Military reserves, civil defense worry Taiwan as China looms

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Chris Chen, a former captain in Taiwan's military, spent a lot of time waiting during his weeklong training for reservists in June. Waiting for assembly, waiting for lunch, waiting for training, he said.

The course, part of Taiwan's efforts to deter a Chinese invasion, was jam-packed with 200 reservists to one instructor.

“It just became all listening, there was very little time to actually carry out the instructions,” Chen said.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has underscored the importance of mobilizing civilians when under attack, as Ukraine's reserve forces helped fend off the invaders. Nearly halfway around the world, it has highlighted Taiwan's weaknesses on that front, chiefly in two areas: its reserves and civilian defense force.

While an invasion doesn’t appear imminent, China's recent large-scale military exercises in response to a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan have made the government in Taipei more aware than ever of the hard power behind Beijing’s rhetoric about bringing the self-ruled island under its control.

Experts said that civilian defense and reserve forces have an important deterrent effect, showing a potential aggressor that the risks of invasion are high. Even before the invasion of Ukraine in March, Taiwan was working on reforming both. The question is whether it will be enough.

Taiwan’s reserves are meant to back up its 188,000-person military, which is 90% volunteers and 10% men doing their four months of compulsory military service. On paper, the 2.3 million reservists enable Taiwan to match China's 2 million-strong military.

Yet, the reserve system has long been criticized. Many, like Chen, felt the seven days of training for the mostly former soldiers was a waste of time that did not prepare them well enough.

The number of combat-ready reservists — those who could immediately join front-line battles — is only about 300,000, said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the governing Democratic Progressive Party who serves on the defense committee in the legislature.

“In Ukraine, if in the first three days of the war it had fallen apart, no matter how strong your military is, you wouldn’t have been able to fight the war,” Wang said. “A resilient society can meet this challenge. So that when you are met with disasters and war, you will not fall apart.”

Taiwan reorganized 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.

One major change was the pilot launch of a more intensive, two-week training instead of the standard one week, which will eventually be expanded to the 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 training for two weeks in May at an abandoned building site on Taiwan’s northern coast. Half the time it was raining, he said. The rest, it was baking hot. The training coincided with the peak of a COVID-19 outbreak. Wearing raincoats and face masks, the reservists dug trenches and practiced firing mortars 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 firing time than during his mandatory four months of service three years ago and felt motivated because senior officers carried out the drills with them.

“The main thing is when it’s time to serve your country, then you have to do it,” he said.

There are plans to reform the civil defense force too, said Wang, though much of the discussion has not been widely publicized yet.

The Civil Defense Force, which falls under the National Police Agency, is a leftover from an era of authoritarian rule before Taiwan transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Its members are mostly people who are too old to qualify as reservists but still want to serve.

“It hasn’t followed the passage of the times 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 incorporation 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 Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a number that has remained consistent.

The Ukraine war, at least initially, shook some people's confidence in the willingness of America to come to Taiwan's assistance in the event of an attack. Whereas 57% said last September they believed the U.S. would “definitely or probably” send troops if China invaded, that dropped to 40% in March.

The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity leaves it murky as to whether the U.S. would intervene militarily. Pelosi said during her visit that she wants to help the island defend itself.

Outside of 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-person defense force made up of civilians.

More than 1,000 people have attended lectures on civil defense with Open Knowledge Taiwan, according to T.H. Schee, a tech entrepreneur who gives lectures and organizes civil defense courses with the volunteer group, which aims to make specialized knowledge accessible to the public.

Others have signed up for first aid training, and some for firearms courses, though with air guns as Taiwan’s laws do not allow widespread gun ownership.

These efforts need government coordination, said Martin Yang, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Military and Police Tactical Research and Development Association, a group of former police officers and soldiers interested in Taiwan’s defense.

“The civil sector has this idea and they’re using their energy, but I think the government needs to come out and coordinate this, so the energy doesn’t get wasted,” he said.

Yang is critical of the government's civil defense drills, citing annual exercises in which civilians practice taking shelter.

“When you do this exercise, you want to consider that people will hide in the subway, they need water and food, and may have medical needs. You will possibly have hundreds or thousands of people hiding there,” Yang said. “But were does the water and food come from?”

In July, the New Taipei city government organized a large-scale drill with its disaster services and the Defense Ministry. Included for the first time was urban warfare, such as how first responders would react to an attack on a train station or a port.

The drills had the feeling of a carnival rather than serious preparation for an invasion. An MC excitedly welcomed guests as Korean pop music blared. Recruiters for the military, the coast guard and the military police set up booths to entice visitors, offering tchotchkes such as toy grenade keychains.

Chang Chia-rong guided VIP guests to their seats. The 20-year-old expressed a willingness to defend Taiwan, though she hadn’t felt very worried about a Chinese invasion.

“If there’s a volunteer squad, I hope that I can join and defend my country,” she said. “If there’s a need, I would be very willing to join.”