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Taiwan runs short of volunteers in military shift

Monday - 5/13/2013, 10:47pm  ET

In this March 22, 2013 photo, a recruitment officer teaches a new soldier how to handle applicants at a recruitment center in Taipei, Taiwan. A Taiwanese plan to end mandatory military service and shift to an all-volunteer force is running into a problem: Not enough volunteers. Such forces are generally considered superior to conscripted ones, because those serving want to be there. Recruitment is proving difficult in a prosperous society that offers young people alternatives and doesn't glorify military service. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

PETER ENAV
Associated Press

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) -- A Taiwanese plan to end mandatory military service and shift to an all-volunteer force is running into a problem: not enough volunteers.

Such forces are generally considered superior to conscripted ones, because those serving want to be there. Taiwan wants to field a leaner and meaner military of 176,000 volunteers by 2015, in place of its current complement of 235,000 volunteers and conscripts.

But the military fell 4,000 short of its goal of 15,000 volunteers last year, and likewise was 2,000 short of its much smaller target of 4,000 in 2011.

Recruitment is proving difficult in a prosperous society that offers young people alternatives and doesn't glorify military service. Unlike in the United States, political candidates here almost never mention military service when campaigning, almost as if it were a badge of shame.

"I pretty much agree with that old Chinese saying that good people don't go into the military," said Yen Shou-cheng, 28, who manages a food shop in downtown Taipei. "I myself did just a couple of weeks of training and it was a total waste of time. There are far more important things in life than serving your country in the army -- earning good money to take care of your wife and kids, for example."

Some young people also question the need for a strong defense, because of Taiwan's rapidly improving relations and expanding trade with its once implacable foe on the Chinese mainland. Moreover, given China's growing military strength, some think resistance would be futile.

"I think Taiwan has no chance of winning in a fight against China," said Wang Yen-zhou, 19, a student at Taipei's Taiwan National University. "We are not strong enough. So fighting doesn't make sense."

Gone are the days when Taiwan could recruit soldiers with martial music and patriotic slogans about retaking the mainland. Today, hip depictions of soldiers dressed as funky cartoon characters are a dominant theme at the Keelung Street military recruiting center in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, one of four such centers spread around this island of 23 million people.

Taiwanese defense experts say the government also needs to offer higher salaries. All-volunteer militaries may be more professional, but they're also more expensive.

"The budget to sustain the force is not enough," said Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy defense minister. "Many people believe the Ministry of Defense should rethink the entire concept."

The ministry insists it can reach its recruiting targets, though Col. Hu Zhong-shi, the deputy director of the ministry's military recruiting effort, concedes that a strong economy is making it difficult.

"In 2010, when the economy was bad, we did very well," he said. "Now that it is improving we are facing more of a challenge."

The basic salary for a voluntary recruit is around 30,000 New Taiwan dollars ($1,000) a month, with bonuses for service in combat arms -- the infantry, armor and artillery -- and for extended periods of enlistment.

Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University believes the government needs to raise defense spending from its present 2.2 percent of GDP to about 3 percent to meet the 2015 all-volunteer force goal. But that seems unlikely under President Ma Ying-jeou, who has focused on improving relations with China and sanctioned a cutback in military exercises.

The struggle to recruit worries some U.S. defense experts.

While an attack may seem unlikely, China has never renounced the use of force in its bid to bring Taiwan under its control. It has an estimated 1,500 missiles aimed at the island across the 160-kilometer- (100-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait.

William Stanton, the former head of the de facto U.S. embassy on Taiwan, told a China-wary audience in Taipei in March that declining military budgets and other signs of a weakened commitment to military readiness have left Taiwan vulnerable to Chinese attack and made it easier for mainland spies to penetrate its armed forces.

"I worry (about Taiwan)," he said, "because I sometimes think the Taiwanese people do not worry enough."

One Taiwanese proudly bucking the trend is Kung Yun-ru, 22, a recent university graduate in design. She said her family's deep-seated military tradition -- both her grandfather and uncle served in the army -- helped cement her decision to report to one of Taipei's two main recruiting depots and volunteer to become an officer in the military police.

"My motives are entirely patriotic," she said, filling out her enlistment forms with a friend. "I love Taiwan. And I'm definitely not afraid of the Chinese Communists."

But Taipei university student Zhuang Ming-zheng, 20, questioned the whole idea of military readiness: "We have good economic relations with the mainland, so there's no reason to think that an attack will ever happen."


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