As the Chinese regime issues threats, Taiwan questions whether it is ready for war and rethinks its military strategy

Civilians participate in a battle simulation during a combat medic training workshop near Taipei in May (photos by Lam Yik Fei/New York Times)

Russia’s cruel war in Ukraine has led to Taiwan to confront the ghost of a sudden attack by the largest and most powerful neighbor of the island: China.

The invasion has given renewed prominence to the authoritarian approach of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has long called for autonomous Taiwan to “strengthen” China, like what Russian President Vladimir Putin did with Ukraine. For many people in Taiwan, Ukraine has been a lesson in tactics and weaponry that could stop a more powerful invading force. It has also been a clear warning that the island may not be well prepared for a large-scale attack.

Taiwan’s defense forces are, in many ways, poorly equipped and understaffed. Its president, Tsai Ing-wen, has promised to defend the island, but she has struggled to impose a new strategic approach on the leadership of uniformed personnel.

Taiwan spends billions of dollars on fighter jets and submarines, but its conscripts don’t have the ammunition they need to conduct training.. Many people feel that the length of compulsory military service is too short and that the reservist program is not rigorous enough. The Army is building a professional force, but has struggled to recruit and retain well-trained soldiers.

Now, Ukraine has been an incentive to change.

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Rescue workers participating in an exercise simulating buildings and public transportation attacked by Chinese missiles in Hsinchu, Taiwan

When Wu Chiuan-syun, a computer scientist from Taipei, met fellow Army reservists in a dense, humid forest in central Taiwan in March, they trained longer and more intensely than similar soldiers had. in recent years. Almost every day, he commented, his commanders reminded them that the threat from China was growing.

Ukraine taught us that we must first show others that we are determined to defend ourselves, only then will they come to our aid”, explained Wu, 31.

What is fundamental in Taiwan’s defense problem is a question deliberately left unanswered: will the United States send military forces to Taiwan’s aid? In In May, President Joe Biden hinted that it would, but the United States offers no explicit security guarantees, which is a strategy to avoid upsetting Beijing or emboldening Taiwan to declare official independence.

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Rescue workers practiced moving a man playing the part of an injured victim in the mock attack exercise
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Warplanes preparing to take off at the Hsinchu military airbase in Taiwan. Beijing has been sending fighter jets and other military aircraft to the island almost daily.

Xi has said he wants a peaceful unification with Taiwan and may be held back by the huge economic and diplomatic repercussions that China would suffer if it carried out an invasion. But China has also been outspoken in warning him. Over the weekend, his defense minister, Wei Fenghe, said Beijing would “fight for Taiwan to the end.” Almost daily, he is sending fighter planes to the island, like the 30 planes he sent in just one day last month, for example.

The concern is that these maneuvers could be the prelude, intentionally or not, to a conflict.

We can not wait; we are against the clocksaid Michael Tsai, Taiwan’s former defense minister. “Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine happened in a moment… who knows when the National Liberation Army will decide to invade Taiwan.”

The ‘porcupine strategy’

Many military drills held in Taiwan in January were intended to demonstrate its strength to China; to show him how he planned to stop intruders from invading his airspace, landing on his beaches or, in the worst case scenario, invading his cities.

At an air base in central Taiwan, a siren sounded and within minutes pilots were taking off in F-16 fighter jets to repel intruders. On the north coast, the navy unveiled new mine-laying vessels while two small warships fired live ammunition. In one southern city, smoke billowed into the air as soldiers engaged in urban combat moved past the fake storefronts of bubble tea shops and coffee shops, exchanging fire with fighters.

These drills also reflected a persistent conflict at the core of Taiwan’s defense strategy.

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Soldiers stand guard outside a military facility at the end of a new and improved refresher training for reservists in March in Taoyuan City, Taiwan.

The original idea, after nationalist leaders fled to Taiwan in 1949, was to one day recapture the mainland. For decades, even as this possibility dimmed, Taiwan had addressed the threat of Chinese invasion by buying or developing expensive traditional weapons, such as the fighter jets deployed at the air base. But China, which spent a lot of money to build what is now one of the world’s largest armies, outperformed Taiwan.

Recently, seeing the growing imbalance, US officials and some Taiwanese strategists have accelerated efforts for Taiwan to accumulate a large number of smaller armswhich includes vessels such as the drill ships capable of rapidly laying mines to obstruct troops attempting to land.

Supporters of this strategy argue that Taiwan, like Ukraine, can easily deploy Stinger missileswhich can be fired from a soldier’s shoulder launcher at aircraft, and Harpoon man-portable missiles, which can attack ships. Unlike tanks and large ships, these are difficult to locate and destroy.

The idea is that they become so difficult to attack that the enemy thinks twice before taking action.said Lee Hsi-min, a former Taiwan Navy director and director of the general staff who is among Taiwan’s most notorious supporters of the so-called asymmetric approach.

An all-out attack on Taiwan, involving air, naval and ground forces, would be more complex than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but some Taiwanese and US defense officials believe Beijing would be able to pull it off in the next few years. .

It is hoped that if deterrence fails, the so-called porcupine strategy would buy Taiwan time for the United States to come to its aid. Tsai Ing-wei said in 2019 that Taiwan could hold out for 24 hours and then China would face international pressure.

Soldiers need to be trained better.

Last fall, 25-year-old Hu Yu-huan reported for his mandatory military service eager to learn how to defend his homeland, and what he found was not a training camp, but a summer camp.

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The reservists after completing a two-week refresher training program that officials say was more rigorous than in the past.
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A reservist is fired after completing Taiwan’s toughest upgrade program. The new program, which is still in a pilot phase, lasts two weeks instead of one and puts more emphasis on combat training.

When he and his fellow conscripts jogged, the pace was set by the slowest, who tired after jogging 300 feet. Hours were spent weeding and sweeping. Hu, who was a half-marathon runner, said that after those four months of service he was 7 kilograms heavier and in “the worst physical condition of my life.”

When Taiwan democratized in the late 1980s, newly elected officials cut the defense budget, leading to a downsizing of the Defense Force.. Taiwan has only about 169,000 active duty military personnel and about two million reservists, compared to China which has two million active duty soldiers.

The island’s leaders have sought to phase out conscription to have a professional, all-volunteer force. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that it had achieved more than 95 percent of its recruitment goals last year. But experts say the Army’s authoritarian legacy, coupled with relatively low pay, has made it difficult to attract skilled recruits.

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Participants in a combat medic training session skidded across a parking lot during a battlefield simulation

To a large degree, combat training has also been described as insubstantial, whether for males over 18 years of age doing compulsory military service, eg Hu, and other reservists. Three decades ago, conscripts had to train for up to three years and run approximately 5 kilometers a day. Now, according to experts and recent practitioners, they serve four months and run less than two miles a day, if that.

Sun Li-fang, a spokesman for the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense, said that the fitness-related requirements for conscripts were relaxed in line with scientific guidelines and that in designing their training, the Army had to take into consideration safety.

The Tsai government is considering extending the length of military service to one year. Now try an upgrade program for reservists that lasts two weeks instead of one and gives you more hours of combat training.

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Participants in a combat medic training session learned how to wrap bandages to stop a wound from bleeding

Wu, the computer engineer, was among the first to join the new program. According to Wu, in addition to target practice, he and other reservists hiked up mountain trails to test the group’s ability to carry heavy weapons for long periods. In the end, according to Wu, he felt ready for war.

“I’ll be fine as long as I have a gun,” he said.

Some citizens are preparing on their own. On a recent Saturday, about two dozen people simulated a shootout with highly realistic pneumatic weapons in a parking lot near Taipei in a class run by PolarLight, a company that teaches basic first aid and shooting skills. They sneaked around parked cars and buses, aiming their pneumatic rifles at imaginary opponents. Some people fell to the ground while others rushed to safety and applied tourniquets.

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Decades-old anti-landing barricades line the shoreline along a beach in Kinmen, an outlying island of Taiwan. The Chinese city of Xiamen is in the distance.

Danny Shi, 21, who attends a military academy, said he had enrolled because he was concerned he wasn’t getting enough hands-on experience at school. He mentioned that he wanted to be ready for the worst.

As a Taiwanese, I think we should take our preparation for war more seriously.“, he claimed.

© The New York Times 2022