China Power | Security | East Asia

What Do Taiwanese Think About Expanding Conscription?

A new survey finds broad support for the lengthened conscription period, even past the current one year mark.

What Do Taiwanese Think About Expanding Conscription?
Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

In December 2022, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen announced the extension of military conscription for military-age males to one year. Prior to this change, conscription had been reduced to four months under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, with the original intention of eventually achieving an all-volunteer military. However, with power shifting from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, Taiwan’s relationship with China has grown increasingly tense.

Extending Taiwan’s conscription period is one of many actions that experts see as necessary to defend Taiwan from a potential Chinese invasion. However, less attention falls on whether the Taiwanese public support these changes and the extent of that support.

For Taiwan, conscription serves as one element within a broader strategy to deter Chinese aggression by expanding the capabilities for mobilization in times of conflict. Conscription also may contribute to a sense of national identity and civic duty, promoting social cohesion through shared experience.

However, Taiwan’s conscription policies face many shortcomings. Comprehensive training is difficult to complete in the timeframe, likely limiting its effectiveness in cases of conflict. Many ex-conscripts have expressed dissatisfaction with their training, believing they had inefficient weaponry, instruction, and practice. These poorly prepared conscripts are often referred to as “strawberry soldiers.”  Wide variations in quality of training and motivation would likely have implications on morale and cohesiveness.

Nor is it time or resource-efficient to attempt comprehensive training for those unlikely to remain in the military after their required service period. Conscripts with specialized knowledge and expertise typically choose not to pursue a career in the military due to low pay and limited professional growth opportunities. Estimates show about 75 percent of Taiwanese citizens earn more than the average military personnel. Additionally, many young Taiwanese view military service as disruptive to their education and professional aspirations, leading to a lack of motivation among conscripts.

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Taiwan’s conscription system has historically enjoyed public support, with limited survey data this year showing broad support for the lengthened conscription. This year, polls by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) and 21st Century Foundation both found over 70 percent of Taiwanese supported the expansion. A March poll commissioned by the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) found even higher support, with 85 percent supportive.

Yet changing societal attitudes and evolving perspectives on national security may affect public opinion in the long run. Some individuals may question the effectiveness and fairness of conscription, especially in an era where professionalization and voluntary military service are emphasized in many countries. Since this burden falls on males, and with limited alternative service options, it may further influence perceptions of the system as unfair. Lastly, some may see conscription as unnecessary, either because they do not expect military conflict with China or because they believe the U.S. defense commitments to Taiwan will be sufficient.

To better measure the extent of support for conscription in terms of these issues, we surveyed 1,105 Taiwanese via a web survey implemented by Macromill Embrain from May 25-June 5. First, we randomly assigned respondents to one of four prompts to evaluate on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). This allowed us to identify the extent to which support for lengthening conscription requirements is dependent on how the issue is presented. The versions were:

Version 1: I support increasing mandatory conscription time.

Version 2: I support increasing mandatory conscription time, even if it means an increase in taxes.

Version 3: I support increasing mandatory conscription time and extending conscription to females.

Version 4: I support increasing mandatory conscription time, even if the US commits to defending Taiwan.

Starting with Version 1, we see a majority somewhat or strongly agree with increasing conscription time (51 percent), with only 11.5 percent disagreeing. Emphasizing the financial burden in Version 2, we find support declined by 9.44 points from the baseline Version 1, with nearly a quarter of respondents (24.1 percent) in opposition. Framing conscription as extended to females in Version 3 produces similar results, with 44.3 percent in support and 24 percent opposed. Finally, when asked in light of a guarantee of U.S. defense (Version 4), we see the highest support for expanding conscription, 60.4 percent, with only 10.6 percent in opposition.

Overall, a plurality, if not an outright majority, agreed with expanding conscription, regardless of the version. This suggests that the public broadly understands the need to address Taiwan’s security, which may be beneficial if later adjustments are necessary.

Further statistical analysis controlling for other demographic and attitudinal factors shows that DPP supporters are more supportive of lengthening conscription compared to KMT and Taiwan People’s Party supporters in all but the first version, while those with more positive evaluations of China were found to be less supportive in Versions 2-4.

We also asked respondents how long they think Taiwan’s military conscription should last, with options ranging from less than one year to four years. This aims to understand the maximum time of mandatory military service that Taiwanese citizens would find acceptable.

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About 10.1 percent of respondents selected that under a year is best, which suggests contentment with the previous four-month policy or perhaps opposition to conscription entirely. Meanwhile, nearly a third each preferred one year (32.94 percent) and two years (34.39 percent), with 8.4 percent supporting conscription of three to four years in length. Not only is this consistent with previous work suggesting broad support in expanding conscription length, but it also suggests that an additional extension of up to two years would have considerable support. Additional analysis finds that support for longer conscription requirements positively corresponded with concern about a Chinese invasion.

While this analysis focuses on the duration of mandatory service, it’s important to note that there are other aspects of conscription reform to consider, such as alternative forms of national service and the evolving requirements of modern warfare. However, this survey shows that the Taiwanese public may be open to more changes in the future, which may become necessary if relations with China worsen and one year of conscription is no longer enough to ensure Taiwan’s national security.

Even now, one year of mandatory conscription may be insufficient. A comparison with other conscription-reliant countries like South Korea reveals that Taiwan lags behind in terms of the number of active and reserve personnel, defense spending, length of conscription, and technology.

Furthermore, recent demographic shifts in Taiwan, including an aging population and a declining male-to-female sex ratio raise concerns regarding the effectiveness of a one-year conscription policy, which currently only targets young men. As these demographic shifts continue, fewer people will qualify for mandatory conscription, and consequently, the Taiwanese government may need to consider lengthening it further or expanding it to include women. However, with a supportive public, as the data above suggest, future changes may be more easily implemented, ensuring a more robust defense system against increasing Chinese aggression.