Taiwan revamps military training for reserves amid China pressure

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Taiwan is facing questions about whether its military reserves are capable of actual fighting in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Taipei, Taiwan – Preparing for potential military action from China is a prospect that has hung over Taiwan since its government fled to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. There were three close encounters between the 1950s and 1990s, and now there may be reason to worry once again as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) completes an ambitious military modernisation campaign.

In a recently released white paper, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the PLA had developed the ability to blockade Taiwan’s major airports and harbours, while the Pentagon said they would have the capacity to “compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table” as early as 2027.

Since taking office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has focused on improving the armed forces’ capabilities and gone on an extensive weapons buying campaign from the United States as her government’s relationship with Beijing has darkened. In August, the administration of US President Joe Biden approved its first sale of $750m in weapons to Taiwan, after predecessor Donald Trump approved $5.1bn in sales in 2020.

The Taiwanese defence ministry is now asking for an extra $9bn over the next five years to improve Taiwan’s defences. The money would be in addition to its existing, and growing budget.

As Taiwan’s horizon darkens, it needs to reckon with another big question of whether the general public will be ready.

Most male citizens are required to complete national service which should, in theory, prepare them to supplement the professional military, now capped at about 188,000, according to budget data, and rising to 215,000 if civilian contractors and trainees are factored into the equation.

Limits have been placed on the military for budgetary reasons and political ones – most democracies do not maintain large standing armies – and so the reserves would play a vital support role repositioning bombed runways, repairing vehicles and simply digging ditches. In the event of an attack, about one million or so of these reservists, those who have completed their national service in the past eight years, could be called up in the first round of mobilisation.

‘Trainees are more of a burden’

Despite their important role, however, Taiwan faces questions about whether its reserves are capable of actual fighting and if an adequate system is in place to oversee them if they were mobilised in a wartime scenario.

After completing national service, which was cut down to four months from one year about a decade ago, most reservists are required to return for about a week of recall training on two separate occasions to brush up on their skills. In practice, however, results have been mixed.

“The new four-month compulsory service does not provide sufficient time for training in various specialisations while also providing them with sufficient experience in joint exercises,” said Kitsch Liao Yen-fan, a cyber-warfare and military affairs consultant for Doublethink Lab in Taiwan. “This means the new four-month trainees are more of a burden to units they are assigned to than actual combat power that can be relied upon.”

Wen Lii, director of the office of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for the Matsu Islands, a group of islands governed by Taiwan that lie off the coast of southeastern China. told Al Jazeera that he spent his national service learning how to drive and repair an armoured vehicle.

While he found the experience worthwhile, he also said there was room for improvement.

“I played a supporting role – my role was similar to that of a mechanic and teaching assistant – but that has to do with the purpose of our specific unit as well as the intended role for conscripts in the first place,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said reservists could benefit from a “more defined role” detailing how they would assist regular soldiers during war time by focusing on logistics, first aid and similar support – a point that has also been made by analysts.

Taiwan’s defence strategy has long focused on “asymmetric defence” or that it would “resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead,” according to the defence ministry. In practice, this means that while outnumbered by the PLA, Taiwan aims to make itself an unattractive enough target for attack by being able to carry out a prolonged resistance.

For this reason, the defence ministry has established the All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency to oversee the reserves from January.

A pilot project will also start the same month to overhaul recall training, testing out a more intensive 14-day regimen on 15,000 recalled reservists. Recently some recalls have also spoken of a changing tone in how the military treats them, suggesting that their potential value is also recognised.

Cy Chen, who works in customer service, told Al Jazeera his first experience with recall training three years ago felt like “summer camp” for boy scouts, but during his second recent recall he noticed a major shift in tone as his group reviewed how to use guns and practise marksmanship.

“As one of our leaders mentioned there, ‘we learned how to shoot and how to hide but never learn how to dodge or how to do combat.’ I think this process is to make sure that when the country needs you, and you won’t be afraid to use a gun and further, this process also remind us how to (value) peace,” he said.

‘Lot more work to be done’

Improving practical skills and training are just one part of the equation, however, if Taiwan really wants to have a capable defence force. For one thing, Taiwan’s military is somewhat lopsided as it has nearly 90,000 non-commissioned military officers (NCOs) – enlisted soldiers who began at entry-level and rose through the ranks – but just 44,127 soldiers and 36,232 commissioned officers who entered the military at a higher rank, according to government budget data.

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Programme, said Taiwan only has about 40 percent of the officers and 60 percent of the NCOs required to oversee, train and coordinate recalled reservists as part of Taiwan’s greater “plug and play” or “ready to go” defence strategy anchored in a relatively small military and wider base of civilians.

The military in Taiwan, however, has long been unpopular career choice due to low pay, benefits and social status as well as negative associations with Taiwan’s martial law regime, when the military played a vital role in suppressing human rights. “There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of making defence a major career of the kind that attracts higher calibre talent in Taiwan,” Sung said.

Taiwan’s ‘frogmen’ Marines perform covert landing drills just a few kilometers from mainland China on the outlying island of Kinmen, Taiwan [File: Wally Santana/ AP]

A new defence white paper made public earlier this month proposes better housing, childcare and more career development courses, but it is unclear whether it will be enough to entice people to sign up.

Currently, a lieutenant makes just 51,915 New Taiwan Dollars ($1,867) a month while a colonel – one of the most senior field positions in most militaries – makes 78,390 NTD ($2,816), not much more than the average monthly salary of 54,320 NTD once bonuses are factored in. Pensions were also cut in 2018 as the government was unable to balance the books with a shrinking population and structural changes in Taiwan’s economy.

“How do you make them [professional recruits] believe joining the military is not a lifelong commitment, they could have a second life outside the military? That’s what happened with the US military, most people when they leave service have a second life,” said Doublethink’s Liao, describing how Taiwan is now undergoing a “race” against time.

“It’s not about buying all the big weapons, getting all the missiles you can, it’s about changing attitudes and culture and the entire society catching up to be ready, and to form a deterrence in time.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a continuing discussion by legislators and military experts in Taiwan and the US on whether to train a civilian militia or simply have volunteers ready to provide food and shelter at Taiwan’s many temples.

Civilian defence

For now, small workshops have been organised by groups outside the government by groups like the Taiwan Military and Police Tactics Research and Development Association (TTRDA), which trains civilians in skills like tactical shooting practice, to Forward Alliance, which teaches skills like first-aid for major disasters.

“We believe that a resilient society and a prepared society would play a big factor in whether the Beijing authority ultimately decides to use force. That means behind that 180,000 to 200,000 strong military, we have a system of reserves and civilians who are trained and equipped to mobilise in case of emergencies. The idea is the civilian population would complement the strength of our regular force,” said Enoch Wu, the founder of Forward Alliance who once served in Taiwan’s special forces.

The alliance teaches people how to protect themselves, how to treat those who are wounded, how to work together as a team, and how to secure their immediate surroundings.

“These things are the building blocks to emergency response whether we are dealing with an earthquake or in a worse case scenario a military conflict to have a civilian population that is trained to back up our emergency responders,” Wu added.

But Taiwan must now also contend with the increasing use of “grey zone” psychological warfare and other confrontational tactics that could allow China to “seize Taiwan without a fight”. These range from cyber-warfare and misinformation, to ramming Taiwanese coastguard vessels, patrols of the Taiwan Strait, and sending PLA flights into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), a swath of land and sea monitored by the military.

Between September 16 last year and July 31, Chinese aircraft made 554 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ, according to the defence ministry. They continued with regular flights in September and ramped up activity around October 1, China’s National Day, sending nearly 150 flights into the ADIZ over four days.

These patrols have “multiple objectives, including testing Taiwan’s responses, training PRC pilots, sending warning signals to Taiwan’s government, and stoking nationalism at home,” according to Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the US. Glaser described China’s growing capabilities as “worrisome” although she did not think any military action was imminent.

For now, Taiwan’s military has said it will keep monitoring the situation and also use caution to avoid further escalation.

Whether the US, Taiwan’s most important ally, would come to its defence is deliberately unclear under its continuing policy of “strategic ambiguity” that walks the line between defending Taiwan while not angering China. Under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US has pledged to “make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defence capabilities.”

Its guarantees, however, stop short of promising military support.

Since taking office, Biden has made several statements suggesting that he would support the diplomatically isolated democracy in the case of attack, but White House officials have quickly tempered his comments afterwards.

The more potential allies Taiwan can secure, the more it will offset China’s ability to attack Taiwan, ANU’s Sung told Al Jazeera.

At that time it would also need both “the objective capability and subjective political will” to carry out an operation, he said. Beyond the US, a potential list of allies could include Japan, South Korea, Australia, and even some European countries who have all expressed concern about the future of the Taiwan Strait.

“We’re seeing estimates that put the year at 2027 more or less in terms of China having sufficient conventional superiority for a successful offensive, and if you talk to more military crowd, and they will tell you, maybe it’s closer to 2035,” Sung said. “But that’s the straight line projection number. If you take into account other kinds of hawks of war or the possibility of additional friends and allies (of Taiwan) coming to participate in this situation, then we’re probably pushing the timeline back further into the future.”

Japan’s Revolution on Taiwan Affairs

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The most important development for Taiwan’s security might be unfolding right now in Japan. Tokyo’s strategy toward Taiwan is dramatically shifting. Once reluctant to join all but the most anodyne of pro-Taiwan statements with the United States, Japanese officials now increasingly state their desire to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country.” While no formal changes in security policy or diplomatic legalities are likely, Tokyo is signaling that it is willing to support Taiwan’s sovereignty, up to and including joining a military defense of the island against Chinese attack. This is likely giving Chinese Communist Party leaders and military planners much more short-term heartburn than the recently announced submarine and technology sharing deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Japan’s Rapidly Shifting Consensus

Until recently, Japan treaded far more carefully than the United States on Taiwan, focusing its language on “hope” for peaceful reconciliation between Beijing and Taipei. While, similarly to the United States, Japan never fully recognized China’s claims over Taiwan, Tokyo preferred to keep its official policies even more ambiguous than Washington’s through the Joint Communiqué of 1972. This document, which restored diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing, contained a Japanese recognition that the “Government of the People’s Republic of China” is the “sole legal Government of China.” Furthermore, Japan never created its own version of America’s Taiwan Relations Act, which provided (and still provides) a baseline of unofficial recognition, engagement, and security guarantees from Washington to Taipei in the aftermath of the former’s recognition of the Chinese Communist Party-state.

Rather, in its dealings with China, Japan typically took an accommodating tone on the topic, repeatedly stating that it “fully respects and understands the stance” that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of the territory of the Peoples’ Republic of China,” while never clearly laying out its own stance. Moreover, while there is a history of stridently anti-Chinese Communist Party Japanese politicians, especially within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, their efforts rarely impacted this delicate balance. Successive Japanese governments even actively worked to stifle any public statements of support for Taiwan within their ranks, prioritizing the growing economic relationship with China over geopolitics. For example, in November 1999, the Japanese Foreign Ministry publicly rebuked the right-wing populist governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, for publicly referring to Taiwan as a “state,” denigrating him as a mere “local official” without the ability to speak on behalf of the government. During a 2017 visit to Taiwan by Japanese Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Akama Jiro, the state broadcaster Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (commonly known as NHK) stated that the visit did not represent a shift in the government’s views toward Taiwan, and the government instructed Akama to partially focus his visit on disagreements over Taiwanese claims to an exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea, in effect treating Taiwan as a partial proxy for equivalent Chinese claims.

Now, Japan is unmistakably changing its approach. While official policies and legal authorities toward Taiwan have not changed and are unlikely to do so, the intent in, and signaling from, Tokyo is clearly different. Japan’s most recent defense white paper discussed Taiwan as “important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community” and described cross-strait tensions as requiring a “sense of crisis.” Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party launched party-to-party talks in August with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party involving discussions of security cooperation via joint coast guard exercises. In addition, Japanese politicians are making several once-unthinkable statements supporting Taiwan, like Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s assertion that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.” The statement from the April 2021 meeting between then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and U.S. President Joe Biden included a reference to “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the first such reference to Taiwan in a U.S.-Japanese statement since 1969. Perhaps most strikingly, there are increasing calls within the Liberal Democratic Party for Japan to create its own version of a Taiwan Relations Act, which would provide a new basis for Japan’s informal recognition of Taipei and would represent both a legal and policy formalization of a political atmosphere that is increasingly willing to part with decades-old communiques.

The Causes of Tokyo’s Shift

What explains these shifts in Japanese strategic thinking and public opinion? First, Japan has cover as part of a larger internationalization of the Taiwan issue, in which the United States, Australia, and many European states are embracing closer ties with Taipei. This, in turn, is leading to more unambiguous statements and acts of support for Taiwanese sovereignty, ranging widely from international calls for Taiwan’s full inclusion in the World Health Organization to Lithuania’s opening of a Taiwan representative office in its capital, Vilnius. Japan’s outreach to Taiwan still appears relatively moderate compared to these initiatives, placing them out of Beijing’s immediate crosshairs.

Second, Japanese priorities in regional engagement are shifting in line with its increasingly leading role within the liberal international order. Exemplified by Tokyo’s leadership to promote the re-booted Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Japanese strategists increasingly see national security imperatives as intertwined with regional stability. Once widely derided as a free-rider on a U.S.-backed security system, Japan now actively seeks to promote closer defense ties with liberal and democratic states in Asia as an act of strategy. Within this framework, Taiwan is a top candidate for closer relations as a fellow island democracy close with the United States and facing threats from China. From a broader perspective, Japan’s leadership position also draws it closer to Taiwan on its own terms: Japan’s legitimacy as a leader in the liberal world order necessitates its deeper involvement in the increasingly internationalized Taiwan issue, adding an additional motivation beyond geopolitics.

Third, Tokyo’s increasingly hawkish consensus on China is eclipsing traditionally dovish constituencies, ranging from pacifists to big business, who prioritized functional economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing. With Sino-Japanese ties already strained by the U.S. alliance, confrontations in the East China Sea, and fraught disputes over historical memory, these factions worked hard to ensure that relations could remain cordial and functional by keeping Japan out of disputes over Taiwan. However, with perceptions of strategic mistrust increasingly overcoming these imperatives, Tokyo is more willing to take stances on regional and international issues that will draw ire from China, including Taiwan. Even current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, a noted foreign policy dove throughout his long political career, embraced a tough line on China upon taking office. While serving as foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, Kishida prioritized moderation and balance in Japan’s dealings with China and was widely considered a dovish counterbalance to the more hardline Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. As a more junior member, he even based his political brand in opposing his party’s hawkish right wing, writing in 2005 that “balance in the trilateral Japan-US-China relationship is essential.” Nevertheless, upon winning the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership contest in September 2021, Kishida pivoted to a more hawkish position, criticizing Chinese human rights violations and pledging to expand Japan’s long-distance strike capabilities. With the Japanese public growing increasingly skeptical of China in the face of regular military provocations, this hawkish consensus is likely to continue to grow in influence.

Indeed, the pro-Taiwan shift is not only evident in the government halls of Tokyo, but among the Japanese people. Polling suggests that support for Taiwan is even popular amongst the still pacifist-leaning Japanese population, with 74 percent of respondents in an April 2021 poll by Nikkei and TV Tokyo supporting active Japanese engagement toward “stability in the Taiwan Strait.” An earlier poll in January 2021 found 67 percent of Japanese respondents describing Taiwan as a “trustworthy ally” in global affairs. It is worth noting that the feeling is mutual in Taiwan, where 58 percent of respondents in a November 2021 poll agreed that Japan would send troops for Taiwan’s defense against a Chinese invasion. This matches a more extensive history of relative “Japanophilia” in Taiwanese politics, making the state a notable outlier in a region deeply immersed in anti-Japanese views. Far from the “Japan-bashing” frequently practiced in Korea and China, President Tsai Ing-wen is known for occasionally tweeting to her 1.7 million followers in Japanese, something nearly unthinkable in any other former colony of the Japanese Empire. Several Japanese and Taiwanese commentaries on Tsai’s unlikely re-election victory in 2020 even mentioned her courting of Taiwan’s “pro-Japan young people” as part of her political appeal. Japanese politicians often return the favor, with tweets celebrating Taiwan’s national day and of Japanese politicians eating Chinese-boycotted Taiwanese pineapples garnering widespread attention. These warm and longstanding cultural and political ties only smooth the path toward closer defense relations.

What About Formal Policies and Laws?

Of course, security policy is hardly the result of tweets about pineapples. Prospects for any formal change to policies or laws toward Taiwan appear highly unlikely, despite supportive talk for some reforms within the Liberal Democratic Party. However, those focusing on the unlikelihood of Japanese legal or policy changes should consider the analogous case of the United States. Washington has also not committed to any significant changes in security policies or legal authorities despite an increasingly hawkish consensus and meaningful shifts in strategic thinking toward Taiwan. While it is true that recent statements from Japanese leaders should not be perceived as pledges to defend Taiwan, such ambiguity is also the cornerstone of the Washington’s policy. Thus, a lack of legal or policy changes should not be conflated with a continuity of Japan’s previous posture toward the Taiwan issue. Rather, the combination of political statements, shifting public opinion, and Tokyo’s acceptance of a more broadly confrontational relationship with China do represent a revolution for Japan’s role in Taiwan’s security. Regardless of policies and legalities, the Japanese security establishment appears willing to defend Taiwan to an unprecedented extent.

Take, for example, the idea of a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act, mentioned above. America’s Taiwan Relations Act, signed in 1979 as a counterbalance to the decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China and end formal recognition of Taiwan’s government, still acts as the primary legal basis for a hypothetical American defense of Taiwan. The act commits the United States to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and provides an ambiguous but meaningful commitment to defend the island from “any resort to force or other forms of coercion” from China. Despite calls for a clarification of this “strategic ambiguity,” the 1979 law appears likely to remain the main legal basis for Washington’s continued support for Taipei. Regardless of the law’s non-committal language, however, an increasing and bipartisan consensus is forming in the United States to diplomatically engage with Taipei and defend Taiwan with military force, even if laws and policies still call for ambiguity. Similarly, despite hopes for a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act in hawkish factions of the Liberal Democratic Party, prospects for such a law passing the Diet are dim. Nevertheless, the Japanese consensus is similarly fundamentally shifting without any likely legal formalization or change in explicit security policy, a fact that should not be misunderstood as a lack of seriousness or commitment by Tokyo. As for the legal authorities for a defense of Taiwan, the move by then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to expand the definition of the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution to include “collective self-defense” of partners appears to provide Tokyo all the justification it would need to defend Taiwan. This is especially true if Japanese strategists and public opinion supported such an action.

Likely Regional Responses

Beijing will undoubtedly bristle at any deepening relations between Taipei and Tokyo, especially security ties. Japan’s statements on Taiwanese issues are a particularly jarring for Chinese leaders, who still associate any Japanese involvement with the imperial and colonial era of the early 20th century. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party often conflates “separatist” Taiwanese movements with Japan itself. Victor Gao, the vice president of the party-backed Center for China and Globalization, told Le Monde newspaper in October 2021 that “separatist” Taiwanese were mostly made up of the “10% of the 23 million Taiwanese [that] are in fact of Japanese descent.” Any further engagement with Taipei almost ensures that the ongoing campaign of air defense identification zone incursions and “gray zone” activities in disputed waters in the East China Sea are here to stay. Moreover, economic retaliation, along the lines of Chinese actions taken against South Korean business giant Lotte after a dispute over missile defense systems, remains in the cards for any Japanese business that crosses Beijing’s commercial red lines. Nevertheless, Tokyo’s increasingly hawkish security community sees such actions as par for the course in today’s geopolitical climate.

On the other hand, this trend offers nothing but upside for strategists in Washington and Taipei. Any credible military defense of Taiwan always depended on free U.S. military access to Japanese-based forces and materiel. For decades, this forced U.S. and Taiwanese leaders and planners to ask whether Japan would risk potential Chinese attacks by allowing such access in wartime. A Japan that is not only willing to allow a war to be fought from its territory, but also to join in with its own forces, could provide a decisive edge for Washington and Taipei’s deterrence efforts. A shared warfighting scenario of the defense of Taiwan could also provide the U.S.-Japanese alliance with a renewed unified purpose and direction besides Japan’s immediate territorial defense, an admittedly more far-fetched scenario. However, while Japan still maintains a more ambiguous policy and legal stance than the United States, Washington should refrain from pushing its ally to go even further. The strategy of “strategic ambiguity” that provides political flexibility within set legal and policy boundaries works for the United States and should be allowed to work for Japan.

In Tokyo, Japanese leaders are likely to continue to see manageable and limited downsides in continued outreach to Taiwan. Tokyo’s embrace of a more prominent role within the liberal international order and increasing realist consensus on China is overcoming specific economic-minded constituencies within the Liberal Democratic Party and Japanese government that favor a more cooperative relationship with Beijing. Future areas of Tokyo-Taipei cooperation, such as Taiwan’s recent bid to join the rebooted Trans-Pacific Partnership and other international forums, are similarly agreeable in both Tokyo and Taipei. Discussions of security cooperation, like joint coast guard exercises, have a reasonable chance of bearing fruit. These meaningful developments can be contextualized within a larger internationalization of the Taiwan issue, giving Japan cover in its bilateral relationship with China. While such actions mean Japan can expect continued aggressive Chinese military actions near Japanese seas and airspace, Tokyo essentially perceives such provocations as inevitable regardless of Japan’s relations with Taiwan. Japan’s revolution on Taiwan affairs is likely to be lasting.

Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force with extensive operational experience in East Asia and Japan and a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs focusing on Japanese security relations with Southeast Asia. He is also a lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School, where he teaches courses on Japanese politics, culture, and security. He has previously published on East Asian security and international relations with the National Interest, Military Times, and the Diplomat. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Lauren Chatmas)

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