Concern over Taiwan’s military reserves, civil defence as mainland China looms
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the importance of mobilising civilians when under attack and highlighted Taiwan’s weaknesses
- About 73 per cent of Taiwanese say they would be willing to fight for the island if Beijing invaded
The course, part of Taiwan’s efforts to deter a mainland Chinese invasion, was jam-packed with 200 reservists to one instructor.
“It just became all listening, there was very little time to actually carry out the instructions,” Chen said.
Experts said civilian defence and reserve forces had an important deterrent effect, showing a potential aggressor that the risks of invasion were high. Even before the invasion of Ukraine in March, Taiwan was working on reforming both. The question is whether it will be enough.
Taiwan’s reserves are meant to back up its 188,000-person military, which is 90 per cent volunteers and 10 per cent men doing their four months of compulsory military service. On paper, the 2.3 million reservists enable Taiwan to match Beijing’s 2 million-strong military.
Yet, the reserve system has long been criticised. Many, like Chen, felt the seven days of training for the mostly former soldiers was a waste of time that did not prepare them well enough.
The number of combat-ready reservists – those who could immediately join frontline battles – was only about 300,000, said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the governing Democratic Progressive Party who serves on the defence committee in the legislature.
“In Ukraine, if in the first three days of the war it had fallen apart, no matter how strong your military is, you wouldn’t have been able to fight the war,” Wang said. “A resilient society can meet this challenge. So that when you are met with disasters and war, you will not fall apart.”
One major change was the pilot launch of a more intensive, two-week training instead of the standard one week, which will eventually be expanded to the 300,000 combat-ready reservists. The remaining reservists could play a more defensive role, such as defending bridges, Wang said.
Dennis Shi joined the revamped training for two weeks in May at an abandoned building site on Taiwan’s northern coast. Half the time it was raining, he said. The rest, it was baking hot. The training coincided with the peak of a Covid-19 outbreak. Wearing raincoats and face masks, the reservists dug trenches and practised firing mortars and marching.
“Your whole body was covered in mud, and even in your boots there was mud,” Shi said.
Still, he said he got more firing time than during his mandatory four months of service three years ago and felt motivated because senior officers carried out the drills with them.
“The main thing is when it’s time to serve your country, then you have to do it,” he said.
There were plans to reform the civil defence force too, said Wang, though much of the discussion has not been widely publicised yet.
The Civil Defence Force, which falls under the National Police Agency, is a leftover from an era of authoritarian rule before Taiwan transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Its members are mostly people who are too old to qualify as reservists but still want to serve.
“It hasn’t followed the passage of the times and hasn’t kept pace with our fighting ability,” Wang said.
Planned changes include a requirement to include security guards employed by some of Taiwan’s largest companies in the force, and the incorporation of women, who are not required to serve in the military.
About 73 per cent of Taiwanese say they would be willing to fight for Taiwan if Beijing were to invade, according to surveys by Kuan-chen Lee at the defence ministry-affiliated Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a number that has remained consistent.
The Ukraine war, at least initially, shook some people’s confidence in the willingness of America to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack. Whereas 57 per cent said last September they believed the US would “definitely or probably” send troops if mainland China invaded, that dropped to 40 per cent in March.
Outside government efforts, some civilians have been inspired to do more on their own.
Last week, the founder of Taiwanese chip maker United Microelectronics, Robert Tsao, announced he would donate NT$1 billion (US$32.8 million) to fund the training of a 3 million-person defence force made up of civilians.
More than 1,000 people have attended lectures on civil defence with Open Knowledge Taiwan, according to T.H. Schee, a tech entrepreneur who gives lectures and organises civil defence courses with the volunteer group, which aims to make specialised knowledge accessible to the public.
Others have signed up for first-aid training, and some for firearms courses, though with air guns as Taiwan’s laws do not allow widespread gun ownership.
These efforts need government coordination, according to Martin Yang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Military and Police Tactical Research and Development Association, a group of former police officers and soldiers interested in Taiwan’s defence.
“The civil sector has this idea and they’re using their energy, but I think the government needs to come out and coordinate this, so the energy doesn’t get wasted,” he said.
Yang is critical of the government’s civil defence drills, citing annual exercises in which civilians practise taking shelter.
“When you do this exercise, you want to consider that people will hide in the subway, they need water and food, and may have medical needs. You will possibly have hundreds or thousands of people hiding there,” Yang said. “But where does the water and food come from?”
In July, the New Taipei City government organised a large-scale drill with its disaster services and the defence ministry. Included for the first time was urban warfare, such as how first responders would react to an attack on a railway station or a port.
The drills had the feeling of a carnival rather than serious preparation for an invasion. An MC excitedly welcomed guests as Korean pop music blared. Recruiters for the military, the coastguard and the military police set up booths to entice visitors, offering trinkets such as toy grenade key chains.
Chang Chia-rong guided VIP guests to their seats. The 20-year-old expressed a willingness to defend Taiwan, although she was not very worried about an invasion by the mainland.
“If there’s a volunteer squad, I hope that I can join and defend my country,” she said. “If there’s a need, I would be very willing to join.”