It’s not time to bring back the draft

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Anew sur­vey by the Academia Sinica re­vealed a sur­pris­ing find­ing: At least 50 per­cent of Tai­wan’s public — in all age de­mo­graph­ics — sup­port re­in­stat­ing the mil­i­tary draft.

From Jan­uary to Fe­bru­ary, a re­search team spe­cial­iz­ing in re­la­tions with main­land China asked the ques­tion, “Do you sup­port re­in­stat­ing the draft sys­tem to strengthen Tai­wan’s mil­i­tary?”

Seventy per­cent of re­spon­dents be­tween 30 and 39 years old said they were in fa­vor. Sup­port from re­spon­dents un­der 29, be­tween 40 and 49 years old, be­tween 50 and 59 and over 60 was 62 per­cent, 62.8 per­cent, 56.8 per­cent and 51.7 per­cent, re­spec­tively.

The poll in­di­cates public will­ing­ness to take up arms in times of need, Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party (DPP) Leg­is­la­tor Hsiao Bi-khim ( ) said yes­ter­day, in what was a rare ap­peal from a politi­cian to re­con­sider all-vol­un­teer re­cruit­ment.

“This pol­icy is not fixed in stone,” Hsiao said dur­ing in­ter­pel­la­tion ses­sion with Deputy Min­is­ter of Na­tional De­fense Chen Yung-kang ( ).

Lo­cal me­dia sources, in­clud­ing Storm Me­dia ( ) and the Cen­tral News Agency, have noted that Hsiao is DPP Chair­woman Tsai Ing-wen’s ( ) key aide and will likely play a key role in form­ing the pres­i­den­tial bid plat­form.

Hsiao said new re­cruits have dis­pro­por­tion­ately been of­fi­cers and not com­bat sol­diers. Based on the de­fense min­istry’s fis­cal sit­u­a­tion, it will be im­pos­si­ble to shift from a con­scripted to an all-vol­un­teer force by the tar­get of 2016.

There are sound rea­sons for a draft. The im­me­di­ate ef­fect is that the De­fense Min­istry can meet its man­power needs.

From a so­cial pol­icy stand­point, a con­scrip­tion pro­gram may be a way to re­verse the drift­ing civil­ian-mil­i­tary divide, to turn boys into men, or even, how­ever briefly, to equal­ize the parts of so­ci­ety that are per­sis­tently un­equal.

An­other main ar­gu­ment for bring­ing back con­scrip­tion is that it could slow the public’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing process on is­sues that have a chance of lead­ing to mil­i­tary ac­tion.

If the DPP comes to power in Jan­uary 2016, it would be do­ing so on a highly po­lar­ized vot­ing base that the party will need to man­age and ac­tively re­spond to.

In ef­fect, con­scrip­tion would act as a safety brake on po­lit­i­cally vi­tal but fringe groups, al­low­ing Tsai to avoid tak­ing risks in cross-strait re­la­tions that may re­sult in war.

But the mil­i­tary should not ex­ist to serve as crowd con­trol, and it is not a so­cial ex­per­i­ment de­signed to switch from one re­cruit­ment strat­egy to an­other based on which party is in power.

In the end, re­in­stat­ing the draft would cre­ate more prob­lems than it solves.

Im­pos­ing a ma­jor in­ter­rup­tion in the life of a draftee is some­thing that will cost him, the econ­omy and ar­guably the health of a free so­ci­ety. Con­scripts do not serve as long as vol­un­teers and higher turnover trans­lates to a less-skilled force. As a rule, con­scripts are also less com­mit­ted. Tai­wan’s re­peat­edly post­poned mil­i­tary re­form plan, which promised the phase-out of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice, is a main rea­son be­hind the armed forces’ chronic low morale. The goal should be to build a mil­i­tary that is ver­sa­tile and dis­ci­plined — a mod­ern fight­ing force that de­ters enemies from at­tempt­ing attack.

As a so­lu­tion, the draft tries to ad­dress a long-term prob­lem that it can­not ever re­solve.

The Academia Sinica poll is most ac­cu­rately in­ter­preted as a sig­nal of public anx­i­ety — anx­i­ety that Tai­wan’s lines of na­tional de­fense are in­ca­pable of meet­ing fu­ture com­mit­ments.

This is a se­ri­ous and le­git­i­mate con­cern that can’t be solved by re­cruit­ing more sol­diers from the fixed pop­u­la­tion of 23 mil­lion.

Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, teaches that it is ad­vis­able to sur­round the en­emy if one’s forces out­num­ber the en­emy’s by ten to one. If by five to one, it is wise to attack. If one’s forces are dras­ti­cally out­num­bered, as Tai­wan’s would be re­gard­less of re­cruit­ment strat­egy, it is best to evade.

For the party that comes into power in 2016, a strat­egy with longer range is to move away from a con­fronta­tion-ori­ented ap­proach to cross-strait re­la­tions, chang­ing the game so that mil­i­tary com­mit­ments can be man­aged by the re­sources Tai­wan has.

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