Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Bad Samaritans who keep passing through the Taiwan Strait

  • American provocateurs continue to stir the pot by suggesting lengthening mandatory military service in Taiwan and abandoning the one-China policy
Say what you like about Mark Esper; the former Pentagon chief under Donald Trump does know where to pour fuel on the fire. First, he suggested Washington should end its one-China policy: “It is my personal view that the one-China policy has outlived its usefulness, that it is time to move away from strategic ambiguity.”
Then, he advised the island to extend its mandatory military service to one year. The incendiary comments were made during his red-carpet trip to Taiwan. It may be worth putting both proposals in context, that is, within the domestic politics of the self-ruled island rather than at the international axis of Taiwan, mainland China and the United States.

Military service

Domestically, the length of military service has been a long-standing issue. So it’s hardly the case that Esper is starting the debate only just now. The current debate dates from last November. Back then, Jang Chyi-lu, an economist and lawmaker of the opposition Taiwan People’s Party, asked Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng about the need and feasibility of extending the training of male conscripts from the current four months to one year, especially in light of the much longer period of mandatory military training in South Korea and Singapore.

In the previous month, Chiu made the controversial claim that the mainland would be in a position to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025. Jang’s question and Chiu’s claim became more urgent in Taiwan after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. (See my column, “ Taiwan’s excuse to extend conscription”, on April 7.)

The war in Ukraine gave an immediate boost to public support for lengthening mandatory military service. A March 22 survey conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found three out of four Taiwanese supported lengthening it to one year.

But such sentiments may not be sustainable as they have always been susceptible to the waxing and waning of tensions between the island and the mainland. From 1949 to 2000, conscription lasted two to three years. But in the 2000s, it was shortened to one year, as cross-strait ties were strengthened and tensions waned. Thereafter, four months of basic training were enough to earn a conscript a waiver for the rest of the year of service.

US defence chief’s call for longer military service leaves Taiwan divided

Now, of course, as tensions rise again, longer conscription is back on the agenda. But that actually cuts to the very question of what kind of military Taiwan wants.

It was a long-established doctrine for the government under both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang to switch from a conscript military to a volunteer-dominated professional one. It envisaged a cross-strait war between two conventional forces.

But then Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came along and started to muddy the waters. She and some of her military advisers began championing the idea of “asymmetric warfare”, whereby a more streamlined, mobile and agile Taiwanese military could match and deter a much bigger, but conventional, mainland force. This kind of warfare may conceivably involve an “informal” civil force, that is, militarily trained civilians fighting as partisans to support the island’s main force. Many experts from Taiwan and the US have questioned the progress made so far with this “modernisation”.

Call me a simpleton but it would seem much easier for Taiwan to stay more neutral between the US and the mainland – rather than tilting towards the former and endlessly provoking the latter – and to re-establish cross-strait ties. That way, at the very least, it could continue to develop a fully professional army without having to draft reluctant young men into the service for however many months or years of their lives. Surely that would make many Taiwanese families and parents happy.

‘One China’

Esper’s idea of repudiating the one-China policy is a non-starter, a route even the DPP and the Joe Biden White House dare not tread. Imagine what that actually means. The US would come to Taiwan’s defence as soon as it was attacked, no matter what. And the only reason that would happen was when the island formally declared independence. In fact, such a commitment from the US is only conferred on a full ally, so this policy switch alone amounts to conferring full state sovereignty on the island. In other words, Esper’s idea is an outright invitation to war.

‘We will do what we say’: Beijing warns against Taiwan visit by Pelosi

Among some hawks in Washington, that may well be a desirable outcome. Having supported a proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, they would be willing to sacrifice Taiwan for another such war against China. Taiwanese people won’t stand for it, though.

In a November survey, 84.9 per cent of Taiwanese said they supported maintaining the status quo between Taiwan and the mainland. Only 6.8 per cent said Taiwan should declare independence as soon as possible while 1.6 per cent said they supported unification.

Most Taiwanese may not want to jump in bed with Beijing; they don’t want to fight it either.