The proposal to merge the All-out Defense Mobilization Office and the Armed Forces Reserve Command into a single defense reserve mobilization agency (“New agency to oversee mobilization of reserves,” April 21, page 2) would represent an important step and an opportunity to strengthen Taiwan’s reserve system.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) deserves credit for advocating the need to enhance the reserves so that they would make a meaningful contribution to deterring aggression by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The government has announced plans to increase training from four days to two weeks and envisages training, including urban warfare training, being conducted annually. These are welcome changes, but they still fall short of what is needed to achieve combat-ready reserve troops.
One aspect of the proposal for a new agency warrants particular attention. It is the question of where the new agency would be located within the government. The Ministry of National Defense has naturally proposed that the new agency be located under itself.
However, there are compelling reasons to place the agency under the Executive Yuan. First, the agency would include the military reserves, which are under the ministry, and civilians mobilized by the Defense Mobilization Office, which falls under the Ministry of the Interior.
The All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act (全民防衛動員準備法) envisages the participation of eight ministries. With several ministries involved, that act establishes the Executive Yuan Mobilization Committee led by the premier. As such there is an Executive Yuan framework, at least on paper, which should be given responsibility for leading the new agency.
Second, putting the agency under the Executive Yuan would enhance its profile and reflect the reality that deterrence is the collective responsibility of the whole government.
Given the now existential threat posed by the increasing capabilities and activities of the PLA, deterrence can no longer be solely the responsibility of the armed forces. Executive Yuan leadership would reflect the priority that deterrence warrants and that Tsai advocates.
Third, it is an unfortunate reality that the image of Taiwan’s armed forces suffers from a negative hangover from the authoritarian era, which discourages young people from participating in defense ministry-led activities. This is seen in perennial recruiting and retention problems for both the regular armed forces and the reserves. Putting the new reserve organization under the executive yuan could help counteract this perception and encourage participation.
In addition, calling the new body an “agency” rather than a “command” contributes to portraying it as governmental rather than a purely military organization.
Fourth is the question of funding. Intense inter-service rivalry within the defense ministry has always left the reserve command with limited funds.
This would continue so long as the new agency is under the defense ministry. Placing it under the Executive Yuan would help ensure the increased funding needed to create combat-ready reserves.
This could be done while preserving the defense ministry’s role with respect military equipment, facilities, training and standards. Without a substantial increase in funding, the organizational change alone would not accomplish much.
Media have reported that the reserve command wants to attract new groups, including martial arts groups associated with local temples. While some commentators have lampooned it, this suggestion raises the question of how locally based reserve units might be organized under the nation’s administrative system.
Local territorial defense forces could play a crucial role by protecting critical local infrastructure, countering potential fifth-column sabotage and engaging PLA units in towns and cities behind an invasion’s front lines.
Such local defense units would allow the regular armed forces and national reserves to concentrate on defeating a PLA landing attempt. They would represent a crucial addition to deterrence.
Why is strengthening the reserves an urgent necessity? Despite all that is written about war, Beijing has strong incentives for achieving unification without invading Taiwan. Its strategic objective is to coerce Taiwan into accepting unification without actually invading.
Its view and expectation is that massive powerful military force will eventually undermine Taiwan’s confidence in its ability to resist and in the US’ ability to come to Taiwan’s assistance.
Taiwan is in a political and psychological struggle over its future. The increasing PLA activities around Taiwan are one military element in that struggle. Should Taiwan lose its confidence, new political leaders might emerge arguing that peace could only be preserved by accepting unification on Beijing’s terms.
One important element in counteracting coercion and bolstering the nation’s resilience would be to significantly enhance Taiwan’s reserve forces, including local territorial defense forces. It is because Taiwan’s current reserves do not contribute to deterrence and resilience that the new proposals for strengthening the reserves offer an important opportunity for meaningful change.
David Brown is a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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