How good are Chinese military tanks

Taiwan partially ready to defend

Anyone abroad who follows reports of China's threats against Taiwan might be surprised how little of it can be felt in the everyday life of the 23 million inhabitants. In the cities of the densely populated island, life is sometimes hectic, sometimes relaxed, at least as normal as ever. Incidentally, thanks to efficient handling of the corona virus without lockdowns or contact restrictions.

There are no uniformed people on the streets, there are no regular drills or disaster exercises. Apparently, most Taiwanese trust that their government and military are well prepared, or that the situation will not escalate anyway. After all, they and their ancestors have been living under the shadow of a latent conflict since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 with the flight of the Chinese national troops to Taiwan. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party and its People's Liberation Army have wanted to take control of the island, but the big bang never came.

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Beijing is increasing the pressure

The calm could be deceptive. What China is really planning, and whether the US would intervene in a conflict on Taiwan's side, is completely unclear. One thing is certain: China is preparing for a possible attack and increasing the pressure. In 2020, China's air force ignored the center line in the Strait of Taiwan more often than in decades: on almost every third day, aircraft penetrated Taiwan's air surveillance zone (ADIZ), which extends beyond the actual airspace. "Taiwan faces a huge military threat," said former Defense Minister Michael Tsai in an interview with DW. "It has to strengthen its ability to defend itself."

At the National People's Congress in Beijing in early March, the Communist Party leadership again made it clear how important Taiwan is in its strategy. "There is no room for compromise or concession," said Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The US should not "keep playing with fire". But at the moment it looks like President Joe Biden, like his predecessor Trump, demonstratively supports Taiwan. The small island is of great importance for the geostrategic situation in the western Pacific. When party leader Xi Jinping once again called on his military at the People's Congress to be ready to fight, the word "Taiwan" was implied.

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Neglected military service

The moral and training of its own soldiers should be decisive for Taiwan's readiness to defend itself in an emergency. In terms of troop strength and modernization speed, Taiwan is hopelessly behind the mainland despite regular US arms deliveries worth billions. China's military budget is 16 times higher, and that's just the official figure. With about 170,000 men, Taiwan has about as many soldiers as the Bundeswehr, but Germany has three and a half times as many inhabitants. The imbalance at sea is particularly blatant: China is building its third aircraft carrier, the island nation of Taiwan has two operational submarines from the 1980s.

"For reasons of national security, every young man should actually serve in the armed forces," says Tsai, who six decades ago still did 18 months of military service. But after democratization began with the end of martial law in 1987, the military no longer played such a central role. As part of the long-time decision to switch to a professional army, the basic military service, which young men usually only do after graduation, was reduced to just four months in 2016. "That no longer makes sense," says Tsai, who turned his back on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been back in power since 2016, in 2019. Taiwan has to orient itself towards South Korea, Singapore and Israel - countries with a clearly defined defense strategy and basic military service of well over a year.

Unlike in Taiwan itself, soldiers are a common sight on the Taiwanese archipelago of Matsu, just off the mainland coast.

Badly prepared for an emergency

Wen Lii was drafted in 2013 when he was 24. He served in the army for a year and learned to drive M60 tanks. In the event of an invasion by China, they are supposed to repel troops on the beaches or stop them advancing across the island. But tactical combat training or maneuvers played no role during his service, he recalls in an interview with DW. His job was simply to turn new recruits into drivers.

"The technology and equipment are becoming more and more sophisticated," says Lii. There needs to be more professionalism and longer training. It therefore makes sense that professional soldiers play a greater role instead of those doing basic military service. In recent years, the military has also succeeded in making a career as a professional soldier more attractive. Lii heads the DPP association on the Matsu archipelago, which belongs to Taiwan but is located just off the coast of China. Even if there are not as many as during the Cold War, fortifications and soldiers in uniform are still ubiquitous on this outpost.

However, it is all the more important to train the reservists regularly, says Lii. Taiwan officially has more than 700,000. In an emergency, called to arms, they should form the backbone of the troops. But hardly anyone has any illusions about their willingness to fight. Reservists are currently only called in every two years for a maximum of one week. And often only on paper. Lii only had to compete twice for one day each: "I would have preferred a longer time." Like ex-Minister Tsai, he therefore welcomes the fact that the government wants to reform the reservist system. From 2022 the goal is: two weeks of training per year.

Reservist Wen Lii in the 2020 election campaign for the ruling DPP. He calls for better training for active people and reservists.

Taiwan's army an "empty shell"?

The journalist Paul Huang is an explicit critic of the conditions in Taiwan's military. It was just an "empty shell", he criticized in the magazine "Foreign Policy" and quoted active and former soldiers: The troop strength is only on paper, many units, especially in the army, have been saved, the equipment is often poor.

In an interview with DW, Huang named the military's culture of sweeping problems under the rug as the root of the evil. "Not even the Ministry of Defense knows how many tanks, guns or rifles are actually operational." He is interested in reports on comparable discussions about the Bundeswehr. "There are similar problems, but at least you can trust the numbers and know where to start. In our Ministry of Defense they just always say that everything is fine. They don't want to face reality."

President Tsai Ing-Wen at the start of production of new submarines in 2020

Army without civil control

A big problem is that generals are mostly defense ministers in Taiwan. "The military is self-supervising," says Huang. That leads to problems with accountability. "Most generals don't want civilians as ministers," says Michael Tsai, who was a rare exception. When a civilian became defense minister again a few years after him, he had to vacate the post after only six days on charges of plagiarism. All successors to date have been generals or admirals again.

If there is so much wrong with Taiwan's military, why hasn't China attacked long ago? Huang has a simple explanation for this: "You could strike anytime you want. The longer you wait, the greater your advantage." But with the necessary political will, it is still possible to reform the military. "Civil control would be more important than simply pumping in more and more money."