Taiwan re-draws its battle lines

THE young cadet admits he didn't expect much of the academy's newest and most exotic batch of students. 'At first when they arrived, I like the others, thought they wouldn't be as good as us,' sniffed Liu Hsiu, a 20-year-old freshman at Taiwan's Naval Academy.

'But as far as energy and knowledge go, they've turned out to be very competitive,' he concedes.

Mr Liu was talking about the 21 young women who last year became the first females to take up places alongside male cadets at the Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, marking a breakthrough for women's rights in this tradition-bound society.

Since 1949, Taiwan has been locked in an arms race with mainland China, and in the event of a war, able men and women would be mobilised to support the war effort. Women have also been brought into the military equation in administrative, executive, medical and educational roles. At the moment, some 3,600 women fit into those jobs in a military estimated at about 400,000 troops strong.

Despite the island's high state of alert, the Taiwanese military has refused for decades to put women on an equal footing with men, leaving them for the most part at desk jobs or in schools and medical facilities.

But in 1991 the Air Force Academy opened up its doors to women cadets, and the Naval and Army Academies followed last year.

Thus, for the first time, Taiwan is preparing women to fight in the field as commanding officers. In theory, women should now be able to rise to the very top of the military hierarchy.

One reason for giving women equal rights in the military has to do with social development and political correctness. 'We considered the very developed nature of our national education. Women students are just like men students, they want to receive the same education and employment opportunities,' said Vice-Admiral Hu Tsai-kuei, superintendent of the Naval Academy.

Or, in the words of another military officer, accepting women 'is a symbol of civilisation'.

In addition, recruiting men has become increasingly difficult. The military has to compete with a new range of career options which have opened up to men as a result of Taiwan's economic boom and growing liberalism. And, two decades ago, the government started encouraging couples to have only one or two children to control the population of this densely-populated island. One side effect is that the pool of eligible recruits has been getting smaller.

Although, this is a first for Taiwan, it is not for the ruling Kuomintang. When the KMT still held power on the mainland, the army academy did take in some women beginning in 1940 and lasting until 1942.

But in the midst of the war against Japan, the army decided to stop enrolling women because it considered the danger and physical demands of war too great for them, according to Army Academy chief Lieutenant-General Ma Teng-heh.

After the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, the issue did not arise again, until a few years ago.

Although other countries may have recruited women, General Chen Chao-min, head of the Air Force Academy, explains that previously Taiwan did not think its own women were really suited for the battle lines. 'Women in the West are physically large, very daring and adventurous. Oriental women are weak and fragile, timid and more conservative,' General Chen said.

The academies, located close to each other in Kaohsiung, have started off cautiously, setting annual female enrolment targets at between 15 to 20, a fraction of the number of male recruits. The small number of places makes getting in much tougher for women than men: only about two per cent of women applicants are selected, compared with around 40 per cent of men who apply.

The army and navy take their women recruits out of upper middle school and train them, like the men, for four years. At the Air Force Academy, the women recruits are all college graduates and thus do not need to take courses in literature, history and the sciences. Instead, they do a 21-month intensive military training course.

These women recruits are, whether they realise it or not, under a microscope of observation. If they do well, more women will be recruited later on.

Officers say it is too early to make any significant evaluation. However, so far the female dropout rate at the Air Force Academy has been higher than the nearly 60 per cent rate for men.

Only five of the 17 women of the 1991 class are still with the air force, while six of the original 10 in the second batch remain, and only two of the 15 recruited two years ago have survived. Eventually, if they qualify, those who last out will fly fighter aircraft.

General Chen believes one reason for the high attrition rate is that women in Taiwan colleges tend to major in literature and social sciences rather than natural sciences. Thus, those who arrive at the academy fresh from college generally find their past schooling does not help them with the technical demands of the job.

The Air Force Academy's target is 20 female recruits each year, but last year it took only nine, having failed to find enough qualified candidates.

At all three academies - huge expanses of pristine white buildings and large, grassy open spaces for sports - the demands on the women are similar to those on the men.

However, as with the US and other military academies which Taiwan inspected before allowing women to enrol, physical training loads are less for women: for example, they do only three-kilometre runs as opposed to five-kilometre jogs for men.

Furthermore, instructors tend to be more polite to women, General Chen admits. 'If you say something about, or scold, a male student, it's no big deal. If you use strong words with a female student, she might cry,' he said.

That having been said, the women students do not seem to be lacking in self-confidence. 'When we play baseball, the guys sometimes don't know how we get by,' said 18-year-old army cadet Fang Miao-chu, who comes from a military family.

At the Air Force Academy, 'sometimes, we do better than the guys', said Chen Jiun-yi, whose interest in flying began with hang-gliding while a teenager.

In admitting women into the military, Taiwan has taken due note of the potential for sexual harassment experienced elsewhere, for example in the US where over 80 women claimed they were sexually assaulted by drunken Navy and Marine aviators at the 1991 Tailhook military convention. All three Taiwanese academies have set strict rules which so far have not been broken, according to officials and students.

Students have been told that they will be asked to leave should they start up on-campus relationships which go beyond friendship. Kissing is strictly prohibited.

'In Oriental society, there is basic courtesy between men and women. It's hard to have a Tailhook in Taiwan,' Mr Liu said.

Added his female classmate, Chen Hsin-hsin: 'They respect us, so I don't think they'll do anything rude to us.'