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Taiwan's military problem a question of basic economics

Publication Date : 18-02-2014


Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou pointed out yesterday that it would be impractical for Taiwan to compare the number of its servicemen with that of its “possible enemies”.

The only threat to this island is of course the People's Liberation Army, the largest military force in the entire world.

According to the president, the percentage of servicemen in Taiwan compared to the island's population will stand at roughly 0.9 per cent by the end of this year, i.e. 215,000.

On one side is an island of 2.3 million people, and on the other a land mass of 1.35 billion people. The impracticality of the former trying to maintain a military of comparable size with the latter should be self-evident.

When the Nationalist Government came to Taiwan, the size of its military was roughly one-tenth of the island's population. While the island can of course make an attempt at establishing a military with the same servicemen-to-population ratio, the amount of revenue spent on such an endeavor would be “considerable” to say the very least. Take the number of military personnel that the island has now and multiply that number by 10 — that's 10 times the number of people that need to be fed, clothed, housed, equipped, paid salaries and ultimately given pensions.

The only way to sustain a military of that size would be either to raise taxes “considerably” or completely restructure government spending.

If one believes that the government is not doing enough to protect the environment, take care of the disadvantaged, provide children with a better education, etc., one can forget about all of it if Taiwan were to decide to try and balance the amount of its servicemen with that of mainland China.

Even if one were prepared to go to extremes, the PLA could always decide to ante up. There are, as was mentioned before, only 1.35 billion people across the strait.

When former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney criticised the Obama administration over the size of the US Navy, saying that the country has fewer ships than it did in 1916, US President Barack Obama replied that the US also has fewer horses and bayonets in its armed forces.

The question, as Obama rightly pointed out, is: “What are our capabilities?”

Ask anyone who just finished their mandatory military service in Taiwan and a large majority will probably tell you that it was a complete waste of time. These “trained” soldiers are no more adept at eliminating the nation's possible enemies than they are at digging ditches and/or cleaning toilets.

The problem behind the government's plan to establish an all-voluntary military is a lack of incentive for right-minded people to sign up for a military career. The work is generally tedious, the hours are long and the pay is not exactly desirable, disregarding the possibility, however unlikely, of getting shot at.

The president said that members of the US military told his administration that the three keys to maintaining an all-voluntary military is pay, gear and training.

The difference between stipulating mandatory military service and having an all-voluntary military is that in the latter case, you are more likely to end up with soldiers who are less dissatisfied with their circumstances, which also means that they are more likely to perform better in their capacities as the nation's defenders.

Exactly what percentage of government expenditure national defense should account for is something that can be argued, but generally you want to arrive at a solution with a good price/performance ratio.

Common sense tells us that people who choose to learn calculus are more likely to actually learn the subject and benefit from the experience than those who are forced to learn it, and one would think that people who sign up to be soldiers would be better at soldiering than those who are obligated to. And if having a military with soldiers who signed up for the work is a desirable scenario, the government has to do a better job of ensuring that the right incentives are in place.


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