TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Chris Chen, a former captain in the Taiwanese army, spent a lot of time waiting during his week-long training for reservists in June. Waiting for assembly, waiting for lunch, waiting for training, he said.
The course, part of Taiwan’s effort to deter a Chinese invasion, was packed with 200 reservists to one instructor.
“It just became a eavesdropping, there was very little time to carry out the instructions,” Chen said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the importance of mobilizing civilians in the event of an attack, as Ukrainian reserve forces helped repel the invaders. Near the other side of the world, he exposed Taiwan’s weaknesses on this front, mainly in two areas: its reserves and its civil defense force.
Although an invasion does not seem imminent, China’s recent large-scale military exercises in response to a visit by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan have made the government in Taipei more aware that never about the hard power behind Beijing’s rhetoric about empowerment-governed island under its control.
Experts said civil defense and reserve forces have a strong deterrent effect, showing a potential aggressor that the risks of invasion are high. Even before the invasion of Ukraine in March, Taiwan was working to reform both. The question is whether that will be enough.
Taiwanese reserves are intended to support its 188,000 soldiers, 90% of whom are volunteers and 10% men performing their four months of compulsory military service. On paper, the 2.3 million reservists allow Taiwan to equal the 2 million Chinese soldiers.
Yet the reserve system has long been criticized. Many, like Chen, felt that the seven days of training for the former soldiers, for the most part, was a waste of time that hadn’t prepared them well enough.
The number of combat-ready reservists — those who could immediately join frontline battles — is only about 300,000, said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party who sits on the defense committee. of the legislature.
“In Ukraine, if in the first three days of the war it had collapsed, no matter how strong your army was, you would not have been able to wage war,” Wang said. “A resilient society can meet this challenge. So when you face disasters and war, you won’t crumble.
Taiwan revamped its reserve system in January, now coordinated by a new body called the All Out Defense Mobilization Agency, which will also take over the civil defense system in an emergency.
A major change was the pilot launch of more intensive two-week training instead of the standard week, which will eventually be extended to all 300,000 combat-ready reservists. The remaining reservists can play a more defensive role, such as defending bridges, Wang said.
Dennis Shi joined the revamped lineup for two weeks in May at an abandoned construction site on Taiwan’s north coast. Half the time it was raining, he said. The rest was hot. The training coincided with the peak of a COVID-19 outbreak. Wearing raincoats and face masks, reservists dug trenches and practiced mortaring and marching.
“Your whole body was covered in mud, and even in your boots there was mud,” Shi said.
Still, he said he got more shooting time than his mandatory four months on duty three years ago and felt motivated because senior officers were doing the drills with them.
“The bottom line is when it’s time to serve your country, then you have to do it,” he said.
There are also plans to reform the civil defense force, Wang said, although much of the discussion has not yet been widely publicized.
The Civil Defense Force, which falls under the National Police Agency, is a remnant of an era of authoritarian rule before Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Its members are mostly people too old enough to be called reservists but still want to serve.
“He hasn’t kept up with the passage of time and hasn’t kept pace with our fighting ability,” Wang said.
Planned changes include a requirement to include security guards employed by some of Taiwan’s largest companies in the force, and the drafting in of women, who are not required to serve in the military.
About 73% of Taiwanese say they would be willing to fight for Taiwan if China were to invade, according to surveys by Kuan-chen Lee at the Defense Ministry-affiliated National Defense and Security Research Institute. , a figure that has remained constant.
The war in Ukraine, at least initially, shook the faith of some in America’s willingness to come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an attack. While 57% said last September they thought the United States would “definitely or probably” send troops if China invaded, that figure fell to 40% in March.
The US policy of strategic ambiguity leaves unclear whether the United States would intervene militarily. Pelosi said during her visit that she wanted to help the island defend itself.
Apart from government efforts, some civilians have been inspired to do more on their own.
Last week, the founder of Taiwanese chipmaker United Microelectronics, Robert Tsao, announced he would donate 1 billion New Taiwan Dollars ($32.8 million) to fund the training of a 3 million defense force. of people made up of civilians.
More than 1,000 people have attended civil defense lectures with Open Knowledge Taiwan, according to TH Schee, a tech entrepreneur who lectures and organizes civil defense courses with the volunteer group, which aims to make expert knowledge accessible to the public.
Others signed up for first aid training and some for firearms classes, but with air guns, as Taiwan laws do not allow widespread possession of firearms.
These efforts require government coordination, said Martin Yang, spokesman for the Taiwan Army and Police Tactical Research and Development Association, a group of former police and soldiers interested in defending Taiwan. .
“The civilian sector has this idea and it uses its energy, but I think the government needs to come out and coordinate this, so the energy is not wasted,” he said.
Yang criticizes the government’s civil defense drills, citing annual drills in which civilians practice taking cover.
“When you do this exercise you want to consider that people are going to hide in the subway, they need water and food and may have medical needs. You might have hundreds or thousands of people hiding there,” Yang said. “But where do the water and the food come from?
In July, the New Taipei City government held a large-scale exercise with its disaster services and the Ministry of Defense. Included for the first time was urban warfare, such as how first responders would react to an attack on a train station or port.
The drills had the feel of a carnival rather than serious preparation for an invasion. An MC enthusiastically greeted the guests as Korean pop music blared. Army, Coast Guard and Military Police recruiters set up kiosks to attract visitors, offering tchotchkes such as toy grenade keychains.
Chang Chia-rong guided the VIP guests to their seats. The 20-year-old expressed her willingness to defend Taiwan, although she did not feel very worried about a Chinese invasion.
“If there is a team of volunteers, I hope I can join and defend my country,” she said. “If there is a need, I would be very willing to join.”