By Catherine LAI
Sitting pensively in a pew at a Taipei church, army reservist Henry Cheng is nonchalant about the Chinese warships and jets circling his island — but he also feels ill-prepared for war.
China’s massive military drills this month pushed tensions in the Taiwan Strait to their highest point in years, deepening fears Beijing could forcibly take control of the self-ruled democracy it claims as its own.
Coming on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the crisis has revived debate within Taiwan and among key Western allies about the readiness of the island’s vastly outnumbered military.
But Cheng said he was unconcerned.
“It was like ‘Oh, they’re at it again,'” the 25-year-old insurance sales agent told AFP. “They’ve been talking about a war since I was little but there still hasn’t been one.”
Cheng completed his mandatory four-month military service last year, placing him in the ranks of some 2.5 million reservists who could be called up to battle if an invasion took place.
Yet conflict feels like a distant reality for Cheng compared to his usual routine of meeting clients and rehearsing Christian worship songs as a drummer for his church band.
“I’m definitely not ready (for war), because four months to me is more like going there to play,” he said, referencing his training.
“I’d probably die very quickly. I’ll face it when it comes.”
– ‘Too short’ –
Mandatory service used to be deeply unpopular in Taiwan, which was once a brutal military dictatorship but has since morphed into a progressive democracy.
Taiwan’s previous government reduced compulsory service from one year to four months with the aim of creating a mainly volunteer force.
But Beijing’s sabre-rattling has grown more intense under President Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in a generation.
And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the deadly risks of a giant authoritarian neighbour’s verbal threats becoming real.
As a result, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is exploring whether to reinstate tougher military service.
It is not clear yet when a decision might be made, but polling shows more than three-quarters of the Taiwanese public now believe the length of service is too short.
Taiwan remains massively outgunned by China, with 88,000 ground forces compared to China’s one million, according to Pentagon estimates.
But the mountainous island would still present a formidable challenge.
Taipei has stepped up reservist training and increased purchases of jets and anti-ship missiles. But experts say it is not enough.
“I truly believe four months is too short,” said Joseph Hwang, associate professor at Taiwan’s National Defense University.
“Taiwan has no condition for voluntary military service whatsoever.”
Peter Yang, an engineer who plays wargames in his spare time, remembers much of his compulsory military service was mostly “spent doing paperwork”.
“There was not a lot of time spent on training, just basic physical training and shooting practice,” the 24-year-old told AFP
“Our job is really just to die on the battlefield… so it’s enough for us to know how to fire a gun,” he said, adding reservists were given only 12 bullets for each shooting practice.
Last month, former US army chief Mark Esper called for Taiwan to triple its mandatory service to a year and extend its enrolment to women.
– ‘Dancing, drinking, exercising’ –
American and Taiwanese strategists have pushed Taipei to adopt a “porcupine” strategy of asymmetric warfare like Ukraine to defend against a Chinese invasion.
But Taiwan’s population is not ready for the die-hard resistance seen in the streets of Ukraine’s cities, said retired air force colonel Richard Chou, who served for 21 years.
“Taiwan’s military preparation from my perspective is not enough,” the 52-year-old said, adding he would serve willingly if called back.
“It’s not only about one person holding a rifle. They also have to learn how to handle situations together as a group through training –- only then will they have a hope of resisting in the future.”
To demonstrate how unmoved the Taiwanese are by the threat, 75-year-old veteran Jasper Lee points around a central Taipei park.
“They just had the military exercise around Taiwan island and the people are like this — dancing, drinking, exercising,” he said.
But underneath the stoicism, fears of China linger for many.
John Chen, a 26-year-old reservist, said the drills have increased his anxiety, comparing Beijing to a stalker.
“This person really likes you, but he keeps saying you belong to him… he knows where you go to work every day and follows you home from work. This is the situation that Taiwan is in,” he said.
“I’m worried about whether my country will continue to exist.”
— Agence France-Presse VIDEO