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Taiwan recruitment ad hints at changes in military


A Taiwanese tank shifts into a robot that somersaults and emits a machine gun from its back. A Taiwanese fighter jet transforms into a robot as it roars by the island's iconic stadium in southern Kaohsiung. A Taiwanese warship morphs into a robot that stomps ashore and sprints.

In scenes apparently inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster ''Transformers,'' Taiwan's latest military recruitment advertisement goes all out.

For some impressionable youth, the commercial's lack of a disclaimer could even mislead them into believing the island's fighters, tanks and ships can actually shift into massive, futuristic robots.

But while the ad depicts ''transformation'' of the loud, eye-popping variety in science fiction films, its subtler message -- that the military is hip and dynamic -- hints at deep changes of the institutional kind.

Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office last year, Taiwan's transition from a conscript-based military to an all-volunteer one has shifted into high gear, with recruitment and public relations now playing central roles in the island's bid to redefine its armed forces.

''The Ministry of National Defense, which used to isolate itself from the outside world, has now found it necessary to connect itself with society,'' said Lin Chung-pin, a former deputy defense minister. The commercial, Lin added, is part of the military's bid ''to connect with youth and meet the goal of an all-volunteer force.''

By 2015, Taiwan will slash its 275,000-strong military to 210,500 service people and phase out conscripts -- a force structure transformation whose scope is unprecedented for the island.

''Implementing voluntarism is the most essential and complicated military (task) for the Republic of China at present,'' Taiwan's 2009 National Defense Report states, referring to Taiwan's official title. ''Voluntarism is also key to determining personnel and warfighting capabilities.''

For now, conscription remains the bedrock of the island's defense, with young men required to serve roughly one year of military service after college. The duration of conscripts' service has steadily lessened in recent years as the island's relations with rival China has improved and tensions have eased.

China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists lost a civil war to the communists on the mainland and fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to unify Taipei with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Those threats have fueled a 60-year standoff across the 160-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait separating the two sides, even amid their burgeoning bilateral economic relations.

But under the Ma administration, cross-strait political ties have also warmed dramatically, as Ma has played up cooperation on trade and logistical links over championing the island's de facto sovereignty, a hot-button issue for Beijing.

Every six months since Ma came to power, Taipei and Beijing have held formal negotiations on forging or enhancing the links, with senior government officials leading the talks.

Currently, the two sides are mulling a partial free trade agreement.

Still, China's military threat against Taiwan continues to grow, according to the defense report, which counts some 1,300 Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles targeting Taiwan and roughly 400,000 crack troops specifically trained for an island takeover.

Despite reconciliation, the report states, China's defense budget is still growing ''at double-digit percentages yearly.'' ''It has not renounced the use of military force against Taiwan.''

And while China's military grows inexorably, posing an ever greater threat to Taiwan, Taiwan's military reportedly has been fraught with low morale, as conscripts typically loathe mandatory service, and corruption and a breakdown of discipline abound.

In fact, in a forward to the report, Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu vowed to crack down on graft and discipline problems in remarks that hint at their pervasiveness.

''The Ministry of National Defense,'' Kao said, ''is determined to eliminate all corruption and illegal conduct.'' It will cultivate ''virtues of honesty and integrity, and institutionalize personnel affairs so as to ensure proper military discipline.''

Shifting from a conscript-based military to all volunteers is an indispensable step to overhauling the island's military to meet China's challenge, Kao added.

However, for such sweeping institutional transformation to move ahead, a paradigm shift must also proceed. That is, the military must shed its image of dreary conscription to one of promises and possibilities -- an institution in which youth can get ahead instead of falling behind.

Besides cutting-edge commercials, comic books, says military spokesman Gen. Yu Sy-tue, are driving what the defense ministry hopes will be a paradigm shift powerful enough to facilitate the institutional reform.

On Tuesday, the defense ministry unveiled a comic book version of its biennial White Paper, complete with sexy female commando and macho Air Force pilot characters leading readers through a vivid storyboard of military maneuvers, rescue operations and community service.

One chapter introduces some of the military hardware that China deploys or could deploy against Taiwan. Some 10,000 copies have been distributed in high schools and bookstores island-wide, Yu said.

''We hope to attract more youth with recruitment tools like comics,'' he said, adding, ''We need to stimulate more interest.''