The declining birthrate in Taiwan could cause “major challenges” to the island’s military recruitment capabilities, at a time when Taiwan is building its defences to ward off potential Chinese invasion, its government has been told.
Like much of east Asia, Taiwan is facing a demographic crisis, with fewer people having children each year as the population ages. The issue has social and economic effects on countries but in Taiwan there is also concern over its impact on military personnel levels.
In a report to Taiwan’s legislative yuan this week, the interior ministry said the number of new conscripts in 2022 would be the lowest level in a decade.
Taiwan’s military comprises a volunteer force combined with male conscripts who must serve at least four months of compulsory basic training. But in March, the number of volunteers recruited reached only 85.3% of its target.
Taiwan began phasing out its conscription model force in 2013, moving towards becoming entirely volunteer-based for its active-duty cohort in 2018.
Recruitment and retention has declined in recent years, at the same time that the military is trying to expand and modernise as it prepares for a potential Chinese invasion.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a Chinese province, which it will take by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government disputes the claim and has vowed to resist any aggressive act.
In the report, the ministry pointed to the plummeting birthrates, saying the number of people estimated to be over the age of 18 fell from 138,000 in 2017 to 118,000 in 2022.
“If the number of young people who will be 18 years old in the next few years is estimated, based on the year of birth and the number of babies, there will be a sharp drop, which shows that the recruitment of various volunteer recruitment units will face huge challenges in the future,” it said.
Taiwan has one of the world’s lowest birthrates, and it continues to decline. Last year, there was a record low of 153,820 registered births. In 2011, there were 196,627.
As well as a shrinking pool of fighting-age adults, military personnel levels have also been hit by low pay discouraging new recruits and a policy that ages people out of active duty at 45.
In 2021, the military also reported problems with retention of volunteer soldiers and recruitment among the more elite forces. It said while general forces usually reached recruitment targets, about 20% of new volunteer soldiers turned out to be unfit for duty and leave training early.
Among special combat units there was “a gap between the actual number of volunteers and the target set in the recruitment system plan”, it said, leaving some units at below 80% capacity.
Dr Dean Karalekas, an expert on civil-military relations in Taiwan at the University of Central Lancashire, said low military participation had problems beyond a declining population, including the poor administration and perception of conscription. He said Taiwan’s government did not have the resources to make the army a competitive career option for people, but could capitalise on shifting social attitudes, with the war in Ukraine making people far more motivated to join efforts to defend Taiwan.
“Ending conscription only shifts the military experience away from the majority of society, making the military a much less vital institution in Taiwan – it places the armed forces on the fringes of society, and outside of the everyday experience of Taiwan’s people,” he said.
“That’s fine – in fact, it’s desirable – for a country that doesn’t face a clear and present threat of annexation, but unfortunately Taiwan is not yet in that position.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin