Taiwan Defense Chief Offers Fighting Talk Amid Doubts About Troop Readiness

Taiwan's top defense official has pushed back against concerns that the island's military is ill-prepared for conflict with China, following a damning Wall Street Journal report that found waning confidence in several recruits.

Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, a career soldier and Taipei's former head of intelligence, was visibly animated as several lawmakers grilled him on Monday's article during a five-hour hearing in Taiwan's legislature.

The Journal report, which has sent ripples through Taiwan's social and political circles, interviewed a number of conscripts who felt the island's reservists—numbering more than two million on paper—were not technically and mentally equipped to take up arms if war was to break out across the Taiwan Strait.

"Poor preparation and low morale" were reportedly concerns expressed by some of Taiwan's roughly 80,000-a-year conscripted recruits, who go through just four months of basic training as part of the country's transition to an all-volunteer defense force.

One interviewee said he swept leaves, moved tires and pulled weeds. Another described doing pointless tasks to kill time. "Public opinion polls and interviews suggest many Taiwanese expect the U.S. to take charge if serious danger arises," the Journal said.

Questioned in an official capacity for the first time on Thursday, Chiu said he disagreed with the report's conclusion, which he described as offering a "one-sided" view of Taiwan's readiness through the lens of its four-month conscription policy.

"I don't know what the report's evaluations were based on," Chiu said. "Our preparedness assessments aren't based on four months of military service. Our conscription was initially two years. We now have voluntary enlistment, which accounts for 90 percent of our personnel."

In April, a Defense Ministry report revealed Taiwan had filled 169,200 of 188,000 positions within its planned fighting force. Including civilian employees and other roles, the country has a personnel budget for a 215,000-man professional army.

"Volunteer service lasts more than four years. Compared to the past [conscription], this is an improvement," Chiu told lawmakers. "Our focus is on our volunteer troops, who hone their weapon and equipment specializations for over four years through training and drills."

Asked again about the newspaper's assessment by a ruling party lawmaker, Chiu struck an uncharacteristically firm tone, saying: "If they asked me, I would've told them that leadership is key. You asked whether [Taiwan's troops] have the determination to resist the enemy."

"If I'm determined, who won't be? Similarly, as long as every officer is determined, who dares not to be? This is my guarantee," he retorted. "As the Minister of Defense, my determination to resist the enemy is strong until the very end."

"I have confidence in my troops because our leaders are key. The rest can be educated and trained," he said. "They will all be subject to my standards."

Taiwan Defense Minister Says Confident In Troops
A member of Taiwan’s 66th Marine Brigade, known as “Vanguard,” take part in a landing exercise on a beach in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on July 15, 2021. Taiwan Military News Agency / Ministry of National Defense

Chinese warplane exercises in the international airspace southwest of Taiwan have made headlines this month. There has been a record number of flights into the island's air defense identification zone, a self-declared airspace that extends beyond territorial boundaries, used for the identification of approaching civilian and military aircraft.

The Chinese military sorties have occurred in an area between Taiwan proper and its outlying Pratas Island, also known as Dongsha, which is roughly 275 miles from the port city of Kaohsiung. Recent analysis has suggested China could launch an offensive to capture the South China Sea island, which is manned by about 500 coast guard personnel and a handful of Taiwanese marines.

Chiu told lawmakers that defense planning has taken into consideration a potential attack on Pratas since 2018, after Chinese warplane and warship activities increased in the area. While a move to capture Pratas was not impossible, Chiu said, Taiwan could expect certain indications, such as Chinese troop mobilizations or rhetorical escalations on the part of Beijing.

Asked whether China could seize the island without a fight, using only political warfare, Chiu said: "I won't let that happen. That will never happen."