Growing up in Hualien, where half a dozen military bases guard Taiwan east coast, the boys became accustomed to the sounds and sights of war preparations that seemed to last forever. Airtight windows in schools blocked out the boom of F-16 fighter jets, and military trucks shared the road with mopeds. Wang and his friends practiced shooting BB guns and played survival games.
As they realize war is closer than they thought, their games have evolved into the fundamentals of civil defense. “Taiwan is one of the most dangerous places in the world,” the 17-year-old said, sitting in an air-gun shop with two of his childhood friends, Liao Hong-yu, 17, and Chen Yi Hsiang, 18.
It’s a reality that’s dawning on more of the island’s 23 million people as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to “resolve the Taiwan question” grows in tandem with his desire to elevate China to the top of the global order. Xi’s pursuit of these objectives risks escalating into a larger military conflict that pits China against the US and its Asian allies. President Biden reiterated last month that American troops would defend Taiwan if China invaded, despite White House officials saying his remarks did not indicate a shift in the United States’ strategic ambiguity toward the island.
Xi is expected to win a third term next week, giving him a long reign and more leeway to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which includes unification with Taiwan through force or negotiation.
For decades, Chinese leaders have promised to take Taiwan, where Kuomintang military forces and hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled following their 1949 defeat by the Chinese Communist Party and establish a rival government (CCP). Generations of Chinese students have been taught that Taiwan is an indestructible part of their country, separated only by a historical accident. That is no longer mere propaganda under Xi.
“He doesn’t think of it as a slogan. “It’s an action plan that must be carried out,” said Chang Wu-uh, a Tamkang University professor specializing in cross-strait relations and a government adviser in Taiwan. In the past, politicians and other authorities talked about unions as a goal for the far-off future. It’s now number one on the agenda.”
Since China stopped shelling Taiwan’s offshore islands in the 1970s, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have only grown more distant. While Taiwan evolved into a multiparty democracy and its citizens increasingly identified as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, Beijing’s insistence that the island, which the CCP has never administered, be recognized as part of China has grown louder in recent years.
China has cut off official communication with President Tsai Ing-Taiwanese wen’s government. ending years of exchanges and economic cooperation that Chinese officials hoped would lead to unification and Taiwan officials hoped would prevent conflict.
Chinese military aircraft are now ignoring the strait’s median line, an unofficial border that both sides have largely respected for decades. Taiwanese farmers and businesses face export bans, while Beijing officials threaten “resolute punishment” for anyone seen as supporting Taiwan’s independence. A sweeping national security law has crushed civil society and much of the city’s autonomy in Hong Kong, the model for the “one country, two systems” formula that China proposes for Taiwan.
Taiwanese voters re-elected Tsai in a landslide in 2020 after she highlighted Hong Kong’s fate as a reason to reject Beijing’s overtures. Xi, who turns 70 next year, now has fewer options for completing his mission peacefully, raising the possibility that Beijing will resort to military action. He has called unification “inevitable” and stated that force will be used if necessary.
Tsai was equally steadfast in a speech commemorating Taiwan’s National Day on Monday. She stated that the majority of Taiwanese citizens share her view that “we must safeguard our national sovereignty as well as our free and democratic way of life.” “There is no room for compromise.”
Taiwan’s defense minister stated earlier this month that any incursion into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese military aircraft or drones would constitute a “first strike,” which the ministry previously defined as an artillery and missile attack.
That warning took on new meaning for residents of Hualien, a picturesque coastal town closer to Japan than to China, as the seemingly distant tensions of the Taiwan Strait landed on their doorstep.
In August, in response to the U.S. During House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, the People’s Liberation Army fired missiles over Taiwan and conducted drills to simulate a blockade of the island, including firing missiles that landed in the sea off the coast of Hualien for the first time.
Taiwanese F-16 fighter jets’ once-regular intervals became unpredictable as planes roared day and night to intercept Chinese aircraft. When the drills began, Bao Jhih-Jia, 33, who runs a cafe in an old pillbox fortification, debated with his wife whether they should run or hide in the event of an attack.
“Of course, we oppose unification,” he said. Taiwan would lose a war right now.
Taiwan’s government has been accumulating military assets in Hualien and along the east coast since 2016, when relations with China deteriorated following Tsai’s election as leader of the Democratic Progressive People’s Party, which Beijing perceives as supporting Taiwan’s independence.
According to Kolas Yotaka, a former presidential spokesperson who is running for governor of Hualien county, new fighter aircraft are being stationed in Hualien, where a hangar built out of A mountain cave can shelter 200 jets from hostile rockets. According to government announcements, new reconnaissance drones and anti-ship missile systems will also be installed along the east coast.
Yotaka stated, “We can’t be foolish to think China won’t attack.” The front line is no longer just in the west, in Kinmen and Matsu,” she said, referring to Taiwan’s closer-to-China islands.
Taiwanese citizens are becoming more concerned about the possibility of war, inspired in part by Ukraine’s resistance to Russia. Former soldiers, politicians, and nongovernmental organizations hold self-defense and first-aid training sessions, as well as discussions about how a Chinese attack might unfold. In July, an annual four-day air raid drill was expanded to include some residents hiding in shelters.
Many believe that the question is when, not if, Beijing will follow through on its threats. Residents in Hualien, having witnessed the crushing of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, have little faith in Beijing’s promises of autonomy under a similar two-systems arrangement.
“Nothing they say is credible,” Liao stated.
An amphibious landing would be required for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, necessitating the transportation of massive numbers of soldiers, armor, and supplies across the notoriously rough, 100-mile-wide strait. Military experts say the People’s Liberation Army is not yet equipped to pull it off, despite China’s growing military capacity.
While Taiwan’s presidential election next year may influence Beijing’s calculations, Taiwanese national security officials and government advisers point to two specific dates on the calendar. According to congressional testimony last year by the then-commander of the US Pacific Command, the Chinese military may be capable of launching a full-fledged attack on Taiwan by 2027. Adm. Philip Davidson, Indo-Pacific Command Xi’s target deadline for realizing China’s “great rejuvenation” is 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
“We don’t have much time to prepare, and our resources are far inferior to China’s.” “There is a severe imbalance,” said Lee Hsi Ming, former chief of staff of Taiwan’s armed forces.
Xi is constrained by the fact that an attack would be a huge risk, potentially involving China in a costly war with the US. Despite increasingly aggressive posturing, Beijing has taken steps to keep tense US-China relations from deteriorating. Xi and Biden are expected to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summits in November, after speaking by phone before Pelosi’s visit.
Xi has other options besides launching a full-scale attack. These include increasing sanctions against Taiwanese companies, escalating gray-zone tactics — coercive actions that avoid conflict but exhaust the island’s military — and further isolating Taipei on the global stage.
“They want to curtail Taiwan’s sovereignty until Taiwanese say, ‘Our lives aren’t going to get any better unless we become portions of mainland China more pressure, Taiwanese people see themselves as becoming increasingly distinct from those across the strait — and, as a result, less willing to accept People’s Republic rule. According to an annual survey conducted by National Chengchi University, after the PLA fired missiles close to Taiwan in March 1996 in retaliation for then-President Lee Teng-visit hui’s to the United States, the percentage of people who identified solely as Taiwanese increased to 34% in 1997 from 25% the previous year. Following the crackdown on Hong Kong, those expressing Taiwanese identity reached 64% by 2020.
Investigative reporter and host of the podcast “One Story in Taipei” Liya Chen has observed that “every time Taiwanese people face China’s provocations, it merely adds to a sense of antagonism – that we are not the same.”
For teenagers Wang, Chen, and Liao, the response to a call to fight China is simple: they would have no choice.
They believe that war is possible in their lifetimes, based on China’s efforts to put pressure on Taiwan and the risks of their homeland being caught between two major powers, China and the United States.