TAIPEI - Taiwan Air Force Staff Sergeant Jiang Pin-shiuan's pitch to freshmen at Taipei's Tamkang University seemed compelling: join the island's armed forces and get a state-sponsored degree, 110 days of leave each year and annual savings of 312,500 Taiwan dollars (S$13,964.84).
But many listening students showed little interest, arguing national service was a "waste of time" and prospects of the self-ruled island standing up economically or militarily to an increasingly aggressive China were slim.
"China could simply crush Taiwan with its economic power. There's no need for a war, which wastes money," said 18-year-old Chen Fang-yi, an engineering major. "I do not have much confidence and expectation for the national army."
From lectures in universities and high schools across the island, life-size dancing dolls to a flash mob performance by a special forces unit, Taiwan's military is working hard to recruit soldiers as it moves to a fully volunteer force after decades of conscription.
Taiwan vowed in 2011 to phase out conscription to cut costs and boost the professionalism of its forces as it tries to better deter the Chinese threat through enhanced cyber warfare capabilities and other high-tech weapons.
The island's Defence Ministry said it will be able to reach a target of enlisting 81 per cent of the estimated 188,000 volunteer troops needed to defend against any attack by Beijing by year-end. It hopes to raise that to 90 per cent by 2020.
Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as a wayward province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it to heel.
But military experts and government auditors say recruitment is proving challenging and the growth in voluntary recruitment isn't fast enough to catch up with a worsening military imbalance across the strait.