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.