Soldiers, strategists, and government officials in Taiwan and the U.S. say the island’s military is riven with internal problems, many of which have built up over years of calm and economic prosperity and now are eating away at Taiwan’s ability to deter China.
Among the most pressing concerns are poor preparation and low morale among the roughly 80,000 Taiwanese who are conscripted each year and the nearly 2.2 million reservists.
Xiao Cheng-zhi, a 26-year-old from central Taiwan, said his four months of basic training that ended last year mainly involved sweeping leaves, moving spare tires and pulling weeds. Aside from some marksmanship training, he said, his classes were meaningless.
Mr. Xiao dismissed his cohorts as strawberry soldiers, a term used in Taiwan to describe young people raised by overprotective parents who bruise easily. While he said he is willing to serve, he doubted the island would stand much chance against China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China’s Communist Party considers Taiwan part of its territory despite never having ruled it. Although there is no sign of imminent conflict, Beijing has made clear it intends to bring Taiwan under its control eventually.
In interviews, Taiwanese soldiers and reservists expressed concerns about training and readiness. One said he watched American war movies during training after running out of useful things to do. Another said he spent a lot of time reading and drawing, and that there wasn’t much to worry about anyway. Public opinion polls and interviews suggest many Taiwanese expect the U.S. to take charge if serious danger arises.
Two young men described how they had put on extra weight to get disqualified from military conscription, a practice some Taiwanese youths say is common. One said he stuffed himself with large meals every four hours for a month, including McDonald’s combo meals, to gain enough pounds to be exempted.
Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marines colonel who spent 2019 in Taiwan studying the island’s defenses, said Taiwan has a solid core of well-trained troops and "superb officers that are ready to fight." Other military experts compare Taiwan’s top pilots and officers to the world’s best.
But the Taiwanese military is underfunded, and its reserves system is a shambles, Mr. Newsham said. It needs improved pay packages, and it could become far more effective by training with the U.S. and its allies, he said.
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