Cheng Yi, 28, remembers his four months of mandatory military service in Taiwan as a pretty laid-back experience. “It was really basic stuff,” he said, recalling the summer-camp atmosphere with morning runs and pushups.
He did learn how to take apart a gun and put it back together. But when it came to actually using it, training was limited. “Everyone got six bullets” on each trip to the shooting range, he said.
Cheng wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a gun again if he was ever called to fight, he said, but the 2014 stint in the military did not leave him prepared. “I’m not really good at shooting.”
The self-ruled island of more than 23 million people has for decades faced an existential threat from China, which has vowed to bring the democracy into its fold by force if necessary. In part because an attack seems unlikely to most Taiwanese, the government had over the years eased unpopular military service requirements, shortening its length from the traditional one or two years.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, together with a more hostile China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, have jolted some Taiwanese from their complacency.
Many want to rethink the country’s defense strategy. The government will budget $19 billion for the military next year, a 13.9 percent increase that includes plans to buy more fighter jets and other hardware. But beyond dollar commitments, the island is considering a reversal to a longer conscription service.
“I don’t think we are ready—especially when it comes to Taiwan’s young people,” said Hsu Chiao-hsin, a rising political star from the Kuomintang opposition, often considered the party with the softer position on China. Hsu is a rare voice who wants to see service extended to one year and have women serve along with men.
“Taiwan’s military is facing a serious problem,” she said. “Our military can buy weapons—they don’t lack money. But we don’t have battle-ready soldiers.”
On paper, Taiwan boasts an impressive 2.3 million troops in the reserves, comprising a mix of volunteers and those who have completed their four months of mandatory military service, like Cheng. Together with more than 180,000 active duty members and geographic advantage, the island looks like it can hold its own against China’s two million active soldiers. But analysts say poor training means the real capability of its fighting force translates to just a tiny fraction of that total.
When asked what else he learned beyond target practice, Cheng had little to offer. No instructor ever explained to him the basics of how China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), operates, let alone walked through the various invasion scenarios, from bombardment to urban warfare. Map reading and navigation with a compass, a skill expected of Boy Scouts, was not part of his curriculum.
That remains the case today, despite a more worrisome geopolitical climate. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this past summer prompted Beijing’s most dramatic military exercises around the territory in decades. A retinue of American politicians have visited the island since, all while Xi prepares to consolidate power in a major Communist Party meeting that will likely hand him a third term—and keep China’s intimidation over Taiwan for at least another five years.
Hank Yu, 27, who completed his four-month service in 2018, confirmed that conscripts are not trained in basic first aid and would not know how to apply a tourniquet if someone got shot.
“They did teach us how to deal with heat stroke,” he said. “For those who are not professional soldiers—if we need to fight, the training is not enough.”
The uneasy feeling they are ill-fit for war has spurred some citizens to sign up for training courses in first aid and civil defense, which have proliferated since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Our military, police, firefighters and paramedics account for just about 1 percent of our total population,” said Enoch Wu, founder of Forward Alliance, an NGO that has organized more than 40 safety workshops since February. “I think it’s important to make sure the other 99 percent know what their jobs will be in the event of a crisis.”
Most of Wu’s training focuses on emergency preparation in the event of conflict but also disaster response in earthquake-prone Taiwan.
Kuma Academy, an organization started late last year, has a more explicit mission. “Our main focus is to specifically ward off the threat from China,” said Dora Tsai, the project’s coordinator and co-founder.
The team recently received backing from one of Taiwan’s business tycoons, Robert Tsao, former head of a top microchip maker. Tsao has pledged $19 million to train three million people in three years in civil defense and first aid, and enroll an additional 300,000 volunteers in shooting programs.
But Tsai asked, “Why is civil society doing this kind of thing and not the government?” Her group is calling for defense education in high schools and retraining disaster relief brigades already in place.
For years, security specialists have urged Taipei to emulate countries like Israel and Finland, with their whole-of-country defense efforts, whether with a highly professional mandatory military program or preparations where citizens know their role in the event of war.
But an entrenched military bureaucracy has slowed reforms. And any politician wishing to change the status quo faces obstacles. Conservatives in the legislature yield to the status quo, and the public is more concerned with domestic issues such as the economy or education.
Given this environment, some Taiwanese policymakers see little option except to focus on shoring up international help.
“This is a challenge of our time, and it is not just Taiwan’s challenge,” argued Kuan-Ting Chen of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank. “We need to work together with regional partners because if we don’t, then those authoritarian regimes will take action.”
Chen said Taiwan needs to build stronger relations with Japan and Australia, the two regional powers most likely to step in, both politically and militarily, should China invade.
The superpower Taiwan looks to, however, is the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden has made repeated statements that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense militarily in the event of an attack, an apparent departure from the keep-China-guessing language of his predecessors. But the White House’s repeated clarifications that U.S. policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed have cast uncertainty over to what extent the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid.
That is also no guarantee that the next U.S. president will hold the same view as Biden, given the lack of a formal commitment by the U.S. military to intervene in the event of an attack by the PLA.
What the war in Ukraine has shown is that the U.S. would likely be willing to supply arms and impose sanctions. But Taiwan, like Ukraine, might have to fight on its own.
“Without U.S. intervention, I think China would prevail in an invasion,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group. “I don’t sense that the population is fully prepared for that.”
Trying to warn about the China danger, Taiwan’s commander-in-chief, President Tsai Ing-wen, has supported the development of a domestic defense industry, including the production of submarines and ships. More than her recent predecessors, she makes a point of wearing military fatigues when visiting bases and other defense-related events—a signal meant as much for the Taiwanese public as it is for Beijing that she is ready if necessary to become a wartime leader. This year, she oversaw a new two-week program for reservists, upped from the previous five- to seven-day refresher.
Tsai has also acknowledged the need to develop asymmetric warfare capabilities in what would inevitably be a David versus Goliath battle. For years, Taiwan purchased big-ticket hardware better suited for conventional war, including tanks of questionable value for the mountainous island. Her prescriptions have been piecemeal, however, and there is no national plan to overhaul the military in the way that security experts say is necessary.
Even if Taiwan did everything right—it faces a formidable challenge.
“On a monthly basis, Beijing has been modernizing and building up PLA capabilities for the better part of the last three decades,” said Wu of Forward Alliance. “I don’t think we can be prepared enough.”