TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — A government monitoring body has cast serious doubts on Taiwan's ability to launch a credible all-volunteer military force, undermining a crucial plank in President Ma Ying-jeou's defense policy, and raising difficult questions about the island's ability to defend itself against any attack from China.
In a report unveiled Tuesday, the Control Yuan quoted high-ranking retired military officers, including a former navy commander, as saying that the defense ministry's failure to attract enough recruits to replace the existing conscription-based system spells bad news for Taiwan's military deterrent.
"My gravest concern is that the all-volunteer system may not be fully developed by the time the government scraps the conscription system," said Admiral Miao Yung-ching in the report. "Is it possible to suspend this to a later date?"
Taiwan's all-volunteer transition was supposed to have been completed by 2015 but in September the Defense Ministry delayed implementation for two years amid continuing recruiting failures.
During the first 11 months of 2013, the government says only 30 percent of the recruiting target of 28,531 was met.
Report co-author Huang Huaung-hsiung said the Defense Ministry's recruiting difficulties appeared to leave it with three options heading toward the 2017 deadline: lower force levels from the 175,000 target, opt for a further delay in implementation of the all-volunteer force or revert to the conscription system.
Responding to the Control Yuan report, the Defense Ministry said it is still on course for a 2017 transition to an all-volunteer military.
The transition to an all-volunteer force is an important part of President Ma's defense policy, despite his insistence that the possibility of armed confrontation with China has receded substantially amid his efforts to lower tensions across the 150-kilometer- (100-mile) wide Taiwan strait through greater commercial engagement. That engagement has been the centerpiece of his administration since he came into office in May 2008.
China and Taiwan split after a civil war in 1949. Beijing continues to regard the democratic island of 23 million people as part of its territory and says it is committed to bringing it back into the fold — by persuasion of possible, by force if necessary.
Once boasting a standing force of more than 500,000 troops, Taiwan's enthusiasm for its military has declined greatly in recent years, paced by well-publicized horror stories about poor conditions for recruits and Ma's repeated failures to deliver on promises to devote at least 3 percent of GDP to military expenditures.
China's own massive defense outlays — at least $90 billion this year — and the lukewarm attitude of Taiwan's once steadfast American ally to providing the island with state-of-the art military hardware have also had a negative impact on the thinking of many Taiwanese, including potential recruits.