Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has forced Taiwan to face the specter of a surprise attack from the island’s largest and most powerful neighbour: China.
The invasion gave new weight to the authoritarian vision of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has long demanded autonomy for Taiwan in order to “rejuvenate” China — much as Russian President Vladimir Putin has done with Ukraine. For many in Taiwan, Ukraine was a lesson in tactics and weapons that could slow down a more powerful invasion force. It was also a stark warning that the island might be ill-prepared for a large-scale attack.
By many accounts, Taiwan’s defenses were poorly equipped and manned. Its chief, Tsai Ing-wen, vowed to defend the island, but it struggled to impose a new strategic vision on uniformed leadership.
Taiwan spends billions on combat aircraft and submarines, yet its recruits barely get enough ammunition for training. Compulsory military service is seen by many as too short, and the reserve program is not strict enough. The military is building a professional force, but has struggled to recruit and retain highly skilled soldiers.
Now, Ukraine has been a driving force for change.
When Wu Quan-Sun, a computer engineer in Taipei, gathered with other army reservists in a dense, humid forest in central Taiwan in March, they trained longer and harder than soldiers like them had in recent years. Almost every day, he said, his leaders were reminding men that the threat from China was growing.
“Ukraine has shown us that you need to show others first that you have the determination to stand up for yourself; only then will others come and help,” said Wu, 31.
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Taiwan’s defensive dilemma lies in a question that it has deliberately left unanswered: Will the United States send military forces to aid Taiwan? In May, President Joe Biden suggested he would, but the United States does not offer any explicit security guarantees, a strategy it hopes to avoid provoking Beijing or encouraging Taiwan to declare formal independence.
Xi said he is seeking a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, and he may be deterred by the massive economic and diplomatic setback that China will suffer due to the invasion. But China also noted in its warnings. Its defense minister, General Wei Fengyi, said over the weekend that Beijing would “fight to the end” for Taiwan. It sends fighter jets toward the island almost daily — including 30 in a single day last month alone.
The concern is that such maneuvers could, intentionally or unintentionally, be a precursor to conflict.
“We can’t wait,” said Michael Tsai, Taiwan’s former defense minister. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine happened in an instant—who knows when the People’s Liberation Army might choose to invade Taiwan.”
Many of the military exercises conducted in January were intended as a show of force for China – to show how Taiwan plans to prevent invaders from storming its airspace, landing on its shores and, in the worst case, capturing its cities.
At an air base in central Taiwan, the siren sounded, and within minutes the pilots were taking off in F-16 fighter jets to fend off intruders. Off the northern coast, the Navy first launched a new mine boat as two small warships fired live ammunition. In a southern city, smoke filled the air as soldiers trained for urban combat wandered past the fake storefronts of bubble tea shops and cafes, exchanging gunfire with fighters.
The exercises also reflected the continuing conflict at the heart of Taiwan’s defense strategy.
The original idea, after national leaders fled to Taiwan in 1949, was to one day restore the mainland. For decades, even as that possibility faded, Taiwan moved closer to the threat of an invasion by China by purchasing or developing expensive conventional weapons, such as the combat aircraft on display at the air base. But Taiwan has been overtaken by China, which has invested heavily to build what is now one of the largest armies in the world.
Given the growing imbalance, US officials and some Taiwanese strategists have recently accelerated efforts to push Taiwan instead to stockpile a large number of small arms. This includes ships in exercises that can quickly lay naval mines to fend off forces trying to land.
Advocates of the strategy argue that Taiwan, like Ukraine, can easily deploy Stinger missiles, which can be shoulder-fired on aircraft, and Harpoon missiles, which can attack ships. Unlike large tanks and battleships, it is difficult to target and destroy.
Lee Hsi-min, a former chief of the Taiwan Navy and chief of the General Staff, who has been among Taiwan’s most vocal supporters of the so-called asymmetric approach, said.
An all-out assault on Taiwan, involving air, sea and land forces, would be more complex than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but some US and Taiwanese defense officials believe Beijing will be able to pull it off in the coming years.
The hope is that if deterrence fails, the so-called Porcupine strategy could allow Taiwan to buy time for the United States to provide potential assistance. Tsai Ing-wen said in 2019 that Taiwan would be able to hold out for 24 hours and that China would then face international pressure.
Tsai has purchased Harpoon missiles and other weapons in line with the strategic shift, but is facing resistance from some military leaders. They argue that small arms are not useful for standing up to China in visible ways. Military leaders say long-range missiles capable of hitting the mainland could deter Beijing. Fighter planes can respond when Chinese forces are flying close to Taiwan. The larger platforms are also politically popular.
In the event that China invades, Taiwan’s defenses will almost certainly collapse unless the United States and its allies help. Some in Taiwan find it too risky to give up their most dangerous weapons without concrete promises of support.
“We cannot be sure that the United States will come to our rescue,” said O Si Fu, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think-tank affiliated with the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense. Hence, Taiwan needs some offensive capabilities. Otherwise, you tie your hands and wait for death.”
Last fall, Hu Yue Hwan, 25, reported for his mandatory military service, and was eager to learn how to defend his homeland. What he found was not a camp but a summer camp.
When he and his fellow enlisted men ran, the pace was determined by the slowest man, who tired after 100 yards. They spent hours weeding and sweeping. He, a half-marathon runner, said four months of service left him 13 pounds heavier and in “the worst shape of my life.”
With Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s, newly elected officials slashed defense budgets, eroding power. Taiwan has only about 169,000 active-duty personnel and about 2 million reservists, compared to the 2 million active-duty soldiers in China.
Island leaders seek to end conscription for a professional force of volunteers. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement that it achieved more than 95% of its recruitment goals last year. But experts say the military’s authoritarian legacy, along with relatively low wages, has made it difficult to attract skilled recruits.
Combat training has also been widely criticized as being routine, both for men over 18 in compulsory service, such as Hu Jintao, and for reservists. Three decades ago, recruits had to train for up to three years and run about 3 miles a day. Now, they serve four months and run less than 2 miles a day, if at all, according to experts and new trainees.
Colonel Sun Li-fang, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, said the fitness requirements for recruits had been relaxed in line with scientific guidance, and the military had to take safety into account when designing its training.
Tsai’s administration is considering extending the military service to a year. It’s testing a two-week refresher program for reservists instead of one, with more hours spent in combat training.
Wu, a computer engineer, was among the first to take part in the new program. In addition to shooting exercises, Wu said, he and other reservists took a trip on mountain roads to test the group’s ability to carry heavy weapons for long periods of time. By the end, Wu said, he felt ready for war.
“As long as I have a gun,” he said, “I’ll be fine.”
On Taiwanese talk shows, critics and officials discuss the possibility of a Chinese invasion. In the legislature, lawmakers are concerned about the readiness of Taiwanese forces. In message groups, activists discuss ways to engage the public in defending the island.
The new urgency reflects a sharp change in attitudes in Taiwan, where many have long been indifferent to China’s progress, succumbed to defeat or blindly optimistic about support from the United States.
Tsai sought to take advantage of the conflict in Ukraine to advance her agenda. She appointed a team of experts to study Ukraine’s strategy. The question is whether it can push through potentially unpopular changes, such as increasing military spending, currently at just over 2% of Taiwan’s GDP.
“We cannot view the suffering of the Ukrainian people as just news,” said Alexander Huang, a professor at the Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. “It should be a lesson we have to learn.”
Lee, a former navy chief, and others have urged Taiwan to create a regional defense force made up of civilians, similar to the one in Ukraine.
Enoch Wu, founder of the Forward Alliance, a non-governmental group that conducts civil defense workshops, said a trained civilian force could be the “spearhead” in defending Taiwan. “This is what will make or break Taiwan.”
Some citizens make their own preparations.
On a recent Saturday, about two dozen people simulated a gunfight in a parking lot near Taipei in a classroom run by PolarLight, a company that teaches basic first aid and shooting skills, using realistic plastic rifles. They crept around parked cars and buses, aiming their plastic rifles at imaginary opponents. Some fell to the ground, while others rushed to take them to safety and apply a tourniquet.
Danny Shi, a 21-year-old student at a military academy, said he signed up because he was worried he wasn’t getting enough work experience in school. He said he wanted to be prepared for the worst.
“As a Taiwanese person, I think we should be more serious about preparing for war,” he said.