Written by Daniel Jia.
Image credit: 總統視導「108年軍民聯合防空（萬安42號）演習」by Wang Yu Ching/ Flicker, license: CC BY 2.0.
Since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office as President of Taiwan in 2016, China is becoming more hostile than ever toward the self-ruled democratic island.
As China sees its chance of “reunification” with Taiwan through mutual consent is diminishing, taking Taiwan by force becomes China’s only option. The matter of China’s invasion is evolving from the “if” in the past to the “when” today. And it could happen sooner than any rational calculation would have predicted.
While trying to maintain the Taiwan Strait status quo (i.e. “No Unification, No Independence and No Use of Force”) by not using confrontational rhetoric, the Taiwanese government is actively preparing for the worst. These preparations include forming the All-Out Defense Mobilization Agency for mobilizing reservists in wartime and resuming the Covid-19-interrupted air-raid drills throughout the nation.
Three Major Obstacles
Despite these stepped-up defence measures, Taiwan might still not be fully ready for the fateful event. This lack of readiness is manifested at three levels: policy, military preparation, and public steadiness.
The first and most shortcoming is the lack of solidarity among political parties in China’s policy. While the ruling DPP stands firmly in the face of China’s coercive tactics, the largest opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) advocates a pacifistic China approach. The DPP vows to safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty, whereas the KMT envisages an ultimate reunification with China, as proclaimed by the KMT’s former chair Hung Hsiu-chu. The divergence between the two major political forces hit a new high following the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit, when the KMT insisted on sending a peace envoy to China on August 12 while China was accelerating its military provocations against Taiwan since early August. The DPP, joined by several other political parties, sharply criticized the KMT’s China stance. It is perceivable that the implementation of any counter-China policies would have to face tremendous obstacles from the pro-China camp.
Inadequate defence preparation also hampers Taiwan’s effective self-defence against China’s aggression. The strength of Taiwan’s Armed Forces is just over 200,000, as opposed to China’s 2.2 million active troops. Taiwan’s military power is further weakened by the drastically reduced time for conscripted military service, which is only four months (training included) at present, a time barely enough to make a naïve conscript familiar with basic military rules and common weaponry operations.
Taiwan has a 2.5 million military reserve force, but this backup force is not in better shape than the active troops. Under the current legislation, the reservists must only undergo a brief, five-to-seven-day training once every two years. And there are not enough weapons to transform it into a fully armed, combat-capable force.
The inadequacy of Taiwan’s armed forces for an effective defence was brought to light by a series of drone threats from China in recent days (e.g. on July 28, August 4, August 31, etc.), to which the Taiwanese defence forces responded with warning flares and shots to drive them away. Only after the President of Taiwan ordered strong measures against the drone threats did the military start to take meaningful actions by shooting down an invading drone.
The “drone events” revealed an alarming deficiency in Taiwan’s defence chain of command, i.e., a standard protocol for dealing with imminent threats from China (drone threat in this case) is not in place. Thus the front-line defence officers could not make discretionary decisions promptly until the Commander-in-Chief gave an order. Since China had been using drones to harass Taiwan for some time, this involuntary delay in front-line response could hardly be justified.
Taiwan has announced an annual increase in the defence budget by 14% for 2023, increased arms purchases from the U.S. in recent years to enhance its anti-ship and air-to-air missiles capability, and planned to deploy anti-drone defence systemsin 45 military bases by 2023. These actions would put Taiwan in a superior position in military technology over its potential Chinese invader. But high technology is only supplemental to human determination, not its substitute.
Last but not least, public sentiment differs from an “all-people total defence’ that Taiwan’s survival would depend on. In a poll conducted in May this year, among adults over 20 years of age, 61% of the respondents said that they were willing to take up arms to defend Taiwan in the event of China’s invasion. However, the number showed an alarming drop from a previous 72% polled in early February. In both polls, most of the respondents supporting the DPP’s Taiwan stance expressed their willingness to fight for Taiwan. In contrast, most respondents who share the KMT’s “reunification with China” doctrine chose not to fight. This divergence in public attitude towards defending Taiwan is based on political belonging rather than national identity.
The decline in the public willingness to defend Taiwan is accompanied by an even more alarming sentiment of defeatism and pessimism. For example, a poll conducted in June this year showed that 51% of the respondents did not believe that Taiwan could hold for more than 100 days should China launch an invasion. A seemingly possible explanation for the defeatism and pessimism is that 56% of the respondents did not believe that the U.S. military would take part in Taiwan’s defence against an invasion by China, and 78% believed that Taiwan by itself would not be able to avert a China occupation, as shown in a March poll.
No Need to Be Pessimistic?
Although these pessimistic views are understandable, they are wrong. First, while maintaining its strategic ambiguity policy, the U.S. has shown resolve to defend Taiwan in a way that has never been more unambiguous. With the presence of its Seventh Fleet during the Taiwan Strait crises in the past, the U.S. has kept Taiwan safe for over 70 years and will continue to do so to counter the threats from China.
Second, setting a fixed period for the course of defence could be as futile to the defending side as for the invading one, and Taiwan should avoid limiting its defence vigour with such an arbitrary time mark. Instead, Taiwan needs to have plans to turn China’s military timetable into a powerful psychological tool to disarm the morale of the invading Chinese troops and boost its defence spirit. In China, it has been widely speculated by military pundits and nationalism-heated public consensus that the invading Chinese Army could put Taiwan under complete control within 24 hours from the moment the invasion starts. If the Chinese troops failed to achieve what they expected within the first 24 hours of the invasion, they would have to face ambushes from the defending forces and the cursing home base. Its psychological burden would soon crush the invading troops.
Third, taking up arms to defend Taiwan by its citizens should not be conditional on the presence of the U.S. military. Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion is exemplary for a successful Taiwan defence. The Ukrainians showed the world their unwavering will to confront the Russian invaders when the international community was still shocked by the unprovoked invasion. The Ukrainians fought not because they had secured assistance from outside beforehand. It is quite the opposite: The international community sent aid to Ukraine after witnessing the bravery of the Ukrainians fighting for their land and lives. The same would apply to Taiwan’s defence. The U.S. and the free world can help Taiwan defend itself, but the Taiwanese must first show their courage and earn this helps with their bravery.
Should China decide to invade, the Taiwanese will have only two options: fight for freedom or accept the same fate as the Uighurs or the Hong Kong residents under China’s rule. During his visit to Taiwan in July this year, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the Taiwanese public through the press that in the event of a China’s invasion, Taiwan’s survival will depend on everybody, “every man, woman and child fighting not just to preserve their country but their lives.”
China is becoming so eager to take Taiwan under its iron-fisted rule that it no longer feels the need to disguise this intention with the so-called “Peaceful Unification” propaganda that had been in play in the past decades. This unquenchable thirst results from two self-assessments: China sees its economic carrots are losing attraction over Taiwan’s public, especially younger generations, who refuses to trade freedom for financial gain (let alone that the previously glossed-over traps of China’s economic miracle are being exposed). And China sees its military supremacy over Taiwan as waning, thanks to Taiwan’s increased defence capability under the encouragement from the U.S.
The same insecurity-driven decision-making was applied to Hong Kong in 2019 when China impatiently trashed Hong Kong’s autonomous status, which the Chinese government promised a peaceful 1997 handover of Hong Kong from London to Beijing.
Now, China is ready to apply its Hong Kong experience to Taiwan, only on a much larger scale and more brutal way. As a result, Taiwan’s invasion by China is more likely to be a real event than a hypothetical scenario in geopolitical debates.
To succeed in fending off a China invasion, Taiwan must step up a total defence preparation and overcome the three great obstacles outlined above.
Political leaders must strengthen the Taiwan-defending base and thin out the China-appeasing camp. One way to achieve this is to press the unification-supporting groups to disclose their unification conditions and bottom line clearly to the public.
Military leaders should treat future harassment from China as real threats and thus respond decisively instead of diplomatically. Shooting down a Chinese missile intended to fly over Taiwan’s territory, for instance, will deliver a much louder message to China than simply saying that Taiwan’s missile is capable of reaching Beijing.
To inspire the public’s spirit of guarding Taiwan against China’s totalitarian rule, the Taiwanese government must make great efforts to counter the Chinese propaganda that is trying to lure the Taiwanese to embrace the same path on which Hong Kong is now in a no-return spiral. What the public in Taiwan needs the most is uncensored reports about the mismanagement of China by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ruthless treatment of the people under its rule (e.g., the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the dissidents in China and Hong Kong), as opposed to the carefully picked rosy pictures presented to the public in the past.
Taiwan cannot afford to be failed by its political leaders.
Daniel Jia is founder of consulting firm DJ Integral Services. He writes analytical reports on public-related matters, with special focus on China-related cultural and political issues. There is no conflict of interest to be disclosed.