"*" indicates required fields

Improving Taiwan’s Readiness: Civil Defense Kuma Academy trains civilians in disaster preparedness exercise. VOA Image

Improving Taiwan’s Readiness: Civil Defense

share this

On May 29, China launched joint combat readiness patrols in response to Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te’s inauguration speech emphasizing Taiwanese sovereignty. As cross-strait tensions rise, Taiwan is also awaiting delivery of $19 billion worth of U.S. weaponry. However, the reality of how a potential conflict unfolds is not reliant on military prowess alone. The willingness of the Taiwanese people to be prepared and defend their island should China attack is an underrealized resource that by investing in civil defense, could improve Taiwan’s readiness.

To better understand this willingness, it is helpful to understand how the Taiwanese people view themselves. Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Taiwanese adults identify as primarily Taiwanese and 83 percent of the 18-34 age group, a key demographic in military contexts, identifies as primarily Taiwanese. While party affiliation in Taiwan generally indicates how friendly a voter feels towards China, overall, 85 percent of adults view China as a threat. Even if the public is aware of rising tensions and disagrees with Chinese reunification, Brookings found that only 32 percent currently believes that Taiwan is more capable of militarily defending itself against Chinese aggression than in 2021.

Due to the drastic difference in the number of active personnel and amount of weaponry between China and Taiwan, this lack of faith is not unfounded. To increase recruitment, Taiwan has loosened physical requirements for compulsory military service and extended its duration to a year from the previous standard of four months. While Taiwan continues to build up its arsenal and receives U.S. foreign aid, realistically, its forces cannot directly overpower a Chinese invasion. It also cannot be reliant on other nations for immediate support due to logistical issues and the lack of any official mutual defense pacts.

Although the military is the focus of a country’s defense, it is not the only possible source of strength. Since the Taiwanese public favor de facto independence, this sentiment can be tapped to introduce measures that empower its citizenry to aid in the overall readiness and defense of the island. Historically, the American Civil Defense Corps enlisted the help of civilians to be air raid wardens, provide disaster preparedness education, and conduct patrols. In the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian civilians have aided in their country’s war effort by coordinating relief work. Those in occupied territory harass Russian military forces and provide intelligence to the Ukrainian military. These examples demonstrate the support that civilians can offer to their country during war.

Taiwan can improve readiness by building up civil defense resilience and has already proven the possibilities in similar areas like disaster preparedness. When Taiwan suffered a major earthquake in 1999, it saw casualties of 2,400 killed and 11,300 injured. In response, the Taiwanese government established funds and organizations dedicated to providing a national-level emergency alert system, local disaster relief, and evacuation. When an earthquake of similar magnitude hit this April, the casualties dropped significantly with only 18 dead and 1,000 injured. While civil society efforts are not the only reason for the decreased casualties, it is clear that investing in similar efforts around civil defense could be seriously beneficial.

Currently, there are some efforts underway to do this. Non-governmental groups such as the Kuma Academy, have provided basic training of first aid, media literacy, and crisis response to almost 30,000 people. Opponents of bolstering civil defense training worry that these activities will further antagonize China and that it is ultimately pointless. However, ensuring that people are well-prepared to respond effectively and efficiently helps prevent chaos and confusion. Civil defense organizations can frame their training around how a regular person can help their community in any sort of crisis, including natural disasters. Another non-governmental organization, the Taichung Self-Defense Group, holds training for earthquake response where attendees learn how to safely evacuate and provide relief for others during an emergency without needing to wait for authorities to arrive. Its founder emphasizes the importance of such skills being transferable to any type of crisis, including war. Further government investment into such programs would improve a wider level of organization, which in turn can raise and maintain morale while saving lives during a potential conflict.

As tensions rise, Taiwan has continuously improved its military capabilities in cooperation with the United States. Nonetheless, an impressive military stockpile is not enough for a successful defense against the Chinese military, nor is reliance on the United States to interfere. By investing in Taiwanese civil defense, the people can be better motivated and better prepared in case of conflict which would minimize confusion and casualties, as well as providing additional support to the military.