What you need to know
If the goal is to establish durable conditions of geopolitical security, the only hope for Taiwan is the emergence of an international diplomatic regime committed to the mutual draw-down of military capacity worldwide, through which all countries, especially China, Russia, and the United States, would be compelled to gradually diminish their own standing armies.
For some Taiwanese, Russia’s shocking and unjustifiable assault on Ukraine has about the possibility of Chinese invasion. As reports of the war in Europe circulated worldwide, the phrase ‘’ made the rounds on Taiwanese social media, and an organization with apparent ties to the Taiwan Association for Strategic Simulation called organized seminars to discuss the conflict’s lessons for Taiwan.
President Tsai Ing-wen called the two geopolitical situations “fundamentally different,” and Cabinet spokesperson Lo Ping-cheng characterized the comparison as “inappropriate” and “demoralizing.” At the same time, however, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng announced that his ministry was re-examining Taiwan’s readiness for war in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. Although it remains unclear exactly what such a reexamination might mean, Chiu has his interest in reforming the country’s conscription policies — perhaps by lengthening the mandatory term of service, which is currently four months.
All of this is taking place, of course, in the context of heightened concerns over Taiwan’s geopolitical security, as international observers consistently warn of China’s strengthening military capacities. Some Taiwanese leaders, notably the DPP’s Enoch Wu, now regularly issue grave warnings about Taiwan’s emergency and military preparedness. In addition to raising concerns about deficiencies in Taiwanese bomb shelters and other issues, Wu has advocated revitalizing conscription for the twenty-first century, including by introducing special training in the first aid and civil defense skills he suggests would be vital in the event of a Chinese attack. Noting that conscription is unpopular in Taiwan, he even in the New York Times, “We seem to expect American sons and daughters to risk their lives to protect our home, while relieving our own of that very duty.”
To an extent, the comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan is an obvious one. Both countries, of course, have been cyclically menaced by a hostile, and much larger, neighbor which maintains a supposedly historical claim over the smaller nation’s territory. Similarly, over the course of decades, both countries have come to rely to an incredible extent on military aid from powerful international allies, notably the United States.
But there’s another striking similarity, too, which those who would re-intensify Taiwan’s conscription policies shouldn’t overlook. Ukraine, like Taiwan, has consistently attempted to scale-back or eliminate mandatory military service in recent decades. The roll-back of mandatory military service was meant to foreshadow an anticipated transition away from a conscription-based military to a professionalized all-volunteer force like those that exist in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. But, as in Taiwan, Ukrainian politicians consistently stopped short of eliminating the draft entirely — in part because loud voices within the country repeatedly demanded the maintenance of a large standing army as a deterrent to interference from its large and menacing neighbor.
Military conscription — the draft — is foundational not only to modern warfare, but also to the format of modern geopolitics. From certain vantage points, of course, this isn’t an obvious conclusion — in the U.S. and U.K., for example, the establishment of permanent professionalized militaries has made the return of national conscription seem highly unlikely. The issue rarely enters public discourse in those countries, even when their armies are involved in active military operations overseas.
Brits’ and Americans’ skewed perspectives notwithstanding, military conscription has been central to geopolitics for going on . As a matter of fact, there’s a strong case to be made that the U.S. and U.K. have only been able to end their conscription programs because they now outsource elements of their foreign policies to client and allied militaries around the globe. Consider Egypt and Israel in the Middle East, for example, or South Korea in Asia — each of these countries satisfies major regional security objectives for the United States, and enforces intensive and strikingly stringent national conscription programs.
This is the disorienting reality of geopolitics in the unstable twenty-first century. The draft, once a policy instrument employed most commonly by the large imperial powers, has fallen into disuse in the world’s richest countries. But the practice persists in throughout the world, where it is reinforced by the historic hegemons through clientelism, rivalry, or both.
In Taiwan, political leaders have been rolling back conscription, admittedly in fits and starts, since at least the turn of the twenty-first century. From the 1940s through the 1990s, the military was not under civilian control; rather, it was run entirely by its own General Staff, and was tightly associated with the KMT party organization. The General Staff relied on conscription to populate the army’s ranks, legitimized through Article 20 of the country’s 1947 (wartime) constitution, which identified military service as a “duty.”
During this period, Taiwan maintained one of the most disproportionately large standing armies in the world — from a population of about 15 million. The military also gobbled up staggeringly large portions of the country’s national resources during this time — 52-66% of total government spending, year over year, went to the military between 1970 and 1987, amounting to a stunning 8% of the country’s entire GNP. A hefty percentage of that spending was designated as secret and hidden even from the civilian government.
The Lafayette frigate scandal of the 1990s — during which Taiwanese military officers accepted bribes from a French arms manufacturer in exchange for contracts, resulted in a massive loss of popular legitimacy for the General Staff. The scandal also helped elevate a first-term member of the Legislative Yuan named Chen Shui-bian, whose position as convener of the National Defense Committee put him front and center in the political battle over the future of the armed forces.
Upon becoming president in 2000, Chen and his DPP administration implemented National Defense laws ratified just before he entered office, which brought Taiwan’s military — to a much a greater degree — under civilian control. Total military funding had already begun to drop prior to Chen’s becoming president, but his administration reduced it even further, to just 16% of total government spending by 2001. Accordingly, Chen presided over a significant reduction in the Taiwanese armed forces, from .
The Chen administration also succeeded in making incremental adjustments to mandatory military service, including periodically shortening the required term of service. But by the time of his re-election campaign in 2004, Chen was actually defending conscription with KMT candidate Lien Chan, who ran on a proposal to immediately reduce terms of service to just three months and end mandatory military service entirely after one year.
While Lien’s position may seem counterintuitive, considering his party’s deep historical connection to the armed forces, it was in line with a larger, global trend. Pro-free market political parties throughout the world advocated military professionalization through universal voluntary service in those years, often holding up the U.S. transition to an all-volunteer military following the Vietnam War as a model to follow.
Although few remember it now, there was a time when neoliberal thinkers like Milton Friedman were among the most vociferous opponents of military conscription, at least in the United States. Gradually, a global consensus developed among some of the most ardently pro-free market political actors: the solution to military inadequacy, in rich countries and in poor ones, was to eliminate the draft, and in that way better integrate militaries into the labor market as employers. According to people like Friedman, this was the only way to liberate military institutions from the inefficiencies imposed by excessive government bureaucracy. Lien therefore echoed the policy preferences of neoliberal parties around the world when he advocated, in 2004, ending conscription as a way to “stop wasting the nation’s resources.”
But Lien didn’t win the presidency in 2004 — A-bian did — and so it wasn’t until 2008, under KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, that conscription was more thoroughly overhauled. Ma’s reform changed the country’s mandatory military service policy such that men born after 1993 would only be required to serve for four months. This policy still applies in Taiwan today. And it seems to satisfy no one — not the conscripts, many of whom continue to express frustration that military service is required at all; and certainly not the foreign policy hawks in Taipei or Washington, who have made it a habit to regularly decry the Taiwanese military as “” incapable of repulsing imminent Chinese invasion.
If the humanitarian catastrophe currently underway in Ukraine has demonstrated anything, it is that small countries cannot guarantee their protection from regional hegemons through perpetual military build-up. At this moment in the twenty-first century, history urgently demands a different way of imagining geopolitical security — a radical break from the militarist politics of perpetual stand-off which only benefit hegemons like China, Russia, or the United States. History demands the demilitarization of international relations.
This analysis is altogether different from the neoliberal critique of conscription espoused by people like Lien Chan. Rather, it has more in common with a demand for the abolition of conscription on moral and ethical grounds. The moral opponents of conscription oppose the practice not because it makes the military inefficient, as free-market boosters like Chen or have suggested, but because it is a cruel and reckless practice that deforms entire generations while continually undercutting attempts to demilitarize international relations the world over.
The demilitarization of international relations is not something that can be accomplished in one country alone. How can we hope to see the permanent demilitarization of Taiwan without also seeing the same in China? How can we expect Cuba to lay down its arms without expecting the same of the United States? And of course we could say the same thing about Ukraine and Russia. Even in these conditions, the moral critique of conscription rings true. And not just to me.
For generations now, some young Taiwanese have registered their disapproval of the country’s mandatory military service policy in whatever ways were available to them. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when mandatory terms of service were still as long as 24 months, numerous conscripts resisted their enrollment in the military by the exemption system.
In 2013, a called for the military to be held accountable for the death of Hung Chung-chiu, a conscripted army corporal who died after being subjected to punishing physical drills in retaliation for alleging abusive treatment by superiors. Hung died just days before the end of his mandatory service term, and the fact that his birth-year cohort was among the last to be required to serve a full year, rather than the current four months, surely intensified the public’s reaction to his death. The scandal resulted in the of defense minister Kao Hua-chu and for more than a dozen army officers.
Between 2015 and 2018, more than were charged for dodging mandatory re-trainings. “We won’t win a war with China anyway,” one reluctant conscript, 20-year-old Hsu Kai-wen, who spoke to Reuters. “Why do I need to waste my time in the army?”
Now, with the Ukrainian catastrophe still unfolding, it’s hard to deny there was some wisdom in his words. If Taiwanese military planners once felt that they could out-spend or out-recruit China in perpetuity, they were mistaken. Admittedly, it’s an uncertain (and unsettling) proposition, but the safest way forward for Taiwan is not to persist in arms race politics, but instead to follow the trend of demilitarization through to its logical conclusion. Our political leadership, in all countries, must advocate for an internationally-mediated drawdown of military capacity in Asia and around the world.
Mass national conscription can only offer the perception of safety, and only in the short term. This is because of the incredible toll — both human and economic — that prolonged, mandatory militarism takes on a society. Even if a country like Taiwan was capable of accelerating its own economic development in perpetuity, so as to maintain relative strategic parity with much larger rivals, to repeatedly invest the national surplus into armaments and military manpower is to guarantee a skewed, inchoate, and volatile kind of economic prosperity. Prolonged, multi-generational reliance on conscription also inhibits national economic growth in more mundane ways, such as by cyclically delaying each generations’ entry into the civilian labor market. Recent history has arguably vindicated this economistic argument for demilitarization — surely very few people would claim that the militarist Taiwan of the 1940s-1990s is a social-economic model for the relatively civilianized Taiwan which exists today.
What’s more, perpetual conscription deforms democracy by eroding basic political freedoms, including the right to pursue voluntary employment free from state interference. This erosion of basic freedoms is a major reason why Taiwanese society ultimately rejected the mass militarism of the 1940s-1990s, and also why so many younger Taiwanese today do not regard conscription as an effective or desirable strategy for national unity and protection. The national trend towards demilitarization is not juvenile or naive, but rather deeply sensible. It results from a profound and apparently widespread recognition that there is no safety in a geopolitical system premised on the imminent possibility of war.
If the goal is to establish durable conditions of geopolitical security, the only hope for Taiwan is the emergence of an international diplomatic regime committed to the of military capacity worldwide, through which all countries, especially hegemons like China, Russia, and the United States, would be compelled to gradually diminish their own arsenals and standing armies according to internationally agreed upon benchmarks. Admittedly, this would be a multi-generational project — and it would require dramatic shifts not only in Taiwan’s foreign policy, but also in the foreign policies of both allied and hostile nations elsewhere in the world. But it’s what is necessary. And Taiwan could, if it so chose, become a moral and strategic leader on the world stage by advocating such an international diplomatic regime to resolve the perpetual threat of military conflict in East Asia.
At the very least, it is long past time for our political leaders to recognize that conscription cannot deliver geopolitical security — in Ukraine, Taiwan, or anywhere else in the world.
Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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