Controversy and Concerns: Taiwan’s All-Out Defense Mobilization Act Bill Under Debate

It seems some nations refuse to learn critical lessons in international politics. One of these is the recognition that any issue involving great powers ultimately becomes a global concern. This means that even seemingly trivial domestic events warrant consideration within the larger context of the interests of major players. That seems to be the case of Taiwan sometimes.

With the escalating situation in Ukraine and strained relations between China and the Biden administration, it is crucial for Taiwan’s Democratic Party and President Tsai Ing-wen to approach their domestic politics with caution and precision. Amidst the shifting geopolitical landscape, Taiwan’s internal affairs are under intense scrutiny, prompting questions about its capacity to defend itself against Chinese aggression. Several incidents have raised doubts about the capabilities and morale of Taiwan’s military, while China’s discussions on wartime legislation as part of Xi Jinping’s “Great Wall of Steel” strategy have only heightened concerns. Consequently, the outcome of the newly proposed “All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act” within Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (Parliament) has taken center stage.

On February 28th, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense (MND) put forth a new draft called the “All Out Defense Mobilizations Readiness Act.” However, this move quickly garnered criticism from both DPP representatives and the opposition due to its vague scope and lack of crucial information. The MND, along with Premier Chen Chien-jen, sent the draft to the Legislative Yuan (Taiwanese parliament) with high expectations.

The temporarily halted revised draft featured essential updates that reflected the worsening Cross-Strait security situation. Key aspects included addressing misinformation tactics through fake news dissemination, cognitive warfare, and enhancing civil society’s ability to protect itself. Additionally, it tackled the need for an improved conscription system. These are critical factors that Taiwan must address before relations with mainland China witness any further deterioration.

However, the MND failed to clearly explain how and under what circumstances these measures would be implemented, and instead called upon other government agencies to develop standard operational procedures. These procedures were meant to outline the steps and scope of government surveillance on Taiwan’s vast communication network, which includes online media platforms, newspapers, and TV broadcasters.

KMT chairman Eric Chu spearheaded opposition to the proposed changes, voicing concerns about press freedom and the potential mobilization of students during wartime. The objections referred to a section in the revised draft that mandated the Ministry of Education to compile an updated list of all 16-year-old students. The Ministry of National Defense refuted these claims, clarifying that the list would simply offer an accurate count of those eligible for mobilization in case of an urgent conflict – a practice that’s not new. In response to KMT’s allegations, the Ministry of National Defense highlighted that school defense groups contribute to various non-ammunition-based products, support services, civil defense, and disaster relief efforts. Facing pressure from multiple sides, the Executive Yuan opted to suspend discussions on the new draft.

To fully grasp the impact of this MND oversight in Taiwan’s parliament, one must situate it within a broader context encompassing a string of smaller, yet highly disconcerting incidents. As the world anticipates greater unity among Taiwan’s political leaders in light of the Ukrainian War, this botched bill further undermines faith in Taiwanese armed forces effectively defending their nation. Notably, this follows on the heels of MND resolving another controversy—the “Skybow Missile Scandal.” As ridiculed by the Global Times , critical components of Taiwan’s missile defense system were reportedly bought from China by local contractors and sold as American products – generating massive profits for these contractors whose central business isn’t even military equipment but cosmetics sales.

In the midst of intense parliamentary debates over a new mobilization act, and following the humiliating missile scandal, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) was blindsided by a string of allegations by Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei). The paper accused a shocking 90% of retired Taiwanese officials of selling intelligence to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for personal gain. Despite apologizing for the uproar, Nikkei stood firm on its claims. As if that wasn’t enough drama for the MND in 2023, the media caught wind of soldier Chen Chia-hsun’s desertion. Stationed in Erdan island, a stone’s throw from the Chinese province of Fujian, Chen swam to safety with the Chinese coast guard due to personal reasons. In light of these events, it’s baffling why Minister of Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng and Executive Yuan Premier Chen Chien-jen would rush an unprepared draft of the All-out Defense Mobilization Readiness Act to be debated in parliament—especially when MND and Army Forces officials needed something to redeem their tarnished reputations.

In a twist of fate, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) botched attempt to pass this legislation may have inadvertently spurred—or at least accelerated—the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) to propose a similar wartime law. On March 11th, People’s Liberation Army representatives at the NPC congress called for enacting wartime legislation, pointing to escalating tensions with Taiwan and the United States as justification. The NPC fervently champions the establishment of laws designed to manage the deployment of reserve troops, prominently featured in the MND’s All-out Defense Mobilizations Readiness Act draft. Their goal? To launch cutting-edge, wartime legislation concentrating on sophisticated software and harmonizing military forces with civilian resources. The driving force behind this law is the escalating threat of “Taiwan independence” movements, which it believes, have surged in recent years, jeopardizing China’s national sovereignty and territorial unity. As one Chinese legal expert pointed out, although the 2005 Anti-Secession Law delineates non-peaceful reunification conditions, there is an urgent need for supplementary legislation in light of the increasingly critical situation.

As part of the awe-inspiring “Great Wall of Steel” unveiled by Xi Jinping on March 13th, wartime legislation will play a significant role. Riding high on the confirmation of another five-year term and the triumphant Iran-Saudi rapprochement deal, Xi boldly outlined China’s ambitions through the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI). These initiatives crystallize the pivotal role he envisions for China on the global stage. Unsurprisingly, Xi’s wall of steel foundation is rooted in an unyielding belief in national sovereignty and Chinese territorial claims, which, in his view, encompass Taiwan entirely.

For years, Taiwanese leaders and citizens have lived under the looming shadow of a Chinese invasion and unification threats, tactfully steering clear of making it the focal point in their domestic life and politics. Yet, times have changed. The seismic shift in global politics following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left everyone unsure about the landscape of this new reality. Power players in the US, Europe, and Japan are still wrestling with the implications, striving to develop proactive strategies rather than relying on the current reactive responses. It’s an altered world requiring innovative thinking, a sense of urgency, and evolved behaviors.

As we navigate this unfamiliar territory, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense and Premier Chen Chien-jen must grasp some critical lessons in international relations. Firstly, any issue involving superpowers transcends regional or domestic constraints and morphs into a worldwide concern. Thus, events in Taiwan don’t merely affect Taiwan – they tend to reverberate on a global scale. Secondly, nation-states advocating for the liberal consortium established by the US post-World War II must maintain high levels of predictability in both domestic and international contexts. While this is achievable during an era of peace, it becomes increasingly challenging amidst critical circumstances as the current one in place.

Given this backdrop, even a poorly managed draft bill could shake allies’ faith in the anticipated behavior of key actors within various geopolitical contexts. So, Taiwan’s Premier must always proceed with caution when discussing domestic pieces of legislation that might bear international ramifications beyond the island nation’s borders. Having this foresight will help to pave a more solid path forward without raising eyebrows of its key allies.

Moises de Souza
Moises de Souza
Assistant Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and International Relations at the University of Central Lancashire, Chair of the Northern England Policy Centre for the Asia Pacific (NEPCAP), and Editor-in-Chief Asia Pacific Viewpoint Journal (APV).