Taiwan’s military has a problem: As China fears grow, recruiting pool shrinks

Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan has noticed a hole in its defense plans that is getting bigger and bigger. And it is not easy to connect by increasing the budget or buying more weapons.

The island democracy of 23.5 million faces a growing challenge in recruiting enough young men to meet its military goals and its interior ministry has suggested the problem is at least partly due to to its stubbornly low birth rate.

Taiwan’s population fell for the first time in 2020, according to the ministry, which warned earlier this year that military intake in 2022 would be the lowest in a decade and that a continued drop in the youth population would pose a “huge challenge” for the population. future

This is bad news at a time when Taiwan is trying to build up its forces to deter any possible invasion by China, whose Communist Party government has been making increasingly belligerent noises about its determination to “reunify ” with the self-governing island, which it has never done. controlled – by force if necessary.

And the outlook has darkened further with the release of a new report from Taiwan’s National Development Council which predicts that by 2035 the island can expect roughly 20,000 fewer births per year than the 153,820 it recorded in 2021 By 2035, Taiwan will also overtake South Korea as the jurisdiction with the lowest birth rate in the world, the report added.

These projections are fueling a debate over whether the government should increase the period of mandatory military service that eligible youths must complete. The island currently has a professional military force of 162,000 (as of June this year), 7,000 short of the target, according to a Legislative Yuan report. In addition to this number, all eligible men must complete four months of training as reservists.

Changing the mandatory service requirement would be a major turnaround for Taiwan, which has previously tried to reduce conscription and shortened the mandatory service from 12 months as recently as 2018. But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo – Cheng said these plans will be made public before the end of the year.

This news has been met with opposition from some young students in Taiwan, who have expressed their frustrations on PTT, the Taiwanese version of Reddit, although there is support for the move among the general public.

A survey by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March this year found that most Taiwanese agreed with a proposal to extend the period of service. It found that 75.9% of respondents thought it reasonable to extend it to one year; only 17.8% were opposed.

Many experts argue that there is simply no other option.

Su Tzu-yun, director of Taiwan’s National Defense and Security Research Institute, said that before 2016, the pool of men eligible to join the military, either as career soldiers or as reservists, it was about 110,000. Since then, he said, the number had declined each year and the group would likely be as low as 74,000 by 2025.

And over the next decade, Su said, the number of young adults available for conscription by the Taiwanese military could drop by as much as a third.

“This is a national security issue for us,” he said. “The population as a whole is declining, so we are actively considering whether we need to resume military service to meet our military needs.

“Now we face a growing threat (from China) and we need more firepower and manpower.”

Taiwan’s low birth rate (0.98) is well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population, but is not out of the ordinary in East Asia.

In November, South Korea broke its own world record when its birth rate fell to 0.79, while Japan’s fell to 1.3 and mainland China reached 1.15.

Still, experts say the trend poses a unique problem for Taiwan’s military, given the island’s relative size and the threats it faces.

China has been making increasingly aggressive noises toward the island since August, when then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taipei. Shortly after landing in Taiwan, Beijing also launched a series of unprecedented military exercises on the island.

Since then, the temperature has remained high, especially when Chinese leader Xi Jinping told a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was inevitable and that he reserved the option of taking “all the necessary measures”.

Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force, said that while low birth rates were common in East Asia, “the situation in Taiwan is very different” as the island faces “increasing pressure (from China) and the situation will worsen”.

“The United States has military bases in Japan and South Korea, while Singapore does not face an acute military threat from its neighbors. Taiwan faces the greatest threat, and the declining birthrate will make the situation even more serious,” he added.

Roy Lee, deputy executive director of Taiwan’s Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research, agreed that the security threats facing Taiwan were greater than those in the rest of the region.

“The situation is more difficult for Taiwan, because our population base is smaller than other countries facing similar problems,” he added.

Taiwan’s population is 23.5 million, compared to South Korea’s 52 million, Japan’s 126 million, and China’s 1.4 billion.

In addition to the shrinking recruitment pool, the shrinking youth population could also threaten the long-term performance of Taiwan’s economy, which is itself a pillar of the island’s defense.

Taiwan is the world’s 21st largest economy, according to the London-based Center for Economic and Business Research, and had a GDP of $668.51 billion last year.

Much of its economic weight comes from its leading role in supplying semiconductor chips, which play an indispensable role in everything from smartphones to computers.

Taiwan semiconductor giant TSMC is seen as so valuable to the global economy, as well as to China, that it is sometimes referred to as part of a “silicon shield” against a possible military invasion by Beijing , as their presence would provide a strong incentive for the West to intervene.

Lee noted that population levels are closely related to gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic activity. A population decline of 200,000 people could lead to a 0.4% decline in GDP, all things being equal, he said.

“It is very difficult to increase the GDP by 0.4% and it would require a lot of effort. So the fact that a declining population can take out so much growth is huge,” he said.

Taiwan’s government has introduced a number of measures aimed at encouraging people to have babies, but with limited success.

It pays parents a monthly stipend of NT$5,000 (US$161) for their first baby, and a higher amount for each additional one.

Since last year, pregnant women have seven days of leave for obstetrical check-ups before delivery.

Outside of the military, in the wider economy, the island has been encouraging migrant workers to fill vacancies.

Statistics from the National Development Council showed that about 670,000 migrant workers were in Taiwan at the end of last year, accounting for about 3 percent of the population.

The majority of migrant workers work in the manufacturing sector, the council said, with the vast majority of them coming from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Lee said that in the long term the Taiwanese government should probably reform its immigration policies to attract more migrant workers.

Still, there are those who say Taiwan’s low birth rate is no cause for panic, just yet.

Alice Cheng, an associate professor of sociology at Taiwan’s Sinica Academy, cautioned against reading too much into population trends because they are affected by so many factors.

He noted that just a few decades ago, many demographers were warning of food shortages caused by a population explosion.

And even if the low birth rate persisted, that might not be a bad thing if it reflected an improvement in women’s rights, he said.

“The educational expansion that took place in the 1970s and 1980s in East Asia dramatically changed the status of women. It really pushed women out of the home because they had knowledge, education and career prospects,” she said. .

“The next thing you see globally is that once women’s education levels improved, fertility rates started to decline.”

“All these East Asian countries are scratching their heads and trying to think of policies and interventions to increase fertility rates,” he added.

“But if that’s something they really, (women) don’t want, can you push them to do it?”

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