5 min read.Updated: 21 Oct 2021, 08:44 PM ISTChao Deng, The Wall Street Journal
Residents of the self-ruled island are used to living in the shadow of an authoritarian regime, but rising tensions with China are stoking uncertainty for some
Since she was a child, Angela Ou has known to hide under a table and stay near a source of clean water if an earthquake strikes Taiwan. She is much less certain about how to respond to a Chinese attack.
“Where would you even hide?" the 23-year-old graduate student asked. “I don’t know."
For decades, residents of Taiwan have paid far more attention to the threat of natural disasters than to the possibility of a military conflict with nearby China. Recently, however, the specter of a Chinese invasion has begun to take on a more seismic proportion in the minds of many of the island’s 23 million people—some of whom worry they aren’t sufficiently prepared.
Since the start of October, China’s People’s Liberation Army has sent about 150 warplanes, including jet fighters and bombers, near Taiwan—a record-breaking show of force that has alarmed Western governments and prompted Taiwan’s air force to scramble jets in response.
The Chinese government, which regards Taiwan as a part of China and has vowed to take control of the democratically self-ruled island by force if necessary, has said only that the flights were aimed at discouraging Taipei from pursuing formal independence. The absence of a more detailed explanation has left military strategists and ordinary people alike in Taiwan guessing about whether Beijing is blowing hot air or preparing for an actual attack.
The blitz of sorties is the latest in a series of escalations that has increased suspicion of China’s Communist Party among Taiwanese people and introduced more uncertainty on an island where many, like Ms. Ou, have previously spent little time contemplating the possibility of war.
Although most people in Taiwan have a positive view of Chinese people, a record proportion, 70%, now have negative views of China’s government, up from 61% two years ago, according to a poll released in recent days by United Daily News, a newspaper associated with the opposition Nationalist party that supports closer relations with China.
Some people in Taiwan were growing concerned over the prospect of a Chinese invasion even before this month’s PLA flights, according to another survey conducted in May by the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The poll results, published last week, showed that roughly 58% of respondents worry about a war with China, with 46% saying Chinese leader Xi Jinping is more likely to attack Taiwan than he was five years ago.
“I don’t think it’s very likely right now, but we must prepare seriously," said Issac Wang, a 51-year-old film producer. “Taiwan itself must fight."
Mr. Wang served in the Taiwanese military on Gaodeng, an outlying island 6 miles from the Chinese mainland where Taiwanese strategists in the mid-1990s believed Chinese troops would attack first. Mr. Wang said he is ready to take up arms again, if someone would tell him where to pick up a gun and bullets.
Liu I-Chen, a 27-year-old policy analyst for the New Power Party, which grew out of a 2014 protest movement against government plans to expand Chinese investment in Taiwan, recently started a study group with his friends to better understand the island’s defense strategy.
“We’re trying to point out that there’s no plan for civilians at the moment," he said. The government should do more to prepare Taiwanese people to respond to a military crisis, he argues.
Kolas Yotaka, a spokeswoman for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, said there is an element of psychological warfare to the PLA’s provocations.
“We don’t want to play into that. It doesn’t mean we are not prepared," she said. Ms. Tsai defends Taiwan’s sovereignty and “the basic rights of Taiwanese people," she added.
Grilled about efforts to provide civilians with more information during a legislative session earlier this month, Taiwan’s defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng pointed to the ministry’s plans to establish a new reserve mobilization agency that would help government agencies work better together. At the same session, Ma Jia-long, the deputy director of the ministry’s mobilization office, said it was soliciting expert opinions to produce an emergency manual that would be completed by March 2022.
In the central city of Taichung, 35-year-old software engineer Marros Lai isn’t waiting for advice from the government. After then-U.S. President Donald Trump increased pressure on Beijing by sending high-level envoys to Taipei last year, Mr. Lai decided to begin stockpiling supplies. His family’s kitchen now has three months’ worth of food in the event a missile strike forces people to shelter at home.
“It’s a much higher probability now," he said, noting there’s a military base located just a few miles from his home. “Most Taiwanese just don’t want to talk about it because there’s a sadness to it all."
Many in Taiwan argue Beijing has plenty of reasons to restrain itself, from the hit to China’s economy and international reputation that would likely result from an invasion, to doubts about the PLA’s willingness to mount a logistically tricky assault across the Taiwan Strait.
Still others question how meaningful it is to spend time fretting over the threat posed by China given the immense military power imbalance. China said in March that it would increase military spending by 6.8%, to $208 billion for 2021—more than 13 times the size of Taiwan’s military budget.
“There’s no point being worried," said Lin Wen-rui, a 52-year-old restaurant owner in Taipei and father of two grown children. Dunking a bag of vegetables into boiling water on a recent evening, he said he was more worried about the effects of the pandemic on his business and thinks the Taiwanese government should moderate its talk of freedom to avoid provoking China.
“Do you think they won’t come over just because you say so?" he asked, referring to the PLA. “Impossible."
Surveys show that a majority of Taiwanese say they are willing to fight for Taiwan if Beijing were to attack, though strategists caution that it’s difficult to predict how many would take up arms if an actual conflict were to break out.
A poll by Taiwan’s state-funded research institute Academia Sinica, conducted in May, found that roughly 45% of local respondents see the Chinese government as an enemy of Taiwan, up from 25% in 2018.
“People in Taiwan have been feeling the hostility from Xi Jinping’s government," said sociologist Chen Chih-Jou, who led the survey.
For the small communities scattered on Taiwan’s outlying territories near the Chinese mainland, the pressure from China has grown impossible to ignore, residents said. This summer, Chinese fishing boats have turned up near the Matsu Islands, an archipelago roughly 10 miles off the coast of China’s Fujian province that’s home to 13,000 people. The boats’ green lights, used to attract squid, cast an eerie glow in the night sky.
“We feel pretty helpless," said 35-year-old Liu Zeng-ya, who runs a hostel converted from a military barrack in Matsu’s Nangan township.
Ms. Ou, the graduate student, said she’s more focused on her master’s thesis, which examines the challenges Taiwanese women face from their employers in taking menstrual leave, than on the prospect of war. She said she struggles to envision missiles raining down on Taipei’s glass skyscrapers.
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