Taiwan has noticed a gap in its defense plans that is widening. And it’s not easy to increase the budget or buy more weapons.
The island democracy of 23.5 million people faces a growing challenge recruiting enough young men to meet its military goals, and its Home Office has suggested the problem stems – at least in part – from its stubbornly low birth rate.
Taiwan’s population declined for the first time in 2020, according to the ministry, which earlier this year warned that military revenues in 2022 would be at their lowest in a decade and that a sustained decline in the youth population would pose a “major challenge” for Taiwan Future.
That’s bad news at a time when Taiwan is trying to bolster its armed forces to deter a possible invasion from China, whose ruling Communist Party is making increasingly belligerent noises about its determination to “reunite” with the self-governing island – which it is never checked – if necessary by force.
And the outlook has clouded further with the release of a new report from Taiwan’s National Development Council, which projects the island can expect about 20,000 fewer births per year by 2035, compared to the 153,820 it recorded in 2021. By 2035, Taiwan will also overtake South Korea as the jurisdiction with the world’s lowest birth rate, the report added.
Such forecasts are fueling a debate about whether the government should extend the length of compulsory military service that eligible young men are required to complete. Currently, the island has a professional military force 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 complete four months of reservist training.
The change in conscription would be a major about-face for Taiwan, which had previously tried to reduce conscription, shortening conscription from 12 months as recently as 2018. But on Wednesday, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said such plans would be released before the end of the year.
This news has met with resistance from some young students in Taiwan, who have expressed frustration on PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit, despite the move’s support from the general public.
A survey by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in March this year found that most Taiwanese approved a proposal to extend the term of office. It turned out that 75.9% of those questioned thought that an extension to one year was appropriate; only 17.8% opposed it.
Many experts argue that there is simply no other option.
Su Tzu-yun, a director of the Taiwan Institute of National Defense and Security Research, said that before 2016, about 110,000 men were eligible for military service – either as regular soldiers or as reservists. The number has declined every year since then, and the pool will likely be down to 74,000 by 2025.
And within the next decade, Su said, the number of young adults available for recruitment by the Taiwanese military could fall by as much as a third.
“This is a national security issue for us,” he said. “The population pool is decreasing, so we are actively considering resuming conscription to meet our military needs.
“We are now facing an increasing threat (from China) and we need more firepower and manpower.”
Taiwan’s low birth rate — 0.98 — is well below the 2.1 needed for 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’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 toward the island since August, when then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi controversially visited Taipei. Shortly after she landed in Taiwan, Beijing also launched a series of unprecedented military drills across the island.
Since then, the temperature has remained high — particularly when Chinese leader Xi Jinping told a key Communist Party meeting in October that “reunification” was inevitable and he was reserving the option of taking “any necessary measures.”
Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of the Taiwan Air Force, said that while low birth rates are common across East Asia, “the situation in Taiwan is very different” as the island “is facing more and more pressure (from China) and… the situation will worsen.”
“The United States has military bases in Japan and South Korea, while Singapore faces no acute military threat from its neighbors. Taiwan faces the greatest threat and the declining birth rate will make the situation even more serious,” he added.
Roy Lee, a deputy executive director of Taiwan’s Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research, agreed that security threats to Taiwan are greater than the rest of the region.
“The situation is more difficult for Taiwan because our population base is smaller than 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 shrinking recruitment pool, the declining youth population could also threaten the long-term viability of Taiwan’s economy — itself a pillar of the island’s defenses.
According to the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research, Taiwan is the 21st largest economy in the world and last year had a GDP of $668.51 billion.
Much of its economic weight stems from its leading role in supplying semiconductor chips, which play indispensable roles in everything from smartphones to computers.
Taiwan’s domestic semiconductor giant TSMC is seen as so valuable to the world economy – as it is to China – that it is sometimes referred to as part of a “silicon shield” against a possible military invasion of Beijing, as its presence would provide a powerful incentive for the West, to intervene
Lee pointed out that population is closely related to gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic activity. A population drop of 200,000 people could result in a 0.4% drop in GDP, all else being equal, he said.
“It is very difficult to increase GDP by 0.4% and would require a lot of effort. So the fact that a shrinking population can wipe out so much growth is huge,” he said.
The Taiwanese government has taken a number of measures aimed at encouraging people to have babies, but with limited success.
It pays parents a monthly stipend of 5,000 Taiwan dollars (US$161) for their first baby and more for each additional baby.
Since last year, pregnant women are entitled to seven days’ leave for prenatal obstetric examinations.
Outside of the military, in the broader economy, the island has encouraged migrant workers to fill vacancies.
Statistics from the National Development Council showed that as of the end of last year, about 670,000 migrant workers were in Taiwan — about 3% of the population.
Most migrant workers are employed in manufacturing, the council said, with the vast majority of them from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Lee said that in the long term, the Taiwanese government will likely need to reform its immigration policy to attract more migrant workers.
Still, there are those who say Taiwan’s low birthrate is not a cause for panic just yet.
Alice Cheng, associate professor of sociology at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, cautioned against reading too much into population trends because so many factors influence them.
She pointed out that just a few decades ago, many demographers would have warned of food shortages due to a population explosion.
And even if the low birth rate persisted, that might not be a bad thing if it reflects an improvement in women’s rights, she said.
“The educational expansion that took place in East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s dramatically 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 around the world is that as women’s education levels improved, fertility rates began to fall.”
“All these East Asian countries are really scratching their heads trying to think about strategies and interventions to boost fertility rates,” she added.
“But if that’s something[women]really don’t want, can you push them into it?”