Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s growing strength have accelerated Taiwan’s military overhaul. Taipei is exploring multiple ways to enhance its security, but unorthodox methods risk escalation.
by John P. Ruehl
In early May 2023, a U.S. delegation consisting of 25 defense contractors arrived in Taiwan for a security summit, aimed to increase interoperability between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. It marks the latest step toward Taiwan’s years-long efforts to strengthen its defense capabilities and pose credible deterrence to the Chinese military.
The military relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. expanded significantly during the Trump administration. Washington approved major arms sales, increased cooperation with the Taiwanese military, and conducted more naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait to emphasize the U.S. position on Taiwan. During the Biden administration, it was revealed that dozens of U.S. military personnel were training Taiwanese forces on the island since at least 2020, numbers which have increased since.
|Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) transits the South China Sea during routine operations. Source: US Navy Photo.|
And while conscription was previously considered an outdated military policy characteristic of the Cold War, the war in Ukraine has reversed this notion. Taiwan’s attempted transition to Western-style volunteer force in previous years now appears far less credible in being able to realistically oppose the Chinese military, and Taiwan’s government has since reverted to upholding its military reserve system.
But though Taiwan’s 1.7 million reservists appear to form a formidable challenge to China’s roughly 2 million active military personnel, Taiwan’s forces largely exist only on paper. Its military currently only has 169,000 active military members and an estimated 300,000 combat-ready reservists, according to Wang Ting-yu of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
The Taiwanese government was therefore quick to explore increasing training times for reservists after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and in December 2022 lengthened conscription from four months to one year, bringing praise from the U.S. By boosting pay and training, the Taiwanese government hopes to bolster its forces and bring it closer to South Korea’s 18-month compulsory military service.
But China’s population of 1.4 billion dwarfs Taiwan’s mere 23 million, meaning additional Taiwanese conscription initiatives are futile if China resorts to additional conscription as well. Taiwan’s $19 billion defense budget also pales in comparison to the $230 billion spent by Beijing.
Washington’s hypothetical efforts to resupply the relatively isolated island of Taiwan during a conflict would meanwhile prove far more difficult than the ongoing Western effort to assist Ukraine. While stockpiling weapons could partially negate this issue, a prolonged conflict or blockade of Taiwan by China would steadily diminish Taiwan’s ability to continue fighting.
With the inherent disadvantages of the Taiwanese armed forces and the unwillingness of even the U.S. to officially commit to the island’s defense, Taiwan’s government has explored increasing engagement with the private sphere to ensure its security. The May 2023 U.S. contractors’ visit was just part of Taiwan’s recent efforts to increase engagement with both domestic and foreign private military firms.
Before the breakout of conflict in Ukraine in 2022, Taiwan had taken incremental steps toward greater privatization in its defense sector, such as privatizing the state aircraft manufacturer Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation in 2014.
However, the war in Ukraine completely altered the Taiwanese government’s view of private war. Russian private military and security companies (PMSCs) have been active in Ukraine since 2014, while the Russian PMSC known as Wagner has played an essential part in the war and in Russian propaganda. Various Western and Russian PMSCs are also fighting in Ukraine, while Chinese civilian drones have been used to great effect by both sides.
The Taiwanese government has since taken significant steps in engaging with Taiwan’s private sector to increase drone production. But more notable are the proposed changes to the Private Security Services Act, which regulates PMSCs operating in Taiwan, early into the war. Taipei has various types of private services to consider, such as those providing security, consulting, and training services, intelligence gathering, logistics support, and cyber and maritime security.
Enoch Wu, a politician from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party and a former special operations soldier, founded the security and civilian defense organization Forward Alliance in 2020. Alongside programs to treat injuries and respond to crises, Forward Alliance’s combat training programs expanded significantly following the outbreak of war in Ukraine. The number of Taiwanese private programs run by various companies “specializing in urban warfare and firearms training” has also increased since the start of the war, according to Voice of America.
In September 2022, Taiwanese entrepreneur Robert Tsao pledged to spend $100 million training 3 million soldiers over three years in the Kuma Academy (also known as the Black Bear Academy). While his claims are ambitious, Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin’s financing of Wagner has already played an integral role in the war in Ukraine, at the same time drastically increasing his stature in Russia and notoriety abroad.
Due to its own limited industry, any Taiwanese effort to promote greater military cooperation with the private sphere would require Western assistance. The U.S. scrapped its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979 to normalize relations with China but the Taiwan Relations Act enables the U.S. to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, and privatization could make it easier for the West to support the Taiwanese military. Alongside weapons deals, Western PMSCs like G4S have been active in Taiwan for more than two decades and could quickly expand their operations on the island.
Greater cooperation with Western PMSCs may not be able to help Taiwan repel a Chinese assault. But they could complement Taiwanese military efforts to create a volunteer force modeled on Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force and advocated by former Taiwanese defense chief Admiral Lee Hsi-min. The U.S. has explored developing guerilla forces in the Baltic States to harass Russian forces if they were to invade, and growing the multiple private initiatives already underway in Taiwan could form a powerful guerilla network that could remain active even if Taiwan’s military is forced to stand down.
But committing to privatization has its own consequences for Taiwan. The role of Chinese PMSCs abroad has grown significantly over the last few years, with an estimated 20 to 40 Chinese active largely to guard Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects. However, China’s 7,000-plus PSMCs operating domestically “suggests ample opportunity for the future growth of internationally active” Chinese firms according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And, while Chinese law prohibits them from using force abroad except for defense, Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is part of China’s territory could erode legal and political barriers to using them.
In recent years, China has also deputized maritime militias of fishing boats to swarm parts of the South China Sea and establish control over certain areas. By collaborating with Chinese PMSCs, these militias could even avoid Taiwan and surround the Kinmen, Matsu, or uninhabited Pratas islands. Although these islands are claimed by Taiwan, they are geographically closer to China. This could be justified on the grounds of economic interests or security concerns. The use of these fishing militias to harass Taiwan could make up for significant underdevelopment in Chinese PMSC capabilities and help China to avoid using its official military forces.
The scale of cooperation between the Taiwanese government and private military actors is so far limited. But Taiwan’s manpower shortages and lack of official military and diplomatic ties have made the prospect of private military assistance far more attractive. The lack of international regulations sustaining Taiwan’s recent increased engagement with the private military sphere, however, will further encourage China to respond in kind.
Ukrainian oligarchs had turned to PMSCs to protect their assets in Ukraine after 2014, while Ukraine has come to heavily lean on foreign PMSCs to supplement the war effort. Wagner and other Russian PMSCs have meanwhile grown in importance to Russian military efforts in Ukraine as well. The growing power of PMSCs in Ukraine, as well as worldwide, suggests further military privatization of the dispute over Taiwan may be inevitable.
John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.