Why Taiwan Won’t Be Able to Build An Effective All-Volunteer Force

Photo of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense Seal, Wikimedia Commons

By John Chen, Columnist

Facing stagnant economic growth rates and a shrinking labor pool resulting from Taiwan’s persistently low birthrate,[1] Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced in 2009 that the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces would begin to turn away from conscription and transition to an aIl-volunteer force by 2015.[2] It is no secret that Taipei’s efforts have floundered – the MND attracted only half of the 4,000 expected recruits in 2011 and only 11,000 of the 15,000 necessary volunteers in 2012.[3] With recruitment numbers sagging and defense budgets shrinking, the transformation has been postponed until 2017.[4] Much of the current literature attributes lackluster recruitment numbers to the higher cost of a transition to an all-volunteer force[5], but deeper difficulties lie ahead. Despite arguments that increased salaries and other economic inducements will increase recruitment and ease the transition, poor public perception of the military and a complex and unresolved national identity crisis present much more challenging systemic obstacles to an all-volunteer force in Taiwan.

A pervasive and longstanding cultural disdain for the military establishment combined with public resentment for past and present military misdeeds will continue to seriously hinder Taipei’s recruitment efforts. An apocryphal Chinese saying advises that “good men don’t become soldiers, just as one wouldn’t use good steel to make nails”[6] – but close observers need not step back far into Chinese history to see the impact of negative public perception. Historic and cultural disdain for military professions transformed into resentment during Taiwan’s 40-year martial law era, when a Kuomintang (KMT)-controlled military apparatus focused heavily on internal regime security, arrested over a hundred thousand alleged political opponents and executed several thousand more,[7] alienating the population at large. A 2012 poll indicated some 60% of youth born after 1984 would refuse conscription in the event of war.[8] Worse, a July 2013 hazing incident that resulted in the death of Corporal Hung Chung-Chiu drew considerable public anger, triggering destabilizing public allegations of MND corruption and maltreatment of soldiers. The public outcry included calls to decrease MND funding,[9] and reverberations from the protests continued for almost a year after the corporal’s death[10] – hardly good signs for recruitment during already lean times for Taiwan’s military.

Even as Taipei works to reverse the negative impacts of poor public perception of the military, a complex and unresolved national identity crisis presents a significant obstacle to recruitment efforts, and the lack of national unity will degrade military combat effectiveness. Military strategists ranging from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu indicate that a cohesive, motivating identity is a necessary precondition for building an effective combat force, but Taiwan’s population has neither the strong national nor civic identity required to construct a motivated professional force. Clausewitz emphasizes patriotic spirit as one of the principle moral elements of an army, citing it as an origin of courage[11] and identifying patriotism as a crucial factor in victory.[12] Chinese strategist Sun Tzu declared that a commander “will not succeed unless [his] men have tenacity and unity of purpose.”[13] The Taiwanese population, however, has yet to reach a consensus on what moniker they might identify with, let alone fight for. Polls from the National Chengchi University indicate that 32.5 percent of the Taiwanese population identifies as both Chinese and Taiwanese, indicating that national identity is still in flux.[14] Put simply, a “rally around the flag” recruitment effort would be difficult since a sizeable portion of the population is not sure what flag they would rally around. Worse, the “conditional loyalty” of the military’s mostly pro-KMT officer corps, exemplified by erstwhile Chief of the General Staff Hau Pei-Tsun’s 1989 declaration that the ROC armed forces would not “protect Taiwan independence,”[15] continues to pose a problem for any effective defense of the island. Serious questions surrounding public cohesion and military loyalty remain unanswered, casting doubt over Taipei’s ability to mount a successful defense of Taiwan.

Many US analysts argue that economic inducements offer the best chance for Taiwan to shift to an all-volunteer force in spite of these problems, but well-documented economic limitations will continue to frustrate any attempts to overcome the military’s public relations problem and a muddled Taiwanese national identity. Even if Taipei manages to rehabilitate the military’s sagging reputation and consolidate a national identity, anemic Taiwanese economic growth and reduced defense spending will continue to constrain Taipei’s efforts to build an effective all-volunteer force. Taiwan’s GDP growth rate dipped from 4.1 percent in 2011 to 2.2 percent in 2013,[16] and President Ma Ying Jeou’s promise to boost defense spending to three percent of GDP remains unfulfilled, stymied by weak economic growth and reduced political appetite for defense outlays. Worse, Taiwan’s military faces other spending priorities, such as equipment modernization, that will inhibit salary raises and healthcare benefits that might attract recruits otherwise drawn to a more lucrative private-sector position.[17] Bereft of a strong public reputation and a cohesive national identity that might draw recruits, Taiwan’s defense ministry will increasingly have to rely on economic inducements for which there is simply not enough money.

Though poor public perception and a weak national identity are not insurmountable obstacles to a successful transition to an all-volunteer force, they remain daunting challenges for any Taiwanese military modernization effort. Other national militaries that have reputational repercussions from past crimes and relatively weakened national identities, such as Germany, can rely upon robust economic growth to maintain highly professional, all-volunteer militaries. Taiwan, however, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Demographic shifts and lean economic conditions will force Taipei to reduce the size of its armed forces, while simultaneously dealing with a public relations problem and an unresolved national identity crisis amongst its recruitment pool. The prospects for a successful transition to an effective all-volunteer force will remain dim as a result.

[1] Michael Mazza, “Taiwanese Hard Power: Between a ROC and a Hard Place,” American Enterprise Institute, April 14 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/taiwanese-hard-power-between-a-roc-and-a-hard-place/.

[2] China Post News Staff, “End of Military Conscription”, The China Post, March 13, 2009 http://www.chinapost.com.tw/editorial/taiwan-issues/2009/03/13/199883/End-of.htm.

[3] J. Michael Cole, “Taiwan’s All-Volunteer Military: Vision or Nightmare?” The Diplomat, July 9, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/07/taiwans-all-volunteer-military-vision-or-nightmare/.

[4] Michael Mazza, “Taiwanese Hard Power: Between a ROC and a Hard Place,” American Enterprise Institute, April 14 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/taiwanese-hard-power-between-a-roc-and-a-hard-place/.

[5] Stanley A. Horowitz, “Implementing an All-Volunteer Force in Taiwan,” Institute for Defense Analyses, October 2009. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a509059.pdf.

[6] “How Did The Chinese Phrase “Good Metal Shouldn’t Be Used For Nails, Good Men Shouldn’t Come Soldiers” Arise?” “Zhong Guo “Hao Tie Bu Da Ding, Hao Nan Bu Dang Bing” De Guan Nian Shi Shen Me Shi Hou Xing Cheng De?” Yahoo! Answers, July 15, 2005, https://tw.knowledge.yahoo.com/question/question?qid=1205071509452

[7]Julie Wu, “Remembering Taiwan’s White Terror,” The Diplomat, March 8, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/remembering-taiwans-white-terror/?allpages=yes.

[8] Hsiu-chuan Shih, “Youth Will Not Fight For Taiwan: Poll,” Taipei Times, May 13, 2012, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2012/05/13/2003532684.

[9] Rupert Hammond-Chambers, “Taiwan’s Military Under Siege,” The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324769704579008471763297750.

[10] Wang Ying-chieh, Shih Hsu-chuan, and Jake Chung. “Public Expresses Outrage Over Hung Ruling,” Taipei Times, March 8, 2014, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2014/03/08/2003585137.

[11] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 101

[12]Ibid., 186

[13] Sun Tzu, “Book 11: The Nine Situations,” In Sun Tzu on the Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (Adelaide, South Australia: eBooks@Adelaide, The University of Adelaide Library, December 22, 2014), https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/suntzu/art-of-war/chapter11.html.

[14] Election Study Center, National Cheng Chi University, “Taiwanese/Chinese Identification Trend Distribution,” National Cheng Chi University Study: Trends in Core Political Attitudes Among Taiwanese, July 9, 2014, http://esc.nccu.edu.tw/course/news.php?Sn=166.

[15]Chih-Cheng Lo, “Taiwan: The Remaining Challenges,” in Coercion and Governance, ed. Muthiah Alagappa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[16] Central Intelligence Agency, “Taiwan,” The World Factbook, June 19, 2014, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tw.html.

[17] Michael Mazza, “Taiwanese Hard Power: Between a ROC and a Hard Place,” American Enterprise Institute, April 14 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/taiwanese-hard-power-between-a-roc-and-a-hard-place/.

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