slot for bingo-Army reserves, civil defense worry Taiwan as China looms

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TAIPEI: Chris Chen, a former captain in Taiwan's military, spent a lot of time waiting during his weeklong training for reservists in June. Waiting for assembly, waiting for lunch, waiting for training, he said.

The course, part of the East Asian island's efforts to deter a Chinese invasion, was jampacked with 200 reservists to one instructor.

"It just became all listening. There was very little time to actually carry out the instructions," Chen said.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has underscored the importance of mobilizing civilians when under attack, as Kyiv's reserve forces helped fend off the invaders. Nearly halfway around the world, it has highlighted Taiwan's weaknesses on that front, chiefly in two areas: its reserves and civilian defense force.

While an invasion doesn't appear imminent, China's recent large-scale military exercises in response to a visit by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August have made Taipei more aware than ever of the hard power behind Beijing's rhetoric about bringing the self-ruled island under its control.

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Experts say civilian defense and reserve forces have an important deterrent effect, showing a potential aggressor that the risks of invasion are high. Even before the invasion, Taiwan was working on reforming both. The question is whether it would be enough.

Taiwan's reserves are meant to back up its 188,000-person military, which is 90 percent volunteers and 10 percent men doing their four months of compulsory military service. On paper, the 2.3 million reservists enable Taiwan to match China's 2 million-strong military.

Yet, the reserve system has long been criticized. Many, like Chen, felt the seven days of training for the mostly former soldiers was a waste of time that did not prepare them well enough.

The number of combat-ready reservists — those who could immediately join frontline battles — is only about 300,000, said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the governing Democratic Progressive Party who serves on the defense committee in Taiwan's legislature.

"In Ukraine, if in the first three days of the war it had fallen apart, no matter how strong your military is, you wouldn't have been able to fight the war," Wang said. "A resilient society can meet this challenge. So that when you are met with disasters and war, you will not fall apart."

Taiwan reorganized its reserve system in January, now coordinated by a new body called the All Out Defense Mobilization Agency, which will also take over the civil defense system in an emergency.

One major change was the pilot launch of a more intensive, two-week training instead of the standard one week, which would be eventually expanded to 300,000 combat-ready reservists. The remaining reservists can play a more defensive role, such as defending bridges, Wang said.

Revamped training

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