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It’s time to open up Taiwan’s reserves to foreign workers

Current rules exclude foreigners from reserves. That needs to change and this is moment to reconsider citizenship rules as a whole

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Taiwan Soldiers - Ministry for National Defense

Taiwan Soldiers - Ministry for National Defense

A lot of people care about Taiwan. And under the shadow of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, a lot of people appear to be ready to fight for Taiwan’s future should it come to that.

A survey published earlier this week by the by the Taipei-based think tank Taiwan International Strategic Study Society(台灣國際戰略學會) found that the number of Taiwanese citizens willing to fight for their country had risen from 40.3% in December 2021 to 70.2% now.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of Ukraine’s civil defense force in repelling the Russian assault and argued that Taiwan needs to develop a similar structure to ensure willing volunteers are properly trained and equipped to defend their homeland.

Reserves obviously have a vital role to play, and it is encouraging to see that the same survey found that 70.4% back the new two-week reservist training program.

This has perhaps been the most high-profile aspect of Taiwan’s response to the war in Ukraine, although it was planned long before and the timing of this first 14-day reservist training call-up is nothing more than a happy coincidence.

It has doubtless been reassuring for many Taiwanese in light of the horrific scenes that have been coming out of Ukraine, and the sight of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in full combat dress inspecting the reserves will have sent a clear message about how seriously the government is taking this.

However, it is not just Taiwanese citizens that care about Taiwan. Despite its well-established civil defense force and reserves, Ukraine has called on any foreigners willing to fight for their freedom to come and join their foreign legion. Hundreds have answered the call.

Taiwan is viewed as one of the best places in the world for ex-pats to live, and according to the Ministry of Labor, there are around 753,000 foreign workers living in Taiwan. That is a huge number of people with ties to the country that are already here.

There are obvious issues around the conditions and rights that many foreign workers in Taiwan endure. That is an issue for another time.

But there will doubtless be many foreigners who have settled down in Taiwan and made a life for themselves here and who, in the event of an invasion, would be willing to take up arms to defend their adopted homeland.

The problem is that, at the moment, they are not eligible to join the reserves and get the training that will be so vital should the worst ever happen.

Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) has stressed the importance of peacetime training and he is right to do so. So, why is Taiwan deliberately excluding a whole section of Taiwanese society that is ready and willing to defend the country too?

It all stems back to the question of citizenship.

Only Taiwanese citizens are eligible to serve in the country’s armed forces and reserves. But Taiwan generally does not permit dual citizenship and requires foreign nationals who want to take Taiwanese citizenship to relinquish their own citizenship first.

There are numerous reasons why a lot of foreigners living in Taiwan are reluctant to do this.

The policy creates all sorts of needless obstacles for them in their everyday lives. But it also means that there is a huge group of residents that are unable to contribute to society as they might like to. This includes defending the country they live in in its hour of need.

Everyone understands the inherent caution around Chinese citizens becoming Taiwanese citizens given the threat China poses to this country. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify excluding all foreign workers just to mitigate this risk.

When it comes to joining Taiwan’s reserves, if there are foreign workers who are ready and willing to enroll, Taiwan should be willing to look at them on a case-by-case basis now and, with proper due diligence, decide which to allow to sign up and which to exclude.

It is also high time that Taiwan took a fresh look at its broader citizenship requirements and reconsidered its almost blanket ban on dual citizenship.

There might be a case for having one rule for Chinese citizens and one for people from other countries. There might be a case for having stringent residency requirements and perhaps a need to be married to a Taiwanese citizen to be eligible. But there has to be a better solution than the current inflexible arrangements.

A lot of people love Taiwan, want to spend their lives here, and are willing to fight to defend it. Not all of them are Taiwanese citizens.

The invasion of Ukraine has made many people in Taiwan reconsider how we would respond to an invasion ourselves. The time is right to look again at the question of citizenship to ensure we can all do our bit if the worst happens.