As tensions mount in the disputed South China Sea, Taiwan might find it has no garrisons on two of its sensitive outposts in the region next year, a Taiwanese lawmaker warned yesterday.
Kuomintang legislator Lin Yu-fang said the embarrassing situation was due mainly to Taiwan's introduction of an all-volunteer military, which had made it difficult to recruit servicemen for posting on Pratas Island and on Taiping Island, the largest in the Spratly archipelago.
"Last year, the authorities planned to recruit 42 soldiers for Pratas and 22 for Taiping, but of the eight admitted for Pratas posting, only one reported for duty, and none of the three admitted for posting on Taiping reported for duty," Lin said.
With 30 recruits required for each posting this year, Lin, a senior member of the legislature's defence affairs committee, asked: "What would happen if none show up again and how should this problem be resolved?" He raised the question during a legislative session in which Taiwanese Defence Minister Kao Hua-chu and Coastguard Administration chief Wang Chin-wang briefed legislators on the voluntary recruitment system and other defence affairs.
Wang said it was not currently a problem because his administration could still send national service conscripts for garrison duty in the Pratas and Spratlys.
Taiwan's coastguard has been responsible for defending Pratas and Taiping since 2000, when the government decided to withdraw marines to reduce tensions in the region. But all coastguard troops have either received marine training or have been retired marines.
Wang admitted the problem would surface once conscription was phased out. The island's defence ministry wants to see its all-volunteer military system, which pays each volunteer soldier an entry-level salary of NT$29,625 (HK$7,728) a month, fully in place in 2015.
With welfare and other benefits not as good as non-military jobs, and the hard training in the military, many young people in Taiwan are not interested in serving as volunteer soldiers, Taiwanese media have reported.
Wang said in addition to the salary, the coastguard would raise the special allowance for service in remote areas to NT$12,000 to NT$20,000 a month, and increase leave entitlements, among other incentives, to attract more volunteers.
"If necessary, we may ask for backup from the defence ministry," Wang said.
Kao also noted the need to increase incentives for volunteer soldiers and said it was not just a problem for the coastguard, but also something his ministry would have to resolve.
Taiwan controls Pratas and Taiping in the Spratlys, but its claims are contested by Brunei, the mainland, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Tensions have been on the rise in recent months, with the mainland, Vietnam and the Philippines either staging military drills or reinforcing their claims in the disputed region, thought to be rich in oil deposits and marine biodiversity.