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Taiwan's military tests new capabilities

William Yang Taipei
March 15, 2022

The self-governing island is organizing military exercises and testing "asymmetric" capabilities as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine puts a new spotlight on tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

Taiwanese air force jets
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted Taipei to focus on military readiness Image: Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Taiwan is scheduled to hold several military exercises in the coming weeks as the self-governing island's leadership grows more concerned about a emboldened China after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

During a speech, last Saturday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said: "The recent situation in Ukraine once again proves that the protection of the country, in addition to international solidarity and assistance, depends on the unity of the people."

Beijing has long claimed sovereignty over the democratic island and has vowed to one day "reunite" Taiwan with the mainland by using force, if necessary. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan has been on high alert.

Taiwan is taking steps to test and boost the combat readiness of its troops. On Monday, around 400 military reservists were introduced to a new and more intensive training program. It will be longer and involve more live-fire drills to ensure that reservists have basic combat skills.

The program will run through the first three quarters of 2022 and some 15,000 reservists at 24 battalions will be involved. However, the intensified training does not mean Taiwan is saber-rattling.

'Nobody wants a war'

Last week, Taiwan's defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said that a conflict with China would be a disaster for all sides regardless of the outcome. "Nobody wants a war," he said. "It really has to be thoroughly thought over. If you really went to war, it would be disastrous for all."

However, as the Chinese military continues to increase its capabilities, Taiwan is taking steps to increase preparedness.

"What Taiwan is doing with the reservists is long overdue," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.

Taiwanese alarmed by events in Ukraine

"I don't know how long it will take to apply this pilot program to the entire reserves and bring everybody up to that level. I think it's important that they are doing it."

Apart from the new training program for its reserve forces, Taiwan's air force and navy have also been carrying out a series of military exercises since last week.

Su Tzu-yun, an associate research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) in Taiwan, thinks the exercises are a test of the navy and air forces' defense capabilities in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan's army is also expected to carry out live-fire drills in Hsinchu county as well as on several offshore islands. Defense officials in Taiwan emphasized last week that these exercises were scheduled prior to the war in Ukraine and it has nothing to do with the ongoing conflict.

'Asymmetric' capability to counter China

US defense officials have also urged Taiwan to build its asymmetric capabilities, which expand on conventional forces into areas such as cyber warfare and using smaller means of projecting force against a larger and better-equipped enemy.

During a Senate hearing last Thursday, Mara Karlin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, said the situation in Ukraine provides an example for Taiwan in understanding why it's crucial to build up its asymmetric capabilities.

"I think the situation we're seeing in Ukraine right now is a very worthwhile case study for them about why Taiwan needs to do all it can to build asymmetric capabilities, to get its population ready so that it can be as prickly as possible should China choose to violate its sovereignty," she said.

In recent months, Taiwanese President Tsai has championed the idea of asymmetric warfare, saying it can make Taiwan's forces more mobile.

According to Glaser, asymmetric defense often means acquiring large numbers of small and inexpensive capabilities that make it more difficult, for example, for an invader to land on a beach and make headway inland.

"You have to think about weapons like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range, mobile air defenses, smart naval mines or drones," she told DW.

Su from INDSR in Taipei said Taiwan should continue to strengthen its asymmetric capabilities by investing in naval sea mines or coast-based anti-ship missiles.

Jen Psaki: 'There will be significant consequences'

Based on the data he has collected, 16 out of the 18 weapons sold by the US to Taiwan since 2017 are used for "asymmetric force."

Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank in Washington, said the best asymmetric advantage Taiwan could have is a defensive alliance with the US.

"Absent that, Taiwan will need to field a credible second-strike capability to ensure it doesn't share Ukraine's somber fate," he told DW.

Easton added that after decades of personnel cuts, Taiwan's military now lacks manpower and requires updated and intensified training.

"While those kinds of reforms haven't been politically expedient, public opinion in Taiwan is likely to change in the wake of the war in Ukraine," he told DW.

Will Taiwan restart conscription?

Some opposition lawmakers in Taiwan have also begun recently to urge the government to reinstate a one-year mandatory military service after Russia invaded Ukraine.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has strengthened our determination to defend Taiwan, but we are far from ready," said Chiu Hsien-chih, a legislator from Taiwan's progressive, pro-independence New Power Party.

Taiwan began the transition to a voluntary military system in 2018. However, all eligible male citizens are still required to participate in four months of military training. Since war broke out in Ukraine, a debate over whether to reinstate one year of military service has been rekindled.

Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last week that Taiwan hasn't completely abolished the conscription system and volunteers on four-year contracts makeup 90% of Taiwan’s military.

He added that the military's combat capacity is the same as when Taiwan still enforced one year of mandatory military service.

"I think maintaining a mandatory military service of at least nine months to one year is an ideal balance for Taiwan's military force,” said Taiwanese military analyst Su.

"While the four-month training in Taiwan can be sufficient, further training can ensure that male citizens become mature 'citizen soldiers,' who will have the ability to fight."

However, Easton believes the more pressing issue for Taiwan is whether it can develop a national security strategy and a credible level of deterrence.

"Given its diplomatic isolation, Taiwan must shoulder the burden of its own national survival in the face of an extraordinary threat," he said.

"A key issue is early-warning of a Chinese attack to ensure Taiwan's President and other top officials can survive. Another key issue is improving communication networks, so they can function in a wartime environment," he added.

War on Ukraine has called out China: DW's Clifford Coonan

Edited by: Wesley Rahn