Taipei, Taiwan – At Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, a former military school turned detention center, visitors can walk around the buildings where some of Taiwan’s most important political prisoners were held, questioned and tried during 38 years of martial law.
The museum takes visitors through places of detention, a replica of the tribunal, and exhibits featuring testimonies from former detainees to give visitors a sense of life during the period, now known as the White terror.
Many political prisoners have been arrested by military police and the Taiwan Garrison Command, known as “the most infamous part of the military,” said Bill Sharp, visiting scholar in the history department of National Taiwan University .
“It was the Taiwan Gestapo and if you ran into the government you would get knocked on your door in the early morning and, ‘You have to come with us.’
The command of the Taiwan garrison was formally dissolved in 1992, shortly before Taiwan’s transition to democracy, but its legacy has left an indelible impression on the public of what can happen when the armed forces have power. uncontrolled and for years hampered attempts to develop a modern army. .
“The image of the army in Taiwan is very poor and most people are suspicious of the army [because] of the White Terror era, when the military was the mainstay of totalitarianism, dictatorship and consuming huge sums of money, ”Sharp said.
Where it once stationed thousands of soldiers on offshore islands like Kinmen, just six kilometers (3.73 miles) from China and in large numbers along the coast, for most of the past decades the army struggled to find enough people to fill its ranks.
Ironically, it wasn’t until the 2016 election Tsai Ing-wen as president – whose party was founded in the 1980s in part to challenge martial law – that situation has started to change.
Tsai has made military modernization a key policy, regularly visiting troops to boost morale, making major arms purchases and supporting increased military spending to a record $ 15.2 billion to fortify the Taiwanese against their historic rival: the People’s Republic of China.
‘Every street is a shooting range’
The government has further boosted public appreciation for the military by revealing Chinese military maneuvers near Taiwanese territory, which appear to have escalated over the past year to become almost daily encounters after Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to “take back” Taiwan by force if necessary.
A year into his second term, Tsai is attempting something that could be politically riskier given his party’s base of support among the Under-40s – bolstering the island’s military reserves.
Any change is likely to demand more from young Taiwanese, especially its men, who already have to serve four months of military conscription in addition to regular revision courses until the age of 35.
While Taiwan’s reserves stand at nearly 1.7 million, according to the World Firepower Index, those in active service are estimated to be between 150,000 and 165,000. Many experts wonder if the island’s armed forces are still strong enough to deal with the growing threat from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – and its more than two million active soldiers – just from the other side of the sea.
“When you face a challenge like the one you face in the PLA, four months is not enough to cut it,” said Michael Mazza, visiting scholar in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. . “What’s more problematic beyond those four months is how minimal training is afterward: one week or less each year for eight years. In theory, you have this large reserve force that has received very little training ”.
Since the 1990s, the PLA has made spectacular progress in its attempt to become a “world-class force” capable not only of dominating the disputed South China Sea but also of invading Taiwan, over which the Communist Party in Beijing claims sovereignty.
In a Defense Department report released last September, the United States concluded that the PLA was preparing for a scenario in which it could attempt to “unify Taiwan with the mainland by force” and repel any attempt to ‘Third party intervention’ in the form of the US military coming to the defense of the island.
“Taiwan has traditionally compensated for a quantitative disadvantage over the PLA with a significant qualitative advantage over its opponents – better equipment, training, doctrine, etc. But now in most areas that qualitative advantage is gone and given China’s long-term military modernization plan, it’s not coming back, ”said Kharis Templeman, advisor to the Taiwan project in India. Pacific at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “Taiwan simply cannot face the PLA directly in a peer-to-peer fight if Beijing puts all of its strength into the fight.”
Faced with such a powerful opponent, Taiwan began to shift its defense policy towards a “asymmetricOne, developing the kind of mobile units and weapons that would prevent an invading force from ever landing. The government recently started purchasing new weapons such as rocket launchers, drones and cruise missiles and building its first domestically produced submarines, but building reserves would also play a crucial role, said Mazza.
“In a war scenario, reserves become extremely large, especially in the event that the PLA secures a beachhead. The reserve force has the potential to serve as a really powerful deterrent against the Chinese invasion, as it can be trained and armed basically to fight for every square inch of land between beaches and big cities, to transform every street. from town to a shooting range, “he said.” The question is whether this is something the Taiwan Reserve Force can do and people have reasonable doubts about it.
‘Waste of time’
Recognizing the weaknesses, military planners have already embarked on major organizational changes, said Liao “Kitsch” Yen-Fan, a security analyst at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.
In October, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry announced that it was setting up the Defense and Reserve Mobilization Administration, a new unified agency to oversee reserves.
The ministry is also revamping training programs for recruits – dividing them into coastal defense, critical facilities, and urban and rear defense, with conscripts focusing on urban areas, Liao said. Since 2017, he has started calling his recent professional retirees in their 30s and 40s for refresher courses, he said, while conscripts have also reported qualitative improvements in their annual appeal.
“A lot of people who were called recently said that their recent experience was very different from previous instances and that it was a much more intense experience,” Liao said. “For example, the restriction on the amount of ammunition available for each training session is gone. Now that’s all you need and on top of that they had to learn more about basic skills and lower level tactics on the pitch. All of this is for the best, although it doesn’t necessarily translate into real fighting power.
The most difficult sale, however, could be a Defense Ministry proposal to expand conscript review courses in 2022 from around seven days every two years to 14 days a year, although salaries will also increase in all the domains. He will also seek to learn from others – a delegation is expected to visit Israel this year to study how its reserves are organized and the country’s rapid mobilization system.
Experts, however, believe more is needed, ranging from more funding to reorganizing the way reserves are called – to calling in reserve units rather than individuals to improve morale. and group cohesion.
One change that many experts recognize is necessary, but unlikely, is for Taiwan to fulfill its promise to become an all-volunteer army.
While many are reluctant to register due to the historic legacy of martial law, the island faces a more intractable problem: its population is shrinking.
The government has turned to women to fill the void, even though Taiwan still lags behind countries like Singapore and Israel, according to a review of its military by the RAND Corporation. The conscription of women has also been launched in public opinion polls.
For now, patriotism remains the main driver of recruitment.
“If there is a serious military crisis, it could increase the popularity of the Taiwanese armed forces in a hurry. Already, the Air Force is receiving a lot of positive press these days because of its frequent sorties to intercept Chinese military planes, ”Templeman said.
“But the most important thing is to make basic training more systematic and relevant to real warfare. Conscription is very unpopular because most people who have gone through it see it as a complete waste of time: many trainees don’t even learn to shoot a gun. If, in the process of creating functional reserves at unit level, basic training is reorganized and intensified, that could help, paradoxically, ”he said.