Taiwan has noticed a hole in its defense plans that is constantly growing. And it is not easily covered by increasing the budget or buying more weapons.
The island democracy of 23.5 million faces an increasing challenge to recruit enough young men to meet its military targets and its Home Office has suggested the problem stems, at least in part, from its stubbornly low birth rate. .
Taiwan’s population fell for the first time in 2020, according to the ministry, which warned earlier this year that the 2022 military entry would be the lowest in a decade and that a continued drop in the young population would pose a “major challenge.” for the future.
That’s bad news at a time when Taiwan is trying to bolster its forces to deter any possible invasion from China, whose ruling Communist Party has been making increasingly belligerent noises about its determination to “reunify” with the autonomous island, which has never done. controlled – by force if necessary.
And the picture has darkened further with the release of a new report from Taiwan’s National Development Council projecting that by 2035 the island can expect roughly 20,000 fewer births per year than the 153,820 it recorded in 2021. By 2035, Taiwan will also overtake South Korea as the jurisdiction with the lowest birth rate in the world, the report added.
Such projections are fueling a debate over whether the government should increase the period of compulsory military service that eligible youth must serve. Currently, the island has a professional military force of 162,000 (as of June this year), 7,000 fewer than the target, according to a report by the Legislative Yuan. In addition to that number, all eligible men must complete four months of training as reservists.
Changing the conscription requirement would be a big U-turn for Taiwan, which had previously been trying to reduce conscription and shortened the 12-month conscription in 2018. But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s National Defense Minister Chiu Kuocheng said those plans would be made public before the end of the year.
That news has met with opposition among some young students in Taiwan, who have vented their frustrations on PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit, even if there is support for the move among the general public.
A poll conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March this year found that a majority of Taiwanese agreed with a proposal to extend the service term. It found that 75.9% of those surveyed thought that it was reasonable to extend it to one year; only 17.8% opposed it.
Many experts argue that there is simply no other option.
Su Tzu-yun, director of Taiwan’s National Defense and Security Research Institute, said that before 2016, the pool of men eligible to join the military, either as career soldiers or as reservists, was about 110,000. Since then, he said, the number has decreased each year and the group will likely be as low as 74,000 by 2025.
And within the next decade, Su said, the number of young adults available for conscription into the Taiwanese military could drop by as much as a third.
“This is a national security issue for us,” he said. “The population pool is declining, so we are actively considering whether to resume conscription to meet our military needs.
“We now face a growing threat (from China), and we need to have more firepower and manpower.”
Taiwan’s low birth rate (0.98) is well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population, but it is not an outlier in East Asia.
In November, South Korea broke its own world record when its birth rate fell to 0.79, while Japan’s fell to 1.3 and mainland China’s to 1.15.
Still, experts say the trend poses a unique problem for Taiwan’s military, given the island’s relative size and the threats it faces.
China has been making increasingly aggressive noises towards the island since August, when then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taipei. Not long after she landed in Taiwan, Beijing also launched an unprecedented series of military exercises around the island.
The heat has remained high ever since, particularly as Chinese leader Xi Jinping told a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was inevitable and that he reserves the option of taking “all necessary measures.”
Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force, said that while low birth rates were common in East Asia, “the situation in Taiwan is very different” as the island faced “increasing pressure (from China) and the situation will worsen.”
“The United States has military bases in Japan and South Korea, while Singapore does not face an acute military threat from its neighbors. Taiwan is facing the greatest threat and the declining birth rate will make the situation even more dire,” he added.
Roy Lee, deputy executive director of Taiwan’s Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research, agreed that the security threats facing Taiwan are greater than those in the rest of the region.
“The situation is more challenging for Taiwan, because our population base is smaller than that of other countries facing similar problems,” he added.
Taiwan’s population is 23.5 million, compared to South Korea’s 52 million, Japan’s 126 million, and China’s 1.4 billion.
In addition to the dwindling recruitment pool, the dwindling youth population could also threaten the long-term performance of Taiwan’s economy, which is itself a mainstay of the island’s defense.
Taiwan is the world’s 21st-largest economy, according to the London-based Center for Economic and Business Research, and had a GDP of $668.51 billion last year.
Much of its economic weight comes from its leading role in supplying semiconductor chips, which play an indispensable role in everything from smartphones to computers.
Taiwan’s homegrown semiconductor giant TSMC is perceived as so valuable to the global economy, as well as China, that it is sometimes seen as part of a “silicon shield” against a potential military invasion by Beijing, as that their presence would provide a strong incentive for the West to intervene.
Lee noted that population levels are closely related to gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic activity. A population decline of 200,000 people could result in a 0.4% decline in GDP, other things being equal, she said.
“It is very difficult to increase GDP by 0.4% and it would require a lot of effort. So the fact that a declining population can eliminate so much growth is great,” he said.
The Taiwanese government has introduced a series of measures intended to encourage people to have babies, but with limited success.
It pays parents a monthly stipend of NT$5,000 (US$161) for their first baby, and a higher amount for each additional one.
Since last year, pregnant women have the right to seven days of leave for obstetric check-ups before delivery.
Outside of the military, in the broader economy, the island has been encouraging migrant workers to fill job vacancies.
Statistics from the National Development Council showed that around 670,000 migrant workers were in Taiwan at the end of last year, accounting for about 3% of the population.
Most of the migrant workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, the council said, the vast majority of them from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Lee said that in the long term, the Taiwanese government would probably have to reform its immigration policies to attract more immigrant workers.
Still, some say Taiwan’s low birth rate is no reason to panic just yet.
Alice Cheng, an associate professor of sociology at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, cautioned against reading too much into population trends, as they are affected by many factors.
He noted that just a few decades ago, many demographers were warning of food shortages caused by a population explosion.
And even if the low birth rate were to continue, that might not be a bad thing if it were a reflection of an improvement in women’s rights, he said.
“The educational expansion that took place in the 1970s and 1980s in East Asia drastically changed the status of women. It really drove women out of their homes because they had knowledge, education and career prospects,” she said.
“The next thing you see globally is that once the educational level of women improved, fertility rates started to decline.”
“All these East Asian countries are really scratching their heads and trying to think of policies and interventions to increase fertility rates,” he added.
“But if that’s something that (women) don’t really want, can you push them to do it?”