Taiwan’s Catch-22: An Analysis of the Republic of China’s Conscription

By Jocelyn Shih   



Since the People’s Liberation Army defeated the Kuomintang in 1949, tensions between the Chinese Communist Party and the Taiwanese government have not ceased.  According to Michael S. Chase, recent scholars and policy analysts have concentrated on Chinese military modernization and its impact on regional security, whereas only “a handful of studies [have] focus[ed] on the Taiwanese side of the equation” (3).  Chase believes “this imbalance underscores the need for a more thorough assessment of Taiwan’s security policy” (3).  I hope to contribute to this scholarship by analyzing the purpose, current status, and future implications of Taiwan’s conscription.  I have interviewed two past Taiwanese military personnel to illustrate this discussion since their cases underscore the transformation of Taiwan’s conscription and the decline of its strength in the past decades.   

A discussion of the island’s defense system would not be complete without a thorough study regarding the military’s firepower, defense industries, and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities.  However, I will focus on Taiwan’s conscription in this paper since it has the most direct impact on civilians and has become a rite-of-passage for Taiwanese men.  York Wen-jenq Chen and Martin Edmonds claim the defense force’s personnel are its most vital assets (273).  They elaborate that manpower—specifically highly trained manpower—is necessary for modern warfare (Chen and Edmonds 273).  Yet, conscription is “not the best answer” to meet these needs (Chen and Edmonds 273).  While conscription may satisfy the quantity needed, it does not meet the quality of required manpower.  Highly trained and qualified manpower is essential because Taiwan’s defense system is heavily dependent on high-tech machinery and weaponry.  The extremely competitive labor market exacerbates this issue as educated and able men seek higher compensation and more comfortable civilian lifestyles than what is present in the armed forces (Chen and Edmonds 273). 

Taiwan’s conscription dilemma reflects the difficult state of its armed forces. Conscription does not fulfill its intended purpose of protecting Taiwan from China, but at the same time its advancement is curbed by the island’s tenuous relationship with the mainland.  The Catch-22 of the Taiwanese armed forces is that it must improve itself to defend the island but is severely limited by China’s strength.

 The Purpose of Conscription in Taiwan

The present-day Taiwanese military was created in the early 1920s to rescue China from imperialism and reunite the country (Cole 30).  In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army defeated this military after two decades of “accommodation, compromise, war weariness, the loss of popular support, and the ‘ineptitude of the Nationalist elite’” (Cole 30).  The United States began to support Taiwan’s armed forces during the Korean War (1950-1953) and in the following two decades where Taiwan’s armed forces were “reequipped, retrained, and reorganized” (Cole 30).  The United States provided a variety of resources from U-2 reconnaissance aircrafts to doctrinal development (Cole 30).  The United States not only gave but also received benefits from supporting Taiwan’s military development.  In the 1950 to 1960s, Taiwanese incursions provided the United States information regarding the Chinese regime.  Taiwan also offered the United States a support base for forces in the Vietnam Conflict (Cole 30). 

Despite its cooperation with the United States, the Taiwanese armed forces possessed inconsistent skills.  Bernard Cole claims the “ineffective military force of 1949 had by 1989 developed into a modern, capable force, but that intervening forty years were marked by inconsistent performances during several crises” (31).  Though its performance fluctuated, its core military strategy remained the same, “based on a return to the mainland throughout much of this period” (Cole 31).  However, this was an impossible goal because Taiwan lacked a strong force, lacked mainland support, and faced the United States’ condemnation of major warfare.  Yet, whether working with the United States or by itself, the Taiwanese military focused on one nemesis: China. 

The Taiwanese Army's conscription process focuses on maintaining a strong defense against a potential Chinese threat. Photo from US Naval Institute News.

The Taiwanese Army's conscription process focuses on maintaining a strong defense against a potential Chinese threat. Photo from US Naval Institute News.

Correspondingly, the purpose of conscription in Taiwan focused on defending the island from a potential Chinese invasion.  When the Kuomintang left mainland China, no conscription or military recruiting system existed, since the “huge number of military personnel were capable of undertaking military tasks and responsibilities for homeland security” (Shen and Tsai 110).  The draft system only began after the Kinmen (金门) Crisis (or the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis) in 1958.  After this heavy exchange of fire, the Taiwanese government instigated a new recruiting system to counter the sustained threat (Shen and Tsai 110).  This new procedure forced all Taiwanese men of a certain age to enter the military, “so that the country’s bedrock defense was significantly reinforced” (Shen and Tsai 110).  In 1962, Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek stated:

Our armed forces have made adequate preparations for the counter-offensive, and, therefore, are capable of moving into action at any time.  Have no fear of being alone in rising against the Communists.  Have no fear of lack or shortage of supplies or help.  Both will be forthcoming once you take action (qtd. in Cole 25).

Chiang’s comment highlighted the military’s staunch stance against mainland China and championed its relationship with the United States to achieve this goal.  The United States, however, strove to dampen this tension by helping modernize and grow the Taiwan military–“albeit under relatively tight American tutelage” (Cole 27).  This hostility between Taiwan and China altered the career goals of every man on the island (Lu, Mo, and Tuan 198). 

In 1995 and 1996, China criticized Lee Teng-hui’s leadership in Taiwan and the island’s democratization.  Tensions increased and “intensified the potential for military conflict” (Cole 29).  Tensions reached a climax in the summer of 1996 and in the spring of 1996, when the People’s Liberation Army conducted threatening exercises near Keeling, Kaohsiung, Penghu, and Mazu. Taiwan responded to these pressures in a “relatively low key” manner and conducted scheduled elections, but these events revealed the need for military personnel (Cole 29).  Conscription and adequate manpower were necessary to defend the island from China.                

Case One

Adam Chen[1] was one of the men recruited in the armed forces as they were becoming more modern and capable.  He was born in 1960.  Upon graduation from college at 23 years of age, he was drafted into the armed forces in 1983.  He served in the Navy for twenty-two months until 1985.  While at harbor, he was responsible for administrative duties, participated in firefighting drills, and practiced repairing and maintaining the ship.  While at sail, he was on patrol and practiced numerous drills. 

His service was tough but “more relaxed” compared to the other divisions of the armed forces.  At the time, the recruits considered the army division to be poor and difficult, calling it the “beggar’s force” (乞丐兵).  They considered the navy to be less disciplined and referred to it as the “scattered force” (散兵).  Lastly, they considered the air force to be the “master’s force” (少爷兵)  because they had the most relaxed work.  According to Chen, the air force was “the most easy and relax[ed] one . . . basically their service [was] just like that of a normal white-collar office worker.”    

Though his service was “more relaxed,” Chen believes “everyone was loyal” and ready to fight for their country.  He thought they were “60% ready” for battle.  His experiences reflect what Bernard Cole identifies as the “inconsistency” of the armed forces (31).  His experiences also highlight the purpose of conscription in Taiwan.  He—and his troops—felt they were loyal to Taiwan and relatively ready to fight.  However, this sentiment is extremely different today.

The Current Status of Military Conscription in Taiwan

The Ministry of National Defense enlists and trains conscripts while the Ministry of the Interior allocates their benefits.  According to the Military Service Law, all men must fulfill their obligation.  Article 3 of the Military Service Law states:

Male persons shall be liable for military service on January 1 of the year immediately following the year during which they reach the age of 18, and shall no longer be drafted for service beginning on December 31 of the year during which they reach the age of 45 (qtd. in Cole 76). 

However, there are exemptions and changes to this conscription today.

Today, the duration of compulsory military is less than 2 years and there are numerous alternatives to serving in the military (Shen and Tsai 110).  Various social factors shaped the change in today’s military conscription.  The government amended the Military Service Law in February 2000 so that men with special skills or certain religious beliefs can pursue alternatives to joining the armed forces.  Instead of serving the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Military Police Force, men can find alternate service methods (替代役), such as community service work (Hung, Mo, and Tuan 198).  Men can work as teachers in rural public schools, serve in the fire department, or handle administrative duties in government offices.  Specifically, men that have a university education from an English-speaking country are able to teach English.  According to Lu-hsun Hung, Ta-hua Mo, and Fu-chu Tuan, these programs allow men to fulfill “their duties to the country while helping serve society” (198).  These programs underscore the “socialization and civilianization of the military as it further accommodates the values of mainstream civil society” (Lu, Mo, and Tuan 198).

In addition to social factors, political factors shaped the current status of military conscription in Taiwan.  Throughout the martial law period of 1949 to 1987 in Taiwan, the armed forces were loyal to the Kuomintang and not the state.  The military and the party were “effectively one and the same” (Chase 122).  More recently, the government endeavored to reorganize the military and defense bureaucracy to parallel Taiwan’s democratization.  The 2002 National Defense Act (国防法) and the Ministry of National Defense’s Organization Act (国防部组织法) instigated this change.  The 2002 National Defense Act states that the “development of the country’s national defense both complies with the spirit of democracy . . . and will help toward building up a sufficient force to defend the country against China” (Lee 124).  Taiwan’s 2002 National Defense Report claims the two acts improved and enhanced vital civilian control (Chase 122).  After all, as Michael S. Chase notes, “civilian control of the military is a crucial requirement in a democratic society” (121).  The government hoped to establish civilian control so that citizens could elect civilian officials and the nation could focus on the citizens’ values and purposes (Chase 121).  Though Taiwan’s progress in civilianizing and depoliticizing the military is admirable, the government faces numerous obstacles, especially in its conscription system (Chase 124).     

The conscription system faces lasting retention and recruitment difficulties (Chase 126).  It does not provide the armed forces with capable, motivated, and devoted personnel (Chase 126).  Low salaries and lackluster training have caused recruits to express low morale and encouraged civilians to evade compulsory service.  Some men even fake health problems to excuse themselves from the service (Chase 126).  This is a critical problem for many divisions in the armed forces, especially the air force which lacks qualified fighter pilots.  This dearth of capable men also majorly impedes the recruitment of career noncommissioned officers who are crucial in developing a “more professional fighting force” (Chase 126).  These career officers have more time to train and prepare and are more qualified to meet the technological demands of modern combat (Chase 126).  Past premier Yu Shyi-kun claimed it was necessary to decrease the term for mandatory military service and establish a stronger voluntary enrollment system.  Yu said that an all-volunteer military is “the wave of future for Taiwan” (qtd. in Chase 126).  To amend the lasting retention and recruitment difficulties, the government hopes to transform conscription and transition towards a volunteer based military (Chase 126).

However, this current shift from conscription and towards a volunteer force is challenging due to the military’s present composition.  The military comprised of around 60 percent conscripts and 40 percent volunteers in 2004 (Chase 126).  Since the military relied on conscription to fill most of its ranks, it has attempted to find alternatives and incentives to reverse this ratio (Chase 126).  In 2002, the Ministry of National Defense developed a trial voluntary enlistment program where men with high educational degrees and special technical skills were offered increased salaries if they desired to serve for three years (Chase 127).  The Ministry hoped to recruit hundreds of volunteers in a year, but this trial failed to attract an adequate number of recruits.  Because of this failure, defense officials recognize that it may be impossible to develop a military that consists of 60 percent volunteers (Chase 127). 

The government has since developed additional incentives to attract volunteer soldiers.  In January 1, 2014, the monthly pay for noncommissioned officers and volunteer personnel increased from NT$2,000 (US$66) to NT$4,000 (US$132) per month (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).  This double in pay is also accompanied by higher monthly supplements to those serving in outlying islands.  However, the pay increase places additional pressure on the defense budget.  A major challenge to this transition to a volunteer force is the Ministry of National Defense’s lack of resources.  An all-volunteer military would need more money, including an estimated $20 billion in funding (Cole 176).  In addition to the lack of resources, there is a lack of manpower in Taiwan overall.  As of July 2015, the population in Taiwan is 23.46 million (Central Intelligence Agency).  However, according to Chase, the “manpower shortage is unlikely to improve, given Taiwan’s net decline in population growth” (127).

Ultimately, Taiwan’s armed services are not only short on the quantity but also in the quality of personnel.  The noncommissioned officers corps are “universally described by officers of all the services as weak and inadequate” because of their short term of service (Cole 175).  Junior officers must perform tasks that should be done by non-commissioned officers because there is a shortage of experienced and trained personnel (Cole 175).  Similarly, officers in senior levels must make minor decisions (Cole 175).  This is neither efficient nor inspiring for those in the forces.  For example, the Minister of Defense personally chooses which officers to send to the United States for annual education opportunities (Cole 175).  Officers consider today’s personnel “more poorly conditioned than those of 10-20 years ago” and believe they are “generally lacking dedication to the service or mission of defending Taiwan” (Cole 175).  The recruits have “too many personal problems” and may choose to “not fight in the event of an assault by the PLA” (Cole 175).  An Air Force colonel attributes this to the “one-child syndrome,” in which a son may prioritize his responsible to his family over his responsibility to Taiwan (qtd. in Cole 175).  There is also not enough time for an enlisted man to bond with his unit, inspire his patriotism, and gain necessary skills.  Michael S. Chase echoes Brandon Cole’s descriptions, writing that the personnel shortages “caused morale problems” (41).  Instead of finding satisfaction in the military, men found lucrative employment opportunities in the private sector.  For instance, potential recruits for the air force chose to pursue higher pay and more benefits in the civil aviation sector (Chase 41).  In addition, many senior NCOs retired, so there are even fewer qualified personnel in the armed forces (Chase 41).  This problem is also prevalent in reservists who are not on duty for extended periods of time.  Thus, they are not familiar with the newest technology and most sophisticated equipment (Chase 41).  They may only receive training once a year, during the military’s annual mobilization exercise (Chase 131).  Taiwan also lacks the space and resources to conduct more exercises (Chase 131).

To alleviate these problems, the Ministry of National Defense plans to reduce the size of the military.  The Ministry of National Defense wants to reduce the number of military personnel by 85,000 in the next decade (Lee 133).  This would streamline and consolidate military personnel, making it more efficient, responsive, and flexible.  In July 1997, the Ministry of National Defense successfully reduced the number of military personnel to around 385,000 in 3 years (Chase 125).  Through this force consolidation program, the Ministry of National Defense hopes to “do more with less” and “create a smaller army with more mobility and firepower” (Chase 124, 125).

Case Two

David Hsin’s[2] case illustrates the above challenges that the conscription exacerbates.  Hsin was recruited for the armed forces this year.  He was born in 1996, so his conscription only lasts for four months.  Because he is an American college student, he was able to separate his training period: he served 2 months from June to August, 2015 and will serve an additional 2 months from June to August, 2016.  Through the lottery system, he was chosen to serve in the Army.  When he was at the training camp, he took care of the camp, participated in conditioning and bayonet drills, practiced shooting, and practiced throwing fake grenades.  In addition, his team cleaned the training camp, especially the toilets, and moved furniture.  Though his experience was strictly regimented and tiresome, he commented the summer was very relaxed and not as difficult as he thought it might be.  Soldiers were able to leave the camp every weekend and return to the cities, such as Taipei, after basic training.  This seems to be more relaxed than Adam Chen’s experience in 1983.  Chen identified the Army as the most difficult division in his time, calling it the “beggar’s force,” but Hsin’s experience reveals the difference in the culture within the troops today.

While Chen believes his division in 1983 was loyal and ready to fight for their county, Hsin claims the opposite.  Hsin believes there is “no possibility of war” because if they had to fight they were “zero percent ready.”  Many of those recruits in his division were also American college students and had to enlist for four months under the conscription.  As a result, few felt particularly motivated or passionate about the military and serving the country.  They were forced to be there, so they were not intrinsically committed.  His group complained to each other often and relished the weekends off when they were allowed to go home.

Hsin’s case underscores the difficulties in Taiwan’s military strategy caused by its military conscription.  The duration of their training is too short, so they lack necessary skills, dedication, and patriotism.  Though Hsin’s case, like Chen’s case, may not be representative of other units and divisions in their respective time periods, it exposes the numerous challenges Taiwan faces.  As Hsin demonstrates, Taiwan’s military conscription has a limited impact on nationalism in Taiwan.

The Current Impacts of Conscription on Nationalism in Taiwan

A country with mandatory military service bridges the gap between the society and the military; the two spheres are intertwined as they work together to support one nation.  In Taiwan, this interaction is underscored where required recruitment from the masses is the primary source of military personnel (Shen and Tsai 109).  According to Martin Edmonds, this system of national service transmits an element of military culture in the population (234).  People appreciate military matters and are aware of threat from mainland China (Edmonds 234).  Thus, conscription unites Taiwanese citizens because they have to serve, or are related to someone who has to serve.

The conscription inspires a sense of unity and fuels a sense of Taiwanese identity.  David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner and Barry Wilson claim there is a “widespread independent Taiwan identity, a sense of distinct ‘Taiwaneseness’” (xiv).  In a survey conducted in December 2008, 51 percent of its respondents identified themselves as only Taiwanese, and 41 percent identified themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese (Shlapak et al. xiv).  Fewer than 5 percent identified themselves as only Chinese (Shlapak et al. xiv).  The conscription, which is shared by all men and impacts the lives of all women, helped foster these sentiments.

By creating a sense of Taiwanese identity, the conscription allowed citizens to be involved in military affairs.  Lu-hsun Tung, Ta-hua Mo, and Fu-chu Tuan believe Taiwan transitioned from a militarized society to a socialized military (178).  In other words, society directs the military through political mechanisms while the military absorbs society’s changes (Lu, Mo, and Tuan 178). 

Despite the increased sense of nationalism and the socialization of the military due to conscription, various perspectives domestically and internationally not only doubt the recruits’ “dedication to Taiwan as a ‘nation’” but also the island’s military strength (Cole 179).  The Taiwanese military is still beginning to develop its unity, and every division suffers from budget shortages (Cole 179).  Bernard Cole claims every division—except for the Marine Corps—believes they are behind the People’s Liberation Army in modernizing its systems (179).  As evident in Hsin’s case above, many personnel doubt the recruits’ willingness to fight.  Other officers and civilians believe the United States is responsible for Taiwan’s defense, so Taiwan does not need to improve its military strategy and increase its defense spending (Cole 179).  They believe the United States will support Taiwan “or it will not, in which case the island’s status vis-à-vis the mainland is hopeless” (Cole 179).  Though the conscription may bind Taiwanese citizens together and fuel a sense of unity in the island, it does not make Taiwanese citizens more confident about Taiwan’s strength and war-readiness.  The conscription actually creates more concerns regarding the dedication and ability of the armed forces. 

The Current Impacts of Conscription on War-Readiness in Taiwan

The conscription not only impacts the citizens’ sense of nationalism but also determines the war-readiness of the armed forces.  Taiwan’s military strategy highlights strong defense and efficient deterrence through electronic warfare, air command, and antiballistic missile capabilities (Cole 5).  However, these strengths all require adequate training and resources which Taiwan is missing.  Army officers noted they lacked training funds and sufficient equipment; Navy officers noted they had deficiencies in C4ISR; the Marine Corps expressed they needed more equipment (Cole 177).  However, the military budget formulated in 2004 and 2005 did not address these shortcomings (Cole 177).

Even if troops receive adequate training, Taiwan lacks arms to supply them.  Its own defense industry cannot meet its needs, and other countries have been wary of selling arms to Taiwan due to Beijing’s influence (Chase 35).  The United States’ arm sales to Taiwan dropped from $774 million dollars in 1984 to $640 million dollars in 1991 (Chase 35).  China has also rebuked other countries, like the Netherlands, that sold submarines to Taiwan (Chase 35).  When Taiwan attempted to acquire other equipment, scandal ensued.  For example, numerous French and Taiwanese individuals were involved in a corruption scandal when Taiwan acquired French Lafayette frigates (Chase 36).  Ultimately, China’s dominance in global affairs hampers Taiwan’s acquisition of weapons and equipment internationally.

The lack of qualified personnel due to an ineffective conscription strategy and the lack of adequate resources prevent Taiwan’s armed forces from reaching its potential.  Ineffective politics and politicians’ unfulfilled promises also contribute to this lackluster performance.  When he prepared to run for presidency in 1999, Chen Shui-bian issued a Defense White Paper, claiming the armed forces must “emphasize air and naval superiority, materialize precision deep strike capabilities . . . develop joint air and naval operation capabilities . . . and carry out precision deep strikes against the enemy’s inland targets” (qtd. in Cole 6).  However, his plans were mere rhetoric which the government did “little to fulfill” (Cole 6).  If politicians prioritized military spending and transformed the conscription strategy instead of focusing on their poll results, perhaps the armed forces would have more resources and trained personnel.  The polarized political environment caused by the tensions between the Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party make it more difficult to reach any agreement (Chase 7).  Intense disagreements between the two parties have often caused gridlock on central issues which have unfortunate consequences on the advancement of the armed forces (Central 8).

Taiwan’s armed forces may not be ready for war but heavily rely on the United States for support.  Analysts claim Taiwan is “free-riding” and counting on the United States for its defense rather than spending enough resources to improve its own armed forces (Chase 4).  Though this is true, Michael S. Chase believes this is not the sole explanation for Taiwan’s lagging defense (4).  The United States’ support of Taiwan has varied throughout history.  The United States withdrew from their 1954 mutual defense treaty with Taiwan and recognized Beijing in the 1980s (Chase 4).  The 1982 US-China communiqué and President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to sell technology to Taiwan further weakened their alliance (Chase 4).  Yet, their alliance strengthened during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests which juxtaposed with Taiwan’s move towards democracy (Chase 4).  During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995 to 1996, President Bill Clinton assisted Taiwan by sending aircraft carrier battle groups.  Taiwan also received more support in the United States Congress where Taiwan was assured that the United States would assist Taiwan if war broke out (Chase 4).  Many observers believed Taiwan—with the help of the United States—would have easily defeated the People’s Liberation Army in the 1980s and 1990s (Chase 4).  Although President George W. Bush portrayed China as an adversary, claimed Washington would “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan, and decided to offer arms sales to Taiwan in April 2001, this alliance began to waver in 2003 due to Taipei’s provocative behavior and the Iraq War’s heavy costs (Chase 4).  This intensified Taiwan’s fears, and Premier Yu Shyi-kun stated in August 2004:      

How do we expect to safeguard the country if we’re not well-armed?  We cannot solely rely on the United States to protect us once Beijing launches a military attack (qtd. in Chase 5).

Even if the United States would help Taiwan, Taiwan is close to China and an ocean away from the United States which weakens the United States’ ability to intervene.  Nancy Bernkopf Tucker believes the Taiwan Strait confrontation is the most dangerous challenge for the United States (1).  Ultimately, Taipei has some support to “protect it against abandonment, but not enough to stand in the way of diplomatic relations with China” (Tucker 100).  This concern continues to grow as China’s military and technology, specifically its nuclear and antisatellite forces, advance (Chase 5).

While Taiwan’s armed forces decrease in strength, the People’s Liberation Army has become more modern and advanced.  As China increased its resources allocated for defense and accelerated its growth, observers believe the military balance shifted toward China in 2000 (Chase 19).  Taiwan lost its “traditional qualitative edge” (Chase 19).  For instance, the Chinese, which lacked advanced warships in the 1980s, acquired new Kilo-class submarines and surface ships (Chase 22).  China also acquired Russian SA-10 surface-to-air missile systems and developed “rapid reaction units” that received the newest technology and abundant funds (Chase 22).  According to Jonathan D. Pollack, China’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) force is the “most consequential” (47).  The Pentagon’s 2003 assessment of China’s military power claimed the SRBM force “is its most credible and immediate threat to Taiwan” (Pollack 47).  Other scholars, including Shlapak et al., concur, writing that China’s SRBM force is “a serious threat to a wide range of targets on Taiwan” (xv).   

Ultimately, China’s armed forces outpaced Taiwan’s armed forces.  Since the People’s Liberation Army increased training and advanced resources, a Taiwanese victory in potential warfare is even more unlikely.  Taiwan’s abilities drastically declined in recent years (Chase 135).  Taiwan’s ability to resist China is now “measured in terms of days,” whereas it could have been measured in months in the past (Chase 135).  One past Department of Defense official observed, “There is already an arms race in the Taiwan Strait . . . but only one side is racing, and it is not Taiwan” (qtd. in Chase 87).  Even if China and Taiwan may not engage in warfare, China’s military superiority would reduce Taiwan’s leverage in potential negotiations regarding the island’s status (Chase 135).  Since China is bigger, stronger, and more influential than Taiwan, the island is not ready for war with the mainland.        

The Likelihood of War

Taiwan and China are currently enjoying a political honeymoon.  The two governments seem to support the status quo.  Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency in 2009 consolidated the Kuomintang’s presence in the Legislative Yuan and ameliorated the previous era of Chinese tension (Shlapak et al. xiii).  In his note published in USA Today, Ma Ying-jeou split the bill with Xi Jinping and referred to each other as “Mr.” instead of “President” (Ma).  He hoped to “establish a transparent process” and a “model of equality and dignity for future interactions” (Ma).  Most importantly, this meeting showed that China and Taiwan agreed to disagree on the “one China” policy, and could “resolve disputes peacefully” (Ma).      

The two sides also benefit from each other’s growing economies.  In 1986, trade between the two sides was an estimated $950 million which increased to $98 billion in 2008 (Shlapak et al. 9).  In the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996, the Taiwanese economy took a major hit.  The island’s stocks “lost one-third of its value” and “$10 billion in capital fled the island” during China’s intimidation strategies (Cole 29).  Evidently, it is not in Taiwan’s economic interest to wage war with China.  Taiwan also has less of a bargaining chip with China because Taiwan relies on the mainland for a “far higher percentage and a far broader range of its economic activities than vice versa” (Shlapak et al. 9).

However, as China rises in the global hierarchy, Taiwan loses its foothold.  The People’s Liberation Army, once dismissed as a “junkyard army” decades ago, is now recognized as an adept and professional force (Chase 1).  Their spectacular transformation, which includes an improvement in training, exercises, equipment, and organizational structuring, imply that their advancement is targeted towards Taiwan (Chase 1).  Taiwan should be devoting more resources to improving its own defense mechanism and strengthening its allies, but its defense budget has steadily declined from the 1990s until the legislature approved a spending increase in 2007 (Chase 1).  Taiwan’s slow response illustrates the difficulty in catching up to China’s rapid advancement.  As China’s military capacities exceed that of Taiwan’s, it is more likely that China will use force, especially if they have a large advantage and can achieve a less costly and more efficient victory (Chase 2).   

Furthermore, Taiwan has behaved provocatively in the past that, if not curbed, may incite China.  According to Chase, Taiwan’s leaders “have demonstrated a surprising willingness to risk provoking China and perhaps even undermining US political-military support” (1).  They cross Beijing’s “red lines” by asserting their independence and denouncing the mainland (Chase 2).  Taiwanese media, especially proponents of the Democratic Progressive Party, constantly differentiate themselves from Chinese citizens and criticize cooperation with the mainland.  For example, many Taiwanese citizens expressed their disapproval of economic cooperation with China in the Sunflower Movement in March 2014.  These conflicts represent the ideological differences both within Taiwan and across the Strait.  These demonstrations reveal the incompatibility between the two side’s ideals where both have different goals.  The ideological difference and hostility causes it to be more difficult to appease both sides.

By potentially provoking China with its outspoken politics and failure in providing enough support for its own defense strategies, Taiwan also weakens its relationship with the United States (Chase 2).  Washington “question[s] the seriousness of Taiwan’s commitment” and further complicates their alliance (Chase 2).  Yet, the United States is Taiwan’s most important military and political ally though their official alliance was terminated in 1980 (Chase 2).  The United States support is a major deterrent for China to use force against Taiwan.

Ultimately, the likelihood of war is slim, but not absent.  Taiwan’s National Security Council analyzed the growing threat of China’s military advancement and concluded “the chances of conflict over the next few years are slight” because there are too many risks and uncertainties (Chase 6).  Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense echoes this sentiment, claiming that invasion and paralysis attacks are “highly unlikely” (Chase 6).  However, Cole states that Taiwan’s leaders “may understand the power of the PLA, but not Beijing’s willingness to employ it against Taiwan” (172).  China’s missiles are still pointed at Taiwan, and China has not withdrawn its ability to use force against China (Shlapak et al. xviii).  The Taiwanese government should thus prioritize enhancing its military strategy, especially in transforming its conscription formula to boost morale and the quality of its personnel.  However, advancing the island’s military strategy is difficult to achieve because of China’s increasing strength. 


It is difficult—if not impossible—for Taiwan to improve its armed forces due to inherently contradictory conditions.  Taiwan can build its armed forces and defend itself from China with more international and domestic support, but China’s undisputable dominance in today’s world restricts this necessary backing.  For example, the United States hopes to support Taiwan but needs to cultivate a strategic relationship with China.  The United States must find a delicate balance in this political seesaw.  The limited strength of Taiwan’s armed forces and the limited success of its conscription are thus representative of this problematic situation. 

Hopefully, Taiwan will not have to deploy its armed forces and unqualified personnel in the near future.  The impacts of a war and its bloodshed would be catastrophic for both sides.  Although the future is uncertain, the relationship between China and Taiwan has become more stable today than in past decades.  Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou’s meeting in November 2015 was a historic moment and a “high point in the seven-year rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing that began in 2008,” when Ma vowed to resolve the tensions between the two sides (Phillips).  Xi claimed they are “one family . . . [they] are brothers who are still connected by [their] flesh even if [their] bones are broken” (qtd. in Phillips).  According to Ma, the two leaders strove to “replace conflict with dialogue” and “developed military and economic cooperation” despite their different political systems (qtd. in Phillips).  Taiwan's election this year and new leadership from the Democratic Progressive Party will continue to test this relationship between China and Taiwan.


Jocelyn Shih is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] Name is changed to ensure privacy.

[2] Name is changed to ensure privacy.

Works Cited:

Chase, Michael S.  Taiwan’s Security Policy: External Threats and Domestic Politics.  Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.  Print.

Chen, York Wen-jenq and Martin Edmonds.  “Defending Taiwan: Future conditional.”  In Defending Taiwan, edited by Martin Edmonds and Michael M. Tsai, 255-277. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.  Print.

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