Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
Matters of war and national defense are commonly considered to be the exclusive domain of soldiers and national security officials. Even though non-military actions must be considered secondary to military operations in time of war, they are nevertheless critical for mitigating the loss of life and protecting civilian infrastructure from an armed attack. Civil defense in peacetime is arguably even more important for its ability to enhance resiliency—defined as “a society’s ability to resist and recover from such shocks and combines both civil preparedness and military capacity.” While the military capacity of Taiwan’s armed forces—and also that of the United States—to deter an attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have taken center stage in debates in defense circles in Washington and Taipei within recent years, there has been an overall lack of attention and investment in civil preparedness. This may be starting to change, however, as the Ukraine War enters its seventh month and the Chinese military’s unprecedented August exercises have resulted in a visible swelling of public concern about the possibility of war erupting across the Taiwan Strait. These factors have all resulted in a marked increase in the Taiwanese public’s interest in civil defense preparedness.
A Bottom-Up Approach to Civil Defense Preparedness
The proliferation of civil defense skills and real combat training programs—especially in the past year—highlights the development of a bottom-up approach to civil defense within Taiwan. Two examples of non-governmental civil defense training programs stand out. In particular: the Kuma Academy (黑熊學院), and Forward Alliance (壯闊台灣聯盟).
The Kuma Academy was co-founded in 2021 by a team of volunteers led by Puma Shen (沈伯洋), an assistant professor at National Taipei University, and Ho Cheng-hui (何澄輝), the deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Strategic Simulation (台灣安保協會). The organization now organizes several dozen whole-day courses throughout the island that are intended to improve people’s awareness and basic skills involved in civil defense. Its courses emphasize disaster prevention, medical rescue, and self-defense combat, and are taught by professional practitioners. In addition, the courses cover topics like cognitive warfare methods, modern warfare, and basic rescue and evacuation practice in an easy-to-understand way.
The Kuma Academy reportedly raised around USD $225,000 (NTD $4.7 million) in August 2022, and the organizers had planned to offer 50 or 60 of its civil defense courses around the island. Ostensibly as a result of China’s increased aggressiveness towards Taiwan and Hong Kong, the former chairman of United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC, 聯華電子), Robert Tsao (曹興誠)—who recently reclaimed his Republic of China (Taiwan) citizenship—pledged USD $20 million (NTD $600 million) to support Kuma Academy, with the goal of providing training to 3 million “Kuma Warriors” (黑熊勇士) over the next three years.
Another example of a non-governmental organization in Taiwan leading the way on civil defense is Forward Alliance (壯闊台灣聯盟). The organization, which began its civil defense training courses in February after the onset of the war in Ukraine, reportedly hosts around 15 civil defense sessions and attracts around 400–500 participants each month. Headed by Enoch Wu (吳怡農), a former special forces soldier and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) politician, the organization aims to further involve Taiwan’s general population in civil defense and disaster relief. According to Wu, “civil preparedness is a whole-of-nation approach to defense and security […] Our mission is to teach citizens how to respond in an emergency. In peacetime, this means disaster response. In wartime, the same skills form the backbone of civil defense.” Notably, all the attendees to these two programs have been paying out of their own pockets.
The Legal Framework for Civil Defense
This growing movement by Taiwanese civil society and private companies to enhance the nation’s civil preparedness has been complemented by a patchwork legal framework that was brought together under the Civil Defense Act (CDA, 民防法) in 2021. Passed in January 2021, the CDA designated the Ministry of Interior (MOI, 內政部) as the competent authority with jurisdiction over civil defense in peacetime, in conjunction with the Ministry of Defense (MND, 國防部). The responsibility for control over the “civil defense force” (民防團隊) would transfer over to the MND in wartime. The law details the legal scope of civil defense, competent authorities at the central and local levels (down to the village level), and overall organization of civil defense forces.
Although the CDA was only passed in early 2021, the concept of civil preparedness is not necessarily new in the country’s defense vernacular. In practice, it was tied more to military concepts like “all-out defense” (全民國防), with initiatives that were heavily centered on military-channels, and had focused more on civil-military education than on practical civil defense training. For instance, in 2015 Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (LY, 立法院) passed the “All-Out Defense Education Act” (全民國防教育法), which authorizes the MND as the competent authority at the central level to implement an “All-Out Defense Education Day” (全民國防教育日) and expand public participation in national defense education.
Since at least 2013, the National Police Agency (NPA, 內政部警政署) under the MOI has jurisdiction to direct civil defense matters according to the “Rules for the Civil Defense Command and Control Office of the National Police Agency of the Ministry of the Interior” (內政部警政署民防指揮管制所辦事細則). Given the role of the NPA as a subordinate agency of the Ministry of Interior, separate from the MND and with core competency in public security, it is logical that it has been authorized to direct civil defense through its Civil Defense Office (民防指揮管制所). Yet, after nine years, advances have been limited at best. There is no official data on the number of civilians currently involved in the NPA’s civilian defense force, and details about their training and proficiency are sparse. In turn, this has allowed for little public accountability for what the law mandates. Recent anecdotal evidence claims that the NPA’s civil defense force has around 50,000 civilians, mostly comprised of men between the ages of 50 and 70, who perform four hours of training per year.
In this context, the CDA’s authorization of one civilian executive agency with the authority over civil defense makes administrative sense. What it appears to be doing is taking a whole-of-government approach, rather than simply relying on the limited resources of the NPA to coordinate civil defense matters. According to NATO, there are seven baseline requirements for national resilience and preparedness: continuity of government and critical services; effective maritime border controls; resilient energy supplies, as well as water and food resources; resilient health system with medical supplies; resilient and reliable civil communications systems; and resilient transport systems. Such a broad set of responsibilities cannot just be the remit of the NPA, and it would make sense for the MOI to take charge of civil defense given its core function for homeland security.
As the ongoing Ukraine War demonstrates, the preparedness of a civilian population during peacetime will directly contribute to its effectiveness during wartime. For Taiwan, time is of the essence, and resiliency is critical for its effective defense.
In the case of Taiwan, this means the integration of will-to-fight concepts into both civilian and military defense. As the United States and her allies look at ways to strengthen integrated deterrence, sustaining and enhancing Taiwan’s will to fight ought to be an integral part of that strategy. While the military capacity of Taiwan’s armed forces has long been the primary focus, there should be more attention and investment paid to Taiwan’s budding civil preparedness efforts. One way to bolster Taiwan’s civil preparedness could be the deployment of teams of civil preparedness experts from the United States and like-minded countries to Taiwan and to help develop shared situational awareness. Down the road, the Taiwanese government can use this renewed sense of national vigor to form a territorial defense force.
Whether such efforts for civil defense are sustainable, however, will also depend in part on whether there is broad support for the initiatives on the part of the political authorities. In this sense, Taiwan’s initial, bottom-up approach may make more sense, as an entirely government-led initiative may be unsustainable should a new government be elected. For instance, Taipei mayor and likely presidential hopeful, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), has criticized the efforts of these NGOs training a civil defense force as being similar to the young rebels that formed the Boxer Rebellion (義和團). Such criticisms, however, are narrow and misplaced. There is no substitute for soldiers to fight a war, but national resiliency requires both civil preparedness and military capacity.
Both governments and civil society have important functions in organizing civil defense initiatives, as seen in the United States and the United Kingdom. Taiwan’s civil society, well-known for its robust and actively engaged non-governmental organizations, is increasingly stepping up to address many of the nation’s challenges, and civil defense preparedness is not an exception. However, it cannot carry the burden all on its own. The government, with its resources and organizational capacity, will be critical to such efforts, though in the case of Taiwan the political will appears to be lacking at this time. Effective public-private partnership will be key to the durability of any future civil preparedness initiatives.
The main point: While most analyses of Taiwan’s defensive capabilities have focused on traditional military preparedness, there has been a notable lack of focus on civil defense efforts. Taiwan’s government should work closely with civil-society organizations to develop a resilient, whole-of-society approach.
The author would like to thank GTI Summer 2022 Intern Meghan Shoop for her research assistance.