China news: Taiwan to boost military to 235,000 to counter growing threat of invasion by Beijing - 'We must defend democracy!'
US will train new recruits to use hyper-modern anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles
TAIWAN is to increase the size of its military by 70,000 to 235,000 as it prepares to "protect the homeland" from China.
The tiny country - which is smaller than Switzerland - is living under the constant threat of invasion from it's colossal neighbour.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently vowed to "reunify" Taiwan with mainland China "by force if necessary", despite US President Joe Biden pledging to defend the fledgling democracy.
And now Taiwan has said it will take pro-active steps to boost its fighting forces in case of an attack from across the Taiwan Straight, the 110 mile stretch of water which sits between it and China.
Military service in the country - which has a population of 24 million - is to be controversially extended to a year, from the current four months, from early 2024 President Tsai Ing-wen announced. Tsai said Taiwan wanted peace but needed to be able to defend itself.
"As long as Taiwan is strong enough, it will be the home of democracy and freedom all over the world, and it will not become a battlefield," Tsai told a news conference confirming the decision to extend the conscription period, which she described as "incredibly difficult".
The current military system, including training reservists, is inefficient and insufficient to cope with China's rising military threat, especially if it launched a rapid attack on the island, Tsai added.
He added: "Taiwan wants to tell the world that between democracy and dictatorship, we firmly believe in democracy.
"Between war and peace, we insist on peace. Let us show the courage and determination to protect our homeland and defend democracy."
Conscripts will undergo more intense training, including shooting exercises, combat instruction used by US forces and operating more powerful weapons including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles.
It comes as China ramps up military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan to assert its sovereignty claims, including almost daily Chinese air force missions near the island.
Taiwan has complained of delayed US arms deliveries this year, including of Stingers, but Tsai said the situation was improving after discussions with the United States.
The de facto US embassy in Taiwan welcomed the announcement on conscription reform.
The American Institute in Taiwan said: "The United States' commitment to Taiwan and steps Taiwan takes to enhance its self-defence capabilities contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region."
Tsai's security team, including high-level officials from the defence ministry and the National Security Council, have been reviewing Taiwan's military system since 2020.
Taipei, which rejects Beijing's sovereignty claims to Taiwan, claimed the largest-ever Chinese air force incursion into the island's air defence identification zone happened on Boxing Day, with 43 Chinese planes crossing an unofficial buffer between the two sides.
China also staged war games near Taiwan in August following a visit to Taipei by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Taiwan's government says only the Taiwanese people can decide their future.
One senior official said: "China's various unilateral behaviours have become a major concern for regional security."
Conscripts would be tasked with guarding key infrastructure, enabling regular forces to respond more swiftly in the event of any attempt by China to invade, the defence ministry said at the same press conference.
Chieh Chung, researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank, estimated that the extension could add an extra 70,000 manpower annually to the current 165,000-strong professional force in 2027 and beyond, meaning Taiwan will have an 'operational capability' of 235,000 troops. China has 3.4million military personnel, including reservists.
Even after the extension to conscription, however, the period of service will still be shorter than the 18 months mandated in South Korea, which faces a hostile and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Tsai is overseeing a broad modernisation programme, championing the idea of "asymmetric warfare" to make the island's forces more mobile, agile and harder to attack.
The United States has pressed Taiwan to modernise its military to make it like a "porcupine" - agile and hard to attack - but Tsai claimed there had been no pressure from Washington for these reforms.
China's growing assertiveness towards the island it claims as its own, as well as the war in Ukraine have prompted debate within Taiwan about how to boost defence.
Tsai said "a few things" had been learned from that war which have been incorporated into Taiwan's defence reforms, and noted that Ukraine's ability to hold off much larger Russian forces.
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