Taiwan again delays plan to scrap conscription

Taiwanese navy soldiers salute as President Tsai Ing-wen (not pictured) boards the nation's first domestically built stealth-missile 600-ton Tuo Jiang twin-hull corvette at Suao Naval Base in Yilan, Taiwan on June 4.
Taiwanese navy soldiers salute as President Tsai Ing-wen (not pictured) boards the nation's first domestically built stealth-missile 600-ton Tuo Jiang twin-hull corvette at Suao Naval Base in Yilan, Taiwan on June 4. PHOTO: REUTERS

Military fails to recruit enough people despite boosting professional soldiers' pay

Taiwan has delayed its plan to scrap conscription for the second time, as the military battles with poor recruitment numbers and a string of blunders.

The Defence Ministry announced yesterday that it will enlist 9,600 men who were born before 1993 to serve compulsory year-long national service stints in the armed forces, coast guard and National Security Bureau.

Those who are unable to serve in combat roles will be deployed for duty in alternative services for a year.

Taiwan's 270,000-strong military is made up of about 60 per cent career soldiers and 40 per cent conscripts who are above 20 and serve year-long mandatory stints.

The latest move comes at a time when the military, already facing low recruitment, has taken a few hits, including the navy's misfiring of an anti-ship missile that killed a fisherman.

Yesterday, tragedy struck again when an army tank plunged into a river near southern Taiwan's Hengchun camp, killing three soldiers.

Taiwan is also facing simmering tensions with China, which still regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, after the two sides split in 1949 following a civil war.

Taiwan's 270,000-strong military is made up of about 60 per cent career soldiers and 40 per cent conscripts who are above 20 and serve year-long mandatory stints.

In 2011, in a sign of warming ties with China, then President Ma Ying-jeou unveiled a plan to phase out conscription after 2015 and keep a fully professional military comprising 215,000 regulars. Taiwanese males would then be enlisted to undergo only four months of basic military training.

But in 2015, the defence ministry said it would continue to enlist eligible citizens for national service this year and launch a full volunteer military force on Jan 1, 2017.

Hints of another delay arose in May, when Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan said that his ministry will decide whether to enlist young men, depending on its recruitment figures.

Yesterday, Lieutenant-General Hsu Yen-pu, who is responsible for the military's human resources, said that a new batch of enlistees is required to boost the military's ranks because it failed to recruit enough people to meet operational demands.

An official, who declined to be named, said that the military managed to hit only 30 per cent of its recruitment target. This is despite efforts to boost the salaries of professional soldiers.

Lt-Gen Hsu did not rule out extending conscription beyond next year, saying only that conscription will be scrapped when nine in 10 troops are made up of regulars and volunteers.

The chill between Taiwan and Beijing is growing as President Tsai Ing-wen has so far refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a tacit agreement between the two sides that there is one China.

Defence analyst Jerry Song said that the military cannot simply throw money to boost recruitment. "To make the military career more attractive, the military needs to stop scoring own goals, clean up its act to restore its image and earn people's respect."

Other nations in the Asian region continuing to maintain the draft include Singapore and South Korea.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan again delays plan to scrap conscription'. Print Edition | Subscribe