questioned the whole idea of military readiness.
“We have good economic relations with the mainland [China], so there’s no reason to think that an attack will ever happen,” Zhuang said.