Military Politics Under President Tsai Ing-wen

Military Politics Under President Tsai Ing-wen

Military Politics Under President Tsai Ing-wen

The historic return to power of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in January 2016 has brought Taiwan’s democracy back into international news to a degree not seen since the Sunflower Movement protests in 2014. However, little of the reporting on Taiwan directly examines one especially crucial aspect of Taiwan’s democracy: civil-military relations. Especially given the severe military threat China poses to Taiwan, the political dynamics of Taiwan’s military merit special attention. Though data on active-duty soldiers’ political views in Taiwan is hard to come by, available sources indicate that, while demographic changes in the Republic of China Armed Forces (中華民國國軍) might lead observers to expect more soldiers to support President Tsai and the DPP, limitations on this support likely persist.


Understanding Taiwan’s contemporary military politics requires a grasp of Taiwan’s strategic position, which has deteriorated in the 20 years since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996.[1] In China, the People’s Liberation Army has embarked on a massive program of modernization and restructuring as the economy has rocketed forward to become the second-largest in the world. In Taiwan, democracy has been consolidated, defense spending has languished, and trade with China has come to dominate the economy. Some in the United States have called for Washington to reconsider its longstanding commitment to ensuring a peaceful settlement of the dispute between China and Taiwan,[2] and Taiwan has not yet been able to acquire the new fighter jets and submarines it wants in order to maintain a credible defensive force. Debate thus rages in Taiwan about how best to structure its relationship with China, although defense issues, oddly, remain of relatively low salience. Concomitant with these changes, military politics in Taiwan have become increasingly fraught in recent years. Two current debates offer especially useful insight into the political dynamics of Taiwan’s military today: the military’s public opinion problem and the switch from conscription to a volunteer military recruitment system.

The Military’s Image Problem

Negative views of the military are widespread in Taiwan today and create a variety of concrete problems. For example, one locality has resisted serving as the site for crucial military exercises; other local governments are allegedly forcing soldiers to perform free manual labor, military academies and recruiters are hard pressed to attract enough people to meet their targets, military authorities were widely seen as incapable of dealing objectively with a recruit’s death during his training, and negative stories about the military are widely circulated. Compulsory military service has come to be widely seen as a “waste of life and time” (生命和時間的浪費), due at least in part to the poor quality of training and service assignments that have often been seen as worthless.

Taiwanese soldiers thus, by many accounts, feel “neglected” (漠視) by the society they are working to protect. Such alienation can be dangerous, especially in the face of a Chinese threat that is serious but not necessarily immediate: without a compelling reason to commit to the military mission, dangerous accidents become more likely and secrets become harder to secure. Worse for Taiwan, these kinds of problems have led to US officials and analysts questioning Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense. President Tsai recognizes the dangers of the military’s image problem; she has repeatedly emphasized that she will pursue the “drastic” reforms of Taiwan’s military needed to restore its “glory” (光榮).

Volunteer versus Conscript Recruitment

One major military reform is in fact already in progress: former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) initiated a shift from Taiwan’s longstanding conscription system (徵兵制) to a volunteer system (募兵制), a change that he portrayed as aimed at professionalizing and improving the image of Taiwan’s military. In this, the program has not seen much success—recruiters struggle to meet their target numbers and the deadline for completion of the shift to an all-volunteer force has been pushed back repeatedly. Even if the program’s numerical goals had been met, however, the links between volunteer recruitment per se on the one hand and professionalization and approval of the military on the other were never as strong as the Ma administration portrayed them to be. Conscription-based militaries like those of Israel[3] and Singapore,[4] for instance, are both broadly admired for their professionalism and skill.

Moves toward an all-volunteer military have, however, affected the social composition of Taiwan’s military, with potentially important consequences for the military’s political dynamics. Those joining the Taiwanese military as volunteers are disproportionately likely to be of aboriginal (non-Han; 原住民) descent, to have been born outside of Taipei, and to have completed a lower level of education—in other words, “the relationship between the economic environment and recruitment is obvious” (經濟環境跟招募成果有明顯的關係). Aboriginal voters appear to have been swinging towards the DPP in recent years, the DPP has traditionally been strongest in the regions outside Taipei, and in pre-election polls voters trusted Tsai and the DPP more than the KMT to manage the economy by a wide margin—some recent trends, at least, thus point to the military becoming more supportive of a DPP president like Tsai.

Prospects for Civil-Military Relations under Tsai Ying-wen

Historically, though, Taiwan’s military has been closely tied to the KMT, and President Tsai, perhaps fearing weak military support, has made an unusual number of visits to military institutions in her first several months as president. She has also shown a strong rhetorical commitment to supporting the military and improving its public image, even as she faces criticism for not yet offering many substantive, concrete policy suggestions.

Nonetheless, Tsai may have some room to maneuver, because even though feelings about today’s military in Taiwan are broadly negative, any portrayal of the Taiwanese as uncaring about their own defense is not entirely accurate. An Academia Sinica poll conducted in early 2015, for example (reported widely in Taiwan), found that a strong majority of Taiwanese—especially young Taiwanese—supported “reinstating” (恢復) a conscription military system, a finding which contradicts both analysts’ claims that conscription as such is “unpopular” and the KMT belief that shifting to an all-volunteer force was politically advantageous for them.[5]

A more detailed analysis of this poll does not yet appear to have been released as promised, but the reasons it diverges so strongly from the conventional wisdom about support for Taiwan’s military merit further study. Perhaps Taiwanese think a conscript force is likely to be fairer, better trained, more effective, or less expensive—the same poll showed most Taiwanese oppose raising taxes to better fund the military. Or perhaps support for a conscription system is tied up in the growing sense of Taiwanese identity in combination with the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly aggressive stance. As the US debates its role in the Taiwan Strait and President Tsai works to shore up Taiwan’s defenses, closer attention to the dynamics of Taiwan’s civil-military relations will be crucial.

The main point: Contemporary military politics in Taiwan are affected by two trends: persistent negative views of the military and the move to an all-volunteer military that is changing its social composition.

[1] Robert S. Ross, “Navigating the Taiwan Strait: Deterrence, Escalation Dominance, and U.S.-China Relations,” International Security 27, no. 2 (October 1, 2002): 48–85.[2] See, e.g., Charles L. Glaser, “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation,” International Security 39, no. 4 (2015): 49–90; Shyu-Tee Lee, Douglas Paal, and Charles Glaser, “Disengaging from Taiwan: Should Washington Continue Its Alliance with Taipei?” Foreign Affairs 90 (2011): 179.
[3] See, e.g., Sergio Catignani, “Motivating Soldiers: The Example of the Israeli Defense Forces,” Parameters 34, no. 3 (Autumn 2004), pp. 108-121.
[4]See, e.g., Tan Tai Yong, “The Armed Forces and Politics in Singapore,” in Marcus Mietzner, ed., The Political Resurgence of the Military in Southeast Asia: Conflict and Leadership (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), pp. 148-166.
[5]This finding has found anecdotal support in online discussions about returning to a conscription system.