Asia

Can Taiwan's military become a voluntary force?

New recruits practice charging with bayonets at a military training centre in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, 22 April 2013
Image caption Military service is mandatory in Taiwan for men aged 18 to 35

Last year, 24-year-old Anthony Tseng managed to get out of something that many Taiwanese men dread - a mandatory year in the military.

He went on a crash diet, eating only jelly and seaweed for dinner, and lost so much weight that he was exempt.

"I think it's a total waste of time. Even if we were to serve a year, that doesn't mean we would be ready for battle. And besides, it's unlikely Taiwan will go to war," said Mr Tseng, who after graduation got a job as an auditor instead.

Others don't even see a need for a military.

"It's useless. China doesn't need weapons to invade, they only have to use economics to defeat us," said Steven Tsao, a 21-year-old college student who will be drafted once he graduates.

Taiwan requires men between the ages of 18 to 35 to perform military service, with most undergoing a year of boot camp training - but many young people don't see the need for conscription.

Unlike their parents or grandparents, they no longer see China as a threat. An increasing number of Taiwan's youth want to work in China, because they can earn higher wages there.

Some have resorted to all sorts of methods to dodge the draft, including feigning depression and mental illness, or constantly pursuing higher education to be exempt.

Those with the financial ability acquire foreign citizenship, while others leave the island every few months to avoid residing long enough to have to serve.

Reluctant recruits

"Some of the young men resent having to serve because of inconveniences like no wi-fi in the barracks; some believe it's a waste of time because they don't think there will be a war and that even in military conflict, it would be very hard to win against China's People's Liberation Army," said Alexander Huang, a political science professor specialising in China-Taiwan defence and foreign policies.

"Because of these general sentiments, not too many young kids want to serve."

Recognising this, President Ma Ying-jeou has promised to end one-year conscription and build an all-voluntary force made up of dedicated professional soldiers by 2015.

Currently, conscripts make up nearly one third of Taiwan's 220,000-strong defence force.

The recent death of a conscript after he was put through rigorous exercises in hot weather has further dampened the desire to serve.

But even before that, the Ministry of National Defence had struggled to recruit career soldiers.

Image caption The government hopes to eventually move to an all-voluntary force

In the first 11 months of this year, it recruited just 8,600 people - less than a third of its target for 2013.

This issue forced the government in September to delay its target date for converting to an all-professional force by two years.

But even those inside the ministry say they doubt the government will succeed.

"The country needs people who are willing to serve, but even we servicemen have no confidence… We feel the military is just a job, we don't feel any honour. Everybody just wants to get our retirement benefits and get out of here," said one long-time officer who requested anonymity.

China ties

Morale-boosting measures are weakened by the fact that ties between Taiwan and China have significantly improved in recent years, making it less clear who the enemy is.

Generals have visited the mainland after retirement and many military personnel have relatives working in China.

"We see the government has warm relations with China, and a lot of people think we and China are brothers, we shouldn't fight each other, and so there's no use [in having] the military," said the officer.

But it was not long ago that military service was seen as a necessary, worthy and patriotic duty in Taiwan.

Mr Tseng's father, Tseng Chih-hsun, 57, voluntarily spent nine years in the military, believing it was good for his country. He disagrees with his son's decision to avoid the draft.

Image caption Taiwan holds military drills simulating a Chinese invasion

He still remembers past tensions with China and sees the current detente as fickle.

"As long as the Communists do not give up the use of force against us, it's not real peace," Mr Tseng said.

"Under these circumstances, the country still needs young men to serve, we still need an army. Without conscription, if war breaks out, we wouldn't be able to get an army ready in time."

China still has around 1,500 missiles targeting Taiwan, and has not renounced the use of force to take it back. The two sides have never signed a peace treaty.

As a result, Taiwan spends around $12.9bn (£8bn) each year on its military, including purchasing advanced weapons from the United States.

Boosting benefits

"We have a belief that even if we don't have war in 100 years, we still have to be prepared," said Pai Chieh-lung, the defence ministry's deputy director general. "As long as the countries around us, like China, have this capability, we must be prepared."

Although the number of personnel on active duty is only around 220,000, conscription helps boost the number of trained people considered fit for service if needed, to an estimated 2.6 million people.

"We won't pursue war, but we need to protect our country… Most young people understand that the country's security is everyone's responsibility. It's like paying taxes, everyone wants to pay less, but it's undeniable that everyone has to pay taxes," Mr Pai said.

Even if the government manages to build an all-voluntary force, young men born after 1 January 1994 will still need to undergo two two-month stints of military training.

But in an indication of changing times, Taiwan's defence spending has dropped in recent years from 3% of GDP in 2009 to 2.7% last year, even if the actual dollar amount ranks Taiwan among the world's top military spenders.

Spending in the future will likely have to be geared more towards raising salaries and benefits for soldiers, to convince more people to enlist.

The starting monthly salary for soldiers is currently around NT$30,000 ($1,000; £600) but there are plans to increase that to NT$38,000.

And beginning in 2015, military personnel will also be eligible for retirement benefits after serving just four years, rather than 10.

Image caption Taiwan's military is keen to revamp public perceptions of the force

The ministry also plans to recruit more women, who currently make up less than 10% of the military's total.

But improving its public image is also considered crucial.

It has stepped up outreach, opening up its bases for public viewing, setting up recruitment booths in colleges, and even having officers dressing up in cute cartoon-character soldier costumes at sports events.

The efforts are convincing some people, such as Charles Chi, 30.

He quit his job in design and advertising in 2011 to join the army. It's a profession he's long been interested in; he hopes to eventually join the special forces.

"I think there is still glory in being a soldier," Mr Chi said. "Cross-strait relations are good, and the threats are not that obvious, but I hope I can use my professional knowledge to help reform the military.

"If the military doesn't change, there won't be young people who want to join. We need young people to join, so that the military can keep up with the changing times."

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