Taiwan noticed a hole in his defense plans that keeps getting bigger. And it’s not easy to plug in by increasing the budget or buying more weapons.
The island democracy of 23.5 million people faces a growing challenge in recruiting enough young men to meet its military goals and its Home Office has suggested the problem is – at least in part – due to its stubbornly low birth rate.
Taiwan’s population fell for the first time in 2020, according to the ministry, which earlier this year warned that military strength in 2022 would be the lowest in a decade and that a continued decline in the youth population would be a a “tremendous challenge” for the future.
It’s bad news at a time when Taiwan is trying to build up its forces to deter any possible invasion by China, whose ruling Communist Party is making increasingly belligerent noises about its determination to ‘reunite’ with the island. autonomous – which he never did. controlled – by force if necessary.
And the outlook has darkened further with the release of a new report from Taiwan’s National Development Council which predicts that by 2035 the island can expect around 20,000 fewer births per year than the 153,820 that it recorded in 2021. By 2035, Taiwan will also overtake South Korea as the jurisdiction with the world’s lowest birth rate, the report adds.
Such projections fuel a debate over whether the government should increase the period of compulsory military service that eligible young men must perform. Currently, the island has a professional military force consisting of 162,000 (as of June this year) – 7,000 short of the target, according to a Legislative Yuan report. In addition to this number, all eligible men must undergo four months of training as reservists.
Changing the mandatory service requirement would be a major U-turn for Taiwan, which had previously tried to reduce conscription and shorten mandatory service by 12 months as recently as 2018. But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s National Defense Minister Chiu Kuo – Cheng said those plans would be made public before the end of the year.
This news was met with opposition from some young Taiwanese students, who expressed their frustration on PTT, the Taiwanese version of Reddit, even though the general public supports the decision.
A poll conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March this year found that most Taiwanese agreed with a proposal to extend the period of service. It revealed that 75.9% of respondents thought it was reasonable to extend it to one year; only 17.8% opposed it.
Many experts say 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 as reservists – was around 110,000. Since then, he said, the number had been declining every year and the pool would likely be as low as 74,000 by 2025.
And over the next decade, Su said, the number of young adults available for recruitment by the Taiwanese military could drop by a third.
“It’s a matter of national security for us,” he said. “The population pool is shrinking, so we are actively considering resuming conscription to meet our military needs.
“We now face a growing threat (from China), and we need 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’s 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 hit 1.15.
Even so, experts say the trend poses a unique problem for the Taiwanese military, given the relative size of the island and the threats it faces.
China has been making increasingly aggressive noises towards the island since August, when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taipei. Shortly after landing in Taiwan, Beijing also launched an unprecedented series of military exercises around the island.
Since then, the temperature has remained high – especially as Chinese leader Xi Jinping told a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was inevitable and that he reserved the possibility of taking “ all necessary measures”.
Chang Yan-ting, former deputy commander of the Taiwanese air force, said that while low birth rates were common throughout East Asia, “the situation in Taiwan is very different” because the The island was facing “more and more pressure (from China) and the situation will become more acute.
“The United States has military bases in Japan and South Korea, while Singapore faces no acute military threat from its neighbors. Taiwan faces the biggest threat and the declining birth rate will make the situation even worse,” he added.
Roy Lee, deputy executive director of Taiwan’s Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research, agreed that the security threats Taiwan faces are greater than those in the rest of the region.
“The situation is more difficult for Taiwan, because our population is smaller than other countries facing similar problems,” he added.
Taiwan’s population is 23.5 million, compared to 52 million in South Korea, 126 million in Japan and 1.4 billion in China.
In addition to the shrinking recruitment pool, the declining youth population could also threaten the long-term performance of Taiwan’s economy, which is itself a pillar of the island’s defense.
Taiwan is the world’s 21st largest economy, according to the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research, and recorded a GDP of $668.51 billion last year.
Much of its economic clout comes from its leading role in supplying semiconductor chips, which play an indispensable role in everything from smartphones to computers.
Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC is perceived to be so valuable to the global economy – as well as to China – that it is sometimes seen as part of a “silicon shield” against a possible military invasion of Beijing, because its presence would strongly incite the West to intervene.
Lee noted that population levels are closely tied to gross domestic product, a large measure of economic activity. A drop in population of 200,000 people could lead to a 0.4% decline in GDP, all other things being equal, he said.
“It is very difficult to increase GDP by 0.4% and it would take a lot of effort. So the fact that a declining population can take away so much growth is significant,” he said.
The Taiwanese government has introduced a series of measures to encourage people to have babies, but with limited success.
It pays parents a monthly allowance of 5,000 Taiwan dollars (US$161) for their first baby, and a higher amount for each additional baby.
Since last year, pregnant women have been entitled to seven days off for obstetric examinations before delivery.
Outside of the military, in the wider economy, the island encourages migrant workers to fill vacancies.
Statistics from the National Development Council showed that about 670,000 migrant workers were in Taiwan at the end of last year, about 3 percent of the population.
Most migrant workers are employed in manufacturing, the council said, with the vast majority coming 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 migrant workers.
Still, there are those who say Taiwan’s low birth rate is no cause for panic, just yet.
Alice Cheng, an associate professor of sociology at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, cautioned against reading too much into demographic trends, as they are affected by many factors.
She pointed out 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 persisted, it might not be a bad thing if it reflected an improvement in women’s rights, she said.
“The expansion of education that took place in the 1970s and 80s in East Asia radically changed the status of women. It really pushed women out of their homes because they had knowledge, education and career prospects,” she said.
“The next thing you see globally is that once women’s education levels improved, fertility rates started to come down.”
“All these East Asian countries are really scratching their heads and trying to think about policies and interventions to increase fertility rates,” she added.
“But if it’s something that (women) really don’t want, can you push them to do it?”