To stop a Chinese invasion, Taiwan has to first fight the stigma of military service

“If Taiwan is to fend off a Chinese invasion, it will need reluctant recruits like Roger Lin to summon the patriotism that inspired older generations but these days doesn’t burn as passionately in the young.

The 21-year-old French-language major regards his upcoming mandatory four-month military service as an unnecessary burden, even as complaints persist that such stints are too short to protect the nation compared with the two to three years that previous generations served.

Weeks of flaring tensions between China and Taiwan, which has been buzzed by dozens of Chinese warplanes in a disquieting show of force, have not emboldened Lin or changed his mind. If China and its much larger military decides to invade, the island’s devastation would be a fait accompli, he said, even with the outside chance the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense.”

“Lin’s fatalism and indifference are somewhat expected among the young. But they come at a perilous moment. Fraught relations between Washington and Beijing are, more so than in any other flashpoint, raising the possibility of war in Taiwan, a self-governed democratic island of 24 million — roughly the size of Maryland — that China has regarded as a breakaway province since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

The stakes for Washington are high. Losing a democratic Taiwan to China would probably signal the end of American power in the Pacific, freeing China’s military to project its strength in the region and beyond to the detriment of U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea.

Led by an increasingly nationalistic Xi Jinping, China has in recent weeks flown military sorties deeper into Taiwanese airspace and beefed-up military exercises aimed at invading the disputed territory. The best hope for preventing a conflict that would probably draw in the U.S. is Taiwan’s willingness and ability to deter China’s aggression, experts said.

But the Taiwan government has struggled to instill the same sense of urgency found in other countries with national service requirements such as South Korea, Israel and even Singapore, which faces no immediate threats.”

“Taiwan’s active duty military has shrunk to 165,000 from 275,000 three years ago. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army numbers 2 million.

Under public pressure to move to an all-volunteer army, Taiwan began phasing-out conscription in 2013.” 

“a debate within U.S. foreign policy circles over whether to revise its stance toward defending Taiwan. The current policy, known as strategic ambiguity, leaves China and Taiwan guessing if the American military will respond to an attack on the island. The approach is credited with maintaining the peaceful status quo since 1979, when Washington cut official ties with Taipei to launch diplomatic relations with Communist China.

Now, leading voices — including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass — are arguing that a more powerful and hawkish China must be countered with an explicit warning of U.S. force if it were to move against Taiwan.

“Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait,” Haass co-wrote”

“Some experts fear that could undermine Taiwan efforts to rebuild its military: “I worry [it] would potentially confuse this work that Tsai is trying to do and allow people in Taiwan to say: ‘We don’t need to do this military spending. We don’t need to beef-up our military because the U.S. is coming to our aid,’” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert and political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina.”

“It’s also unclear whether the U.S. could successfully defend Taiwan given deficiencies in American forces in the region and Chinese weapons designed to thwart the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.” 

““Soldiers get more respect in places such as America, but we still don’t have that climate in Taiwan,” said Lai, who has yet to complete his four-month required service. “Military camp culture isn’t that strong, and our sense of patriotism isn’t as keen.”

His reluctance is partly due to the fact he and many other young Taiwanese don’t believe China would ever strike; they’ve spent their entire lives in peace. Only if the island were actually invaded would Lai volunteer to fight — with our without the U.S.”

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