Taiwan will extend its compulsory military service from four months to a year starting in 2024, President Tsai Ing-wen said Tuesday, as the self-ruled island faces China's military, diplomatic and trade pressure.
Taiwan, which split from the mainland in 1949 during a civil war, is claimed by China. The decades-old threat of invasion by China into the self-governed island has sharpened since China cut off communications with the island’s government after the 2016 election of Tsai, who is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party and seen by Beijing as pro-independence.
China’s People’s Liberation Army in particular has stepped up its military harassment of Taiwan, sending fighter planes and navy vessels toward Taiwan on a near-daily basis in recent years. In response, the island’s military actively tracks those movements, which often serves as training for its own military personnel.
The longer military service applies to men born after 2005, and will start Jan. 1, 2024. Those born before 2005 will continue to serve four months, but under a revamped training curriculum aimed at strengthening the island’s reserves forces.
"No one wants war," Tsai said. "This is true of Taiwan's government and people, and the global community, but peace does not come from the sky, and Taiwan is at the front lines of the expansion of authoritarianism."
The plan sets Taiwan up for increasing its defense capabilities but what remains to be seen is how well the defense ministry will carry out the reforms, said Arthur Zhin-Sheng Wang, a defense expert at Taiwan’s Central Police University.
Taiwan's current four-month military conscription requirement was widely panned by the public as being too short and not providing the training that professional soldiers actually need. The government had slashed it down from a year to four months in 2017 as it was transitioning the army into an all-volunteer corps.
Of Taiwan's 188,000-person military, 90% are volunteers and 10% are men doing their required four months of service.
A poll from the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in December found that among Taiwanese adults, 73.2% said they would support a one-year military service. That support was across party lines, the survey found, spanning the Democratic Progressive Party and the more China-friendly Nationalist Party.
"This is one of the basic steps that should have been done a long time ago," said Paul Huang, a research fellow at the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. Huang said the implementation period in 2024, when Taiwan will elect a new president, meant that Tsai was "passing the buck" to her successor.
Among the youngest demographic group of 20-24, however, 37.2% said they opposed extending the military service, and only 35.6% said they would support an extension.
Beijing has often used military exercises to respond to moves it views as challenging its claims to sovereignty.
In August, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, and China responded with the largest-scale military exercises it’s held in decades, because it saw Pelosi’s visit as an official diplomatic exchange.
Although the US is the island’s largest unofficial ally, the two governments technically do not have diplomatic relations, as Washington does not formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.