As tensions with Beijing continue to mount, Taiwan’s president has announced that the country will extend its compulsory military service from four months to one year, to better respond to any contingencies, including a possible invasion launched against the island. The move comes just 24 hours after China sent a record number of aircraft and drones into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ — 71 in all, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense.
As well as extending the military service mandate, soldiers will undergo more extensive training. This will include additional gunnery training and combat instruction. Primarily, these changes are expected to better prepare conscripts to defend key infrastructure, freeing up regular forces within the Republic of China Army (ROCA) to mount a more sustained campaign against a Chinese invasion.
The changes will come into force in 2024. There has been much speculation from senior officials that 2027 — the centenary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — could see China fully prepared to invade the island, even if Beijing currently has a preference for unification through other means.
“As long as Taiwan is strong enough, it will be the home of democracy and freedom all over the world, and it will not become a battlefield,” President Tsai Ing-wen told members of the press after a National Security Council meeting. “Taiwan wants to tell the world that between democracy and dictatorship, we firmly believe in democracy. Between war and peace, we insist on peace. Let us show the courage and determination to protect our homeland and defend democracy.”
President Tsai also said that the extension of military service was “an extremely difficult decision” but one that was made “unavoidable” due to China’s increasingly aggressive stance in relation to Taiwan.
“We welcome Taiwan’s recent announcement on conscription reform, which underscores Taiwan’s commitment to self-defense and strengthens deterrence,” the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) said in a statement. The AIT serves as the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taiwan.
In recent years, Taiwan had been making efforts to move away from a conscript military to one more reliant on professional soldiers. As well as increasing Chinese assertiveness and military activities in the Taiwan Strait, the new change in policy has been driven by lessons from the war in Ukraine. Here, it seems Taiwan has paid close attention to how a smaller, but well-trained, Ukrainian military has held far larger and more powerful Russian forces at bay.
Beijing makes no secret of its claims over Taiwan. Only in October, President Xi Jinping vowed that China would “never commit to abandoning the use of force” to seize the island. Were China to launch some kind of invasion of Taiwan or even some of its outlying islands, the ROCA would hope that it could offer enough resistance up until a time that military assistance could be provided by the international community — broadly similar dynamics to those that have helped ensure Ukraine’s continued sovereignty. You can read more about how the different elements of the ROCA would go about responding to such a contingency in this previous War Zone feature.
As it now stands, all Taiwanese men over 18 have to serve four months in the military, including an initial five weeks of basic training. This policy dates back to 2018, with conscripts previously serving more than two years.
Under the new plan, the boot camp phase will be increased to eight weeks and conscripts will also be better compensated, with the monthly wage going up from the current $211 to around $856.
While further details of how the new-look conscripted services will operate are limited, there are reports that training will include instruction on FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles as well as anti-tank missiles. These are heavier weapons than would normally be provided to conscripts and suggest that these troops could also be used in frontline combat as well as in the point defense of installations.
Issuing these kinds of weapons — which have also been notably successful in Ukrainian hands — also points to a wider move toward asymmetric warfare capabilities, of the kind that could wreak havoc in ambush situations, for example. Also relevant to asymmetric warfare, we have seen plenty of examples of the ROCA going to great lengths to prepare for fighting in urban environments, including some ingenious camouflage methods for better concealment.
Interestingly, while the previous reduction in the length of compulsory military service had been aimed to increase support among primarily younger Taiwanese voters, as well as boost the workforce and the economy, there now appears to be significant public support behind the reversal of this policy. In a survey by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation this month, a little over 73 percent said they were in favor of the extension.
This reflects wider concerns about tensions with Beijing. Among the most visible aspects of these deteriorating relations is the significant uptick in Chinese military aircraft entering the ADIZ. Since 2020, the number of incursions by PLA aircraft has increased by a factor of five.
Between 6:00 A.M. on December 25 and 6:00 A.M. on December 26, the PLA sent its biggest-ever armada of aircraft and drones into the southwest ADIZ over a 24-hour period, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense. As well as 71 aircraft and drones, seven People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels were also identified in waters close to Taiwan.
“R.O.C. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked CAP [combat air patrol] aircraft, Navy vessels, and land-based missile systems to respond [to] these activities,” the Ministry of Defense said in a tweet.
Of those 71 manned aircraft and drones, a total of 47 crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait — which serves as a de facto boundary between Taiwan and the mainland — and entered Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ. These comprised 18 J-16 Flanker strike fighters, 12 J-11 and six Su-30 Flanker multirole fighters, six J-10 multirole fighters, one Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft, one Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, one KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, one WZ-7 reconnaissance drone, and one CH-4 reconnaissance drone.
The WZ-7 drone, in particular, is an interesting asset in this context, offering a high-altitude long-endurance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. It appears that the WZ-7, also known as the Soaring Dragon, with its unusual joined-wing design, is becoming a more regular feature of PLA missions over the Taiwan Strait. The drone made its public debut at the Zhuhai Air Show last year, and we also got to have a closer look at it during the 2022 edition of the show.
The U.S. government announced its concern about Chinese military activity near Taiwan and claimed that these actions were “provocative” and “destabilizing.”
China, meanwhile, described its activities as “strike drills,” claiming these were in response to what it said was provocation from Taiwan and the United States.
“This is a firm response to the current U.S.-Taiwan escalation and provocation,” said Shi Yi, spokesperson for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command.
The previous record for incursions in a 24-hour period was recorded in August this year when 68 PLA aircraft and 13 warships were reported as being underway in the strait. You can read more about that incident here.
Ever since the visit to the island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, tensions between Taiwan and China have been even more strained. Beijing’s immediate response to that visit was to stage military drills around Taiwan, including launching missiles over the island and sending what was, at the time, an unprecedented number of aircraft into the Taiwan Strait. There was also a claim from Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense that Chinese forces — warships and planes — made a simulated attack run against a “high-value asset” in the Taiwan Strait. Since then, Chinese military activity has continued, albeit on a generally reduced scale.
For its part, Taiwan has also made efforts to bolster its military capabilities to better deter Beijing from any attempt of taking over the island by force.
As part of this effort, the United States has made moves to increase its military assistance to Taiwan. Last week, President Joe Biden signed into law an $858-billion defense policy bill that authorizes the provision of $10 billion in security assistance and fast-tracked weapons procurement.
Not surprisingly, Beijing has responded with hostility to this move, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” toward the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act. There are reports that the spike in PLA air and maritime activity in the Taiwan Strait yesterday was engineered as a direct response to the signing of this bill. While Beijing has not said that explicitly, it would be in keeping with its statement regarding its “strike drills” and with previous such responses.
As well as continued U.S. support, Taiwan is also making efforts toward “national defense autonomy,” which includes local production of advanced warships and submarines. At the other end of the scale, the Taiwanese military has recently taken a more proactive approach to the problem of Chinese drone incursions, including shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles that don’t respond to its warnings.
Clearly, as tensions between them continue to simmer, Taiwan and China are now engaged in something of a tit-for-tat strategy of military policy-making and posturing, with a knock-on effect in terms of regional stability. The risk, of course, is that while the respective armed forces heighten their readiness levels, the potential for miscalculation is increasing too.
Contact the author: email@example.com