Some Taiwanese politicians, desperate to find volunteers for the military have proposed that the descendants of Chinese soldiers who fled to northern Burma and Thailand after the communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, be granted Taiwanese citizenship if they join the Taiwanese Army. This is not a unique situation. Russia, also seeking military volunteers has offered to allow people to emigrate to Russia is they serve in the military first. The American military has always had a high percentage of immigrants. Currently migrants make up 4 percent of U.S. military personnel, although these non-citizens of prime military age (18-29) make up about 2.2 percent of the American population. Since September 11, 2001 about five percent of those serving in the U.S. military have been migrants. During the American Civil War about twenty percent of the Union Army was foreign born troops and for the rest of the 19th century foreigners comprised between five and ten percent of the American military.
Taiwan, like many other nations during the last two decades, is finding that moving from conscription to an all-volunteer military is not easy. For two years now the military has been only able to recruit 30 percent of the soldiers it needs to be all-volunteer by 2014. The Taiwanese military was forced to switch to an all-volunteer forces because of the growing unpopularity of conscription. That’s because until the 1990s the military was ethnic Chinese officers and NCOs commanding a largely ethnic Taiwanese conscript force. But the domination of the government and military by the ethnic Chinese minority has sharply declined in the last decade and calls to end conscription have gotten louder.
The leadership of the Taiwanese military trace their origins back to the remnants of the defeated Nationalist forces that fled to Taiwan in 1949. This brought two million Nationalist soldiers and supporters to an island already occupied by six million Taiwanese who had been there for centuries and developed a unique culture. The Nationalist military used force when necessary to get cooperation from the Taiwanese majority and there remains an “above the law” attitude among the army leadership because of the attitude that the military is all that is keeping the communist barbarians from taking over Taiwan. Although many of the senior officers are now ethnic Taiwanese, these attitudes persist in the military and are resented by the majority of Taiwanese. Unless there is some serious attitude adjustment about the military in Taiwan the armed forces are going to shrink and lose a lot of their combat capabilities because of a shortage of volunteers.
At the same time the Nationalist troops were “invading” Taiwan in 1949 a smaller force of Nationalist soldiers fled to Burma and Thailand. The northern portions of those countries had long been thinly populated and something of a frontier area. The new communist government in China was soon distracted by the Korean War (1950-53) and left the Nationalist troops in Burma and Thailand alone. While some of the 20,000 Nationalist troops who got into northern Burma and Thailand carried out some raids across the border into China, most settled down and married local women. By the 1960s about half of them had accepted invitations (and transportation) to go to Taiwan. Those who remained made themselves useful by helping Burma and Thailand control communist guerillas. Eventually many of these former Nationalist troops, and their sons, formed private armies and got into the drug business. The better trained Nationalists organized a real army and made a lot of money in the heroin business until the local governments shut it down. In any event the great-grandsons lost interest in the drug business and were, and still are, looking for other opportunities. Although these descendants of the Nationalist Army are now mostly Burmese and Thai, many still speak Chinese and many still think of themselves as Chinese. So a free ride to Taiwan, a few years in the army and citizenship is an attractive proposition, or so the Taiwanese recruiters hope.