Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan takes on the important subject of the relationship between the Republic of China armed forces and society, examining public perceptions of the military and the need for transformation to make it more relevant and effective.

As author Dean Karalekas outlines, the military suffers from generally low morale, a lack of esprit de corps, and unfavorable public perceptions. Part of that is a legacy of the military being an armed wing and indoctrination engine of the Kuomintang. Taiwanese society has, since the lifting of martial law in 1987, moved away from its authoritarian past at great speed. Meanwhile, the military has lagged behind in adapting to the new realities of modern Taiwanese life.   

Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan: Identity and Transformation (Emerald Points) by [Karalekas, Dean]

As it says on the blurb, “This book uses the postmodern military model to measure how public perception of the military is influenced by self-identification in Taiwan.” Karalekas explains what this model is:

The postmodern military model (PMMM), promulgated by Moskos, Williams, and Segal (2000), posits that militaries faced with a shift from the threat perception of war (such as enemy invasion or nuclear attack) to primarily non-traditional threats (such as terrorism and ethnic violence) undergo changes to their force structure, personnel requirements, and their relationship to the wider society.

The author looks at how various aspects of the ROC military fit the model’s three categories: modern, late-modern, or postmodern military. Eleven elements are assessed: Perceived Threat, Force Structure, Major Mission Definition, Civilian Employees, Dominant Military Professional, Public Attitude, Media Relations, Women’s Role, Spouses, Homosexuals, Conscientious Objection. The findings are:

Taiwan’s is a modern military in terms of Perceived Threat, Force Structure, Major Mission Definition, and Civilian Employees. It can be regarded as more of a late-modern model in the dimensions of Dominant Military Professional, Public Attitude, and Women’s Role. Lastly, it achieves a postmodern designation as regards the role of Spouses, homosexuals, Conscientious Objection, and Media Relations.

This theoretical framework makes for dull reading, and it seems somewhat pointless. Taiwan’s situation is quite unique and looking at the country and the military on its own terms would have been better than academic abstractions. The Canadian author has a background in journalism and decades of involvement with Taiwan, where he is perhaps best known for his starring role in the action film The Kiss of Lady X.  He is the co-founder and Associate Editor of the bimonthly journal Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security. So, the author can certainly write and he knows what he’s talking about; furthermore, he also has a reasonable, measured take on things.

The problem with the book, however, is that it is basically a reheated dissertation (for a PhD the author earned from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University). For my tastes, the book suffers from academia’s incestuous need to relate new work to previously published academic work. This leaves little space for interesting Taiwan-specific detail and for case studies. Take for example, the sections on the ROC military’s plans to move from conscription to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). I agree with Karalekas that conscription (currently four months, down from two years) should be retained, lengthened to at least a year in fact, and made more meaningful: Four months is “far too short a time to inculcate a spirit of esprit de corps, much less transfer necessary soldiering skills.”  

The government, in an effort to move toward a more modern military, announced in 2008 it would phase out conscription. This was a failure, with the military unable to meet recruitment targets. Karalekas doesn’t examine the nuts and bolts of this reluctance to sign up. Why don’t people want to join the military? Specifics are not given. Nowhere in the book, for example, are salaries mentioned. Likewise pensions. And there is no mention of housing policy for military personnel, nor the quality of housing. There’s nothing on military colleges as an option for high school graduates. From my experience, practical matters such as pay, education costs, and housing quality have a greater influence on readiness to join than do perceptions of self-identity. 

The author ends his book with a chapter on sensible recommendations for improving the military and also civil-military relations. First up is to abandon the shift to an AVF. The manpower is needed and the way it integrates the military into society is useful. Training needs to be made more relevant, with conscripts feeling they’re doing something meaningful. Conscripts should not be used as cheap labor for menial non-military tasks – civilians can be hired for this. 

Likewise, reservists need more and better-quality training. Karalekas says “ROC planners may draw inspiration is the example of Switzerland, whose rigorous and demanding mandatory military training, and follow-up reserve requirements, for all males is well known as the backbone of the nation’s defense strategy.”

Another recommendation is for greater transparency through improved interaction with the media and public; having bases open to the public on certain days is given as an example. Karalekas also suggests the utility of a cadets youth program:

Another project that could be implemented in Taiwan is the institution of a youth league, which in structure would not be too dissimilar from the China Youth Corps, though without that organization’s anti-Communist and colonial-era connotations. … Not only would such a program be a boon to recruiting young people into lifelong military careers, but it would be indispensible as a means of fostering a healthier relationship between the military and society in general. 

Although Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan is not something I can recommend for the general reader, it is a welcome edition to the field of Taiwan defense studies. As the author says in his concluding remarks, the more research and examination there is, the better the chances of strengthening Taiwan’s defensive capabilities.

Rather, a well-researched, carefully constructed plan is needed to transform the ROC military, not merely from conscription-based to an AVF, but from an institution distrusted by the society it protects, to one that is a source of national pride. Such a transformation will remain an impossibility without the understanding provided by the sort of sociological research for which this project represents both a humble beginning and a clarion call. 

Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan: Identity and Transformationis published by Emerald Publishing Limited. It’s also available from Amazon.com and various other retailers.