Taiwanese youth losing appetite for fighting China

AP News
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Posted: Dec 01, 2011 5:14 AM
Taiwanese youth losing appetite for fighting China

Signs that Taiwan was preparing for possible war with China were once everywhere: huge posters calling for liberating the Chinese mainland and lengthy school yard drills training students to fight the communist enemy. That culture has changed so much since a detente process began in the 1990s that many young Taiwanese are now unwilling to take up arms to protect the island's self-rule.

A survey published this week by Taiwan's Commonwealth Magazine appears to confirm that Taiwan's process of demilitarization is rapidly gaining steam. Based on a sample of students aged 12 to 17, it found only 38.7 percent would be ready to see either themselves or a family member fight if a new war broke out, while 44.3 percent would not. The remainder had no opinion.

"It goes without saying that the number of Taiwanese willing to fight has come down significantly in recent years," said former Deputy Defense Minister Lin Chong-pin. "I'm even surprised that the number of pro-defense people cited by the magazine is so high."

The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the survey, saying it had no information on the way it was conducted. Commonwealth said it was carried out by mail between Oct. 17 and Nov. 4 and that the 3,715 responses represented a 74 percent return on the 5,054 questionnaires it sent.

Aside from shining a light on the huge changes taking place in Taiwanese society, the Commonwealth findings offer a big challenge for Taiwan's military, which is already struggling with a constricted defense budget and U.S. reluctance to supply it with the weapons it says it needs to cope with China's ambitious military modernization.

While Taiwan plans to end its current system of 11-month mandatory male conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force by 2014, a lack of funds and difficulty in attracting recruits are almost certain to push back that date by several years. That will leave the military dependent on large numbers of apparently unmotivated draftees.

Tamkang University military specialist Alexander Huang says the negative trends in volunteer force recruiting are especially worrying.

"I have been asking university students for several years now whether they would be willing to join an all-volunteer military," he said. "I get positive responses from no more than 2 or 3 percent."

Taiwan, which split from China amid civil war in 1949, has been engaged in a gradual program of detente with the mainland over the past two decades, culminating in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to bring the sides ever closer together, mostly through a series of ambitious commercial initiatives.

But China has never renounced its long-standing threat to take over the island by force should it move to make its de facto independence permanent, or delay unification indefinitely. It currently aims an estimated 1,500 missiles at Taiwanese targets, and conducts frequent drills simulating an invasion across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait.

Despite the threats and the missiles, present-day Taiwan is a remarkably un-militarized society, with few signs of a military presence outside of Defense Ministry facilities. Uniformed military personnel are rarely seen in major cities, and while highlights of annual war games are shown on television to boost morale, few people outside of the armed forces take them very seriously.

Both Huang and Lin ascribe the lack of military consciousness to the rapid improvement in relations with China, which they said made it difficult for Taiwanese young people to conceive of the possibility of a return to the tension of the past.

"The atmosphere in cross-strait relations is so relaxed now," Huang said. "It's difficult to envision a war."

Additional factors Huang cited for low military consciousness include the aversion of Taiwanese young people to military-style discipline and their belief that a military framework is incompatible with the "cyber lifestyle" many of them covet.

Fifteen-year-old Taipei high school student Gao Yu-kai explained his own lack of willingness to fight an invading Chinese force by saying it made no sense to participate in a losing effort.

"We could never beat China," he said. "They are just too strong."

The pessimism of Taipei students comes against the background of the continuing drop in defense expenditures as a proportion of GDP, and Taiwan's recent failure to convince the United States _ its most important strategic partner _ to sell it new F-16 jet fighters, for years the leading item on Taiwan's military wish list.

Those developments _ and Ma's 2009 announcement that Taiwan's military should henceforth see disaster relief as its main priority _ appear to have done much to deflate whatever military consciousness survived the beginning of detente with the mainland in the early 1990s and the development of a relationship that now includes the arrival of thousands of Chinese tourists in Taiwan everyday and the maintenance of hundreds of weekly flights across the Taiwan Strait.