India ‘Beats’ China In “Will To Fight” For Country; But Japan, Taiwan, S.Korea Struggle To Attract New Recruits

Article Republished with Modifications

While the world’s military budgets are constantly rising and new weapons/war platforms are being systematically produced and envisaged, it is becoming increasingly difficult for advanced military powers to find enough young people to fight wars. 

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This may appear strange, but it is true even for countries that are fighting wars or are most worried about the prospects of enemy attacks. They realize that technology alone is not a solution to a shrinking standing military force.

The Eurasian Times has already highlighted how both Russia and Ukraine are witnessing acute shortages of soldiers to fight their ongoing wars. It has also been discussed how the United States is facing similar problems, with the “will to fight” diminishing among Americans.

Even in Asia now, sustaining enough soldiers in their ranks is increasingly becoming a difficult challenge, particularly in countries at war like Israel or those who are anticipating the imposition of war on them like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Take the case of Israel. It is in the midst of a serious war against the terrorist outfit HAMAS. Its very reputation as the Middle East’s most powerful military is now at stake. But it is said to be possessing just 15,000 active-duty combat soldiers.

It is now heavily reliant on reservists and reserve brigades that are currently under temporary mobilization orders. Any prolonged engagement of these reservists, who otherwise are farmers, teachers, factory workers, and office-goers in civilian establishments, is going to impact Israel’s economy terribly and cost billions of dollars.

Taiwan is another example. As Taipei readies for a possible conflict with Beijing, It is reportedly now debating whether it should allow overseas citizens to serve in the military, which could bolster its shrinking recruitment pool, a system that prevails in some countries like Australia and the U.S. in some form or the other.

In the U.S., there is Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), a recruiting program that allows certain non-Americans to join the military and apply for citizenship.

Taiwan’s armed forces are currently at 80 percent strength, according to a recent report by the Ministry of National Defense. The report says that the pool of military-age men dropped from 102,740 in 2022 to 97,828 last year and could drop to 74,036 by 2031.

This is said to be the case despite the government’s attempts, going back at least 15 years, to transition to an all-volunteer force of professional, reliable fighting men and women.

Taiwan has relaxed the physical requirements for joining the military, such as including men as short as 155 cm (5 feet) compared with a previous 157 cm minimum, while those with a body mass index as low as 15 or as high as 35 now qualify.

Apparently, Taiwan, like other developed nations, is finding that a declining population, competition from the civilian sector, and inadequate military salaries are reasons for its recruitment woes. Taiwan’s overall population is in fast decline, as its birth rate is among the world’s lowest.

The same is true for South Korea. Although many advanced countries face demographic challenges, they are especially acute for South Korea and its military.

According to Korean government statistics from 2022, the total fertility rate of a Korean woman declined to 0.78 and was the lowest among states in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development(OECD). Naturally, this has adversely affected the military’s intake in the country, which is technically still at war with North Korea (the Korean War of 1950 has not ended; there has only been a truce since 1953).

Based on current defense policies and demographic trends in South Korea, the country is said to have only 220,000 men eligible for conscription by 2025, despite the official target of having at least 260,000 enter the military every year. Seoul does have a conscripted military force. The law mandates 18 months of military service for able-bodied men.

According to a report published in July by Cho Kwan-ho, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, as of 2022, the number of South Korea’s military personnel stood at 480,000, falling below the 500,000 benchmark for the first time. The figure is about 40 percent of the size of North Korean troops, which is estimated at around 1.14 million.

In his report, Cho predicts that the size of the South Korean military will remain at an average of 470,000 troops over the next 10 years. However, he projects that figure to decrease to 396,000 by 2038. This anticipated decline in military personnel could pose serious concerns to South Korea’s national security, given the country’s lowest fertility rate.

Under current laws, all able-bodied South Korean men aged over 19 are obliged to serve in the military, at least for 18 months in the Army or Marine Corps, 20 months in the Navy, and 21 months in the Air Force. Women can volunteer to serve in the military as officers or non-commissioned officers. Now, Korean leaders and officials are discussing whether mandatory conscription should be extended to women.

Among other measures under debate are to expand military conscription to orphans and North Korean defectors, who are currently exempt from mandatory service, and allow healthy, young foreign nationals who pass a Korean language proficiency test to volunteer for military service, and then grant them citizenship.

However, unlike South Korea, Japan, which has neither mandatory service nor a flow of willing immigrants to count on, has a bigger challenge as its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces(SDF), has seen recruitment applications fall every year.

According to the Japan Times, the number of applicants to SDF declined by approximately 30 percent last November over the past ten years.

The SDF’s current personnel target is 247,154, but as of the end of March, the level stood at 230,754, or 16,400 short of that goal. The Ground Self-Defense Force — by far the largest of the armed services — is the most affected, with a shortfall of about 11,000 personnel.

It is said that the number of Japanese people between the ages of 18 and 26, the main source of recruits for the SDF’s lower ranks, has shrunk to around 10 million from 17 million three decades ago and is seen falling further in coming years.

File Image: Japanese soldiers

But as the population rapidly ages and shrinks — nearly a third of Japanese people are over 65, and births fell to a record low last year — experts worry that the military simply won’t be able to staff traditional fleets and squadrons.

As a result, more members of the SDF are being rehired after retirement, a milestone that varies by rank. Many are asked to take on desk jobs. As it is, the maximum age for reserves for the lower ranks was raised to 54 in 2018 from the previous 36.

Apart from the low fertility rate, there seems to be what is called “ an image problem.” Joining the SDF is seen as neither prestigious (though it is admired for its exemplary rescue and rehabilitation work during natural disasters) nor financially rewarding.

In fact, a  2015 survey by Gallup International found the Japanese were the least willing to fight for their country among the nationalities surveyed, with only 11% saying they would do so, compared with 42% in South Korea and a whopping 71% in China. Nothing much seems to have changed since then.

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It is true that Japan’s Defense Ministry is working very hard these days to convince young college graduates to join the SDF. It is offering them better salaries and improved quality of life in service.

If anything, the above examples prove that despite substantial funding and policy initiatives to attract the young to join the military, countries in East Asia are finding it hard to reverse the recruitment decline trend. This is at a time when all three, particularly Japan and Taiwan, are seriously worried about the designs of a hegemonic China.

However, equally noteworthy is that China, the potential aggressor with arguably the world’s largest military, is also struggling to attract enough recruits despite 71% of people willing to fight. Interestingly, Pakistan (89%) leads both India (75%) and China in the Gallup Survey. The list is headed by Morrocco and Fiji, with 94% each.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: