July 14, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Older, shorter, female or even foreign — US allies in Asia are looking beyond their traditional military recruitment profile to secure enough troops and handle the growing security challenges posed by China and North Korea.

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Japan and the Philippines each have simmering territorial disputes with China, while a wider swath of countries including Australia and South Korea shares concerns about the economic devastation that could be wrought if they lose access to key sea lanes.

For all of them, Russia’s war on Ukraine has served as a reminder that an alliance with the US may not be enough to thwart possible attacks. In particular, it’s highlighted the sheer number of boots on the ground, not just equipment, needed in the event of such aggression. Yet some Asian countries, most notably Japan, face a shrinking pool of young recruits even as they fret over a possible contingency involving the huge armies boasted by some of their neighbors.

Taiwan is throwing its net wider for compulsory military service. From May it included 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. Next year, it will extend the length of service to a year from the current four months.

In South Korea, which is struggling with the world’s lowest birthrate, there’s been talk of whether to conscript women as well as men. Officials deny such a plan, though it would potentially double its pool of recruits. Australia allows experienced foreign soldiers to join its armed forces.

Japan has neither mandatory service nor a flow of willing immigrants to count on. Its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, has seen applications fall.

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. The SDF raised the maximum age for new recruits to 32 from 26 in 2018 but has still struggled to attract them.

“This is a big structural problem,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former director for East Asia at the US National Security Council, who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It will challenge in a significant way Japan’s ability to do all the things that it says it wants to do in its national defense strategy.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeatedly warned of the growing possibility of conflict in Asia. Spooked by Chinese missiles landing in what it deems its exclusive economic zone close to Taiwan, Japan last year dubbed its neighbor an “unprecedented strategic challenge” and pledged its biggest defense build-up since World War II. But a Defense Ministry advisory panel warned in a report in July that however much larger or more advanced its arsenal becomes, Japan will still need people to operate it.

“The war in Ukraine was a wake-up call both for the general public and for military planners,” said Andrew Oros, a politics professor at Washington College, who is researching a book on how the region’s graying populations affect their security. “Technology alone is not a solution to a shrinking standing military force.”

Not only are the numbers of young Japanese tumbling, but an ever-higher proportion are opting to attend university, meaning far fewer are willing to join the SDF after high school.

“If you join the private economy, you have more freedoms, your life is less at risk,” said Tom Le, author of Japan’s Aging Peace, and associate professor of politics at Pomona College in California. “Sony and Mitsubishi will also want that same labor.”

At an August introductory event for the SDF at Camp Nerima, a base in suburban Tokyo, cosmetics company employee Ryohei Kuroda said he’d long been interested in joining the armed forces.

“I had thought I wasn’t cut out for it and half given up,” he said, adding that he wasn’t put off by North Korean missiles or the Ukraine conflict and that the day-long event convinced him to apply. “I want to do something that makes people grateful.”

At the other end of the demographic spectrum, more members are being re-hired after retirement, a milestone that varies by rank. Many take on desk jobs, like Yasuhiro Matsuzaki, who switched to recruiting from teaching martial arts after reaching the official retirement age of 55 last year. Even in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, known for its physically demanding duties, more positions are being opened up to retirees. The maximum age for reserves for the lower ranks was raised to 54 in 2018 from the previous 36.

Yet another problem is image. Joining the SDF is seen as neither prestigious nor financially rewarding. While it is admired for its rescue work, those drawn to such efforts may find it easier to join the fire service, given the aversion to the military that has lingered since World War II. 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 71% in China.

Even in Taiwan, an obvious potential flashpoint for the region, there’s little enthusiasm for taking part.

“Young Taiwanese people don’t like to serve in the military as they think it’s a waste of time,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy.

Some governments are trying to improve the military’s appeal by bolstering pay and other conditions. Australia this year announced an AU $50,000 ($31,800) bonus for those who commit to stay on for three years beyond an initial period of service.

“There’s competition for a very limited set of skills and potential recruits,” said Euan Graham, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Finding and retaining crew for the country’s planned fleet of nuclear submarines will be “particularly challenging,” he added.

Japan’s latest recruitment brochure emphasizes long holidays, work-life balance and even jobs for people who aren’t confident they have the physical stamina for the armed forces. The defense ministry has sought to upgrade housing offered to SDF members and its budget request for next year includes items like cash to improve internet access on ships and submarines, alleviating isolation for the sailors.

The SDF is also hoping to attract more women, although this may prove difficult given its reputation for harassment. A probe prompted by a high-profile sexual assault allegation uncovered 1,325 cases of harassment, according to a report published in August.

Major Fumitoshi Sato, a 62-year-old working for the ground forces as an auditor at headquarters in Tokyo, said conditions had improved since he joined in 1985. In an interview, he described past working conditions as exploitative.

“There used to be a lot of power harassment and sexual harassment,” said Sato, who was rehired after his official retirement and plans to stay on to age 65. “Now they are really trying to create an atmosphere where that’s unacceptable. I think it’s a good policy.”

In a potential longer-term strategy, Japan could shift the weighting of its forces from ground troops toward the maritime and air arenas where it faces more immediate threats, according to Johnstone. Even as Chinese vessels are an almost constant presence around disputed islands in the East China Sea, ground forces make up more than 60% of the total of about 230,000 SDF personnel. A shift, however, would take time.

“You can’t take a soldier and tomorrow say they are a sailor,” Johnstone said.

Ultimately, deterring China by presenting a united front with the US and other regional partners should be prioritized over planning how to fight, according to Toshiyuki Ito, a retired vice-admiral who’s now a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology.

“Talking about numbers of personnel and what happens if a war breaks out is important, but we need to figure out how to prevent a war,” he said. “We have to make them realize that if they do something, not just the US, but Japan, South Korea and Australia will fight together and crush them.”

–With assistance from Yuki Hagiwara, Cindy Wang, Ben Westcott and Philip Heijmans.

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