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Soldiers take part in training at an army base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, February 6 2024. Picture: ANN WANG/ REUTERS
Soldiers take part in training at an army base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, February 6 2024. Picture: ANN WANG/ REUTERS

Flanked by beaches and less than 5km from Taiwan’s main airport, the occupants of Zhuwei Fish Harbour, a small fishing port, are aware they could be on the front line of any Chinese invasion of the island.

“People know about it, but they don’t talk about it,” said one stallholder who gave her name only as Chen. “If it happens, we will either die or we will flee.”

When her two sons, now in their 30s, completed their mandatory national military training a decade ago, the prospect of war seemed far away. Heightened Chinese rhetoric and posturing, as well as events in Ukraine half a world away, make it feel much closer.

Last month, Taiwan enrolled a new tranche of conscripts who for the first time in over a decade will serve a full-year in uniform rather than the three months that was the norm.

Over the after eight weeks, the 670 officers and soldiers — called Army Batch 2226 — will undergo eight weeks of basic training in camps across Taiwan. The rest of the year will include a series of exercises the government believes will turn them into combat-ready soldiers.

If that can be achieved, it would be a major sea change in Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against a giant neighbour which regards the island as its “sacred territory”.

Conversations with residents on the island reveal concerns over Taiwan’s ability to fight, doubts that top ally the US might really intervene and as social fissures China is already looking to exploit.


For the first time, conscripts joining this year were stripped of Chinese-manufactured smartphones and other tech, a reminder of what analysts say are relentless efforts by China to penetrate the networks of its foes and build influence and insight ahead of any war.

Despite a range of reported Chinese attempts to threaten the island and affect the outcome, January’s presidential election was won relatively easily by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te, firmly committed to maintaining the status quo of Taiwanese democracy and de facto — but undeclared — independence.

Within Taiwan’s parliament, however, the DPP failed to gain an outright majority, giving considerable clout to the opposition Kuomintang — once the nationalist Chinese movement that established a parallel government on the island after losing the 1949 civil war against the communists, but which is now seen much more pro-Beijing.

Those who watch politics and social media say Beijing also has an outreach programme to Taiwan’s local political leaders, or “village elders”, elected by few thousand residents in reality often highly urban areas. That includes offering them and their voters free trips to the mainland, on which they are encouraged to record and post videos expressing how impressed they are with China’s infrastructure and economic vibrancy.

Such campaigns to promote what Beijing calls “reunification” have had only limited effect.

“Our generation in particular is very anti-China,” said Emily, a 24-year-old student in Taipei, citing Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, as particularly important in driving anti-China sentiment. An opinion poll published in November showed almost 78% of respondents do not believe Taiwan and China belong in the same country.

Almost 83% said they believed the threat from China had increased. The poll, conducted by at Taiwanese research institute Academia Sinica, also showed a significant fall in confidence that the US was a credible partner — only 34% said it was, down 11 percentage points from 2021.

Previous conscript complaints

In conjunction with US military trainers the Pentagon acknowledges to be on the island, Taiwan’s military has conducted a series of high-profile exercises designed to showcase its resilience.

If an attack comes, the Pentagon believes Beijing will want to seize the capital as fast as possible and isolate the island’s leadership — desperate to avoid Russia’s failure in Ukraine to do the same.

Stopping that would require rapid mobilisation on the island. Taiwan’s military claims an overall strength of about 200,000 and the ability to call up more than 2-million former conscripts if needed.

Talking to almost any adult male Taiwanese who has completed military service, however, reveals frustration with the quality of training, particularly a failure to simulate proper battle conditions and giving recruits pointless guard room tasks.

“I think I could just get in the way,” said one recent conscript of his military skills, suggesting that he would rather take part in unarmed civil defence in his own community.

According to media briefings from Taiwan officials, this year’s recruits should receive more thorough training — for the first time, there is talk of throwing grenades and of hands-on experience with the anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that proved so critical in Ukraine.

Whether that might be enough is another question. At present, previous conscripts receive no ongoing further training, nor do most say they have any information on how they might be recalled in time of war. Foreign journalists have highlighted non-military civilian groups preparing and keen to fight off an invasion, but they make up only a tiny minority.

While some see the commitment of most islanders to ignoring tensions and getting on with life as sensible, others worry an unwillingness to confront the threat may make an attack more likely.

Writing for the US-based National Defense website in December, Holmes Liao, a former lecturer at Taiwan’s War College, warned the latest hi-tech weapons delivered by the US were often locked up in storehouses. He described the armed forces as burdened by “unprofessionalism, defeatism and Chinese nationalism”.

For decades, US administrations have maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether Washington, Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier, would intervene militarily to protect the island. Suggestions that it would act have grown in recent years. These have included a major media briefing programme pointing to the repositioning of military stocks across Asia ready for any conflict.

Last month, however, Donald Trump muddied the waters when asked if he would protect Taiwan if re-elected to the White House. He accused the island of taking away US business in microchips, comments some took to question whether the US should defend the island after all.

‘No holiday’ from threat

An unclassified war game held last year by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested that a US intervention to defend Taiwan would ultimately be enough to defeat a concerted Chinese invasion, albeit with huge losses on all sides.

If they believed they would simply be abandoned by Washington and its allies, some Taiwanese say they would be much more likely to surrender. US officials, for their part, quietly acknowledge that considerable work must be done to build the credibility of Taiwan’s defences.

While Taiwan has installed anti-tank obstacles on some outlying islands facing China, the beaches around the capital remain apparently undefended.

Still, the island might yet prove tough for any attacking force. A report by the US Council on Foreign Relations this month pointed to its high cliffs, heavily wooded mountains and densely packed urban areas — particularly Taipei, home to seven million of Taiwan’s 23-million people — as all relatively easy to defend.

Taiwan’s special forces are dominated by members of its original indigenous community — ethnically more aligned to Indonesians or Pacific Islanders — who are the only significant population in Taiwan with their own weapons for hunting and could prove potent in organising an insurgency. Properly prepared, its tech-savvy urban youth could also show themselves adept at cyber and drone warfare.

Unpredictable weather will inevitably complicate any Chinese assault across the more than 90km of the Taiwan Strait, with attacking ships and aircraft vulnerable to missiles. Analysts advising Taiwan’s military say another important lesson from Ukraine is the value of integrating US intelligence-gathering aircraft and satellites into targeting.

Any war would take both China and Taiwan into uncharted territory. Taiwan’s population has experienced more than seven decades of peace, while China has not conducted a major war since an unsuccessful 1970s invasion of Vietnam.

No conflict has ever been conducted in a modern densely packed mega city, nor a location so central to the wider global economy.

Some Taiwanese experts say recent purges of commanders within the mainland Chinese military suggest Beijing will not be ready for invasion until the 2030s. US officials believe the attack could come much sooner. They have repeatedly warned that Chinese President Xi Jinping has instructed his armed forces to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.

Last week, Adm Samuel Paparo, newly promoted head of the US Pacific Fleet, told a congressional committee the Chinese military believes it could meet that deadline.

“There’s no holiday between now and when they may go — and we must be ready now, next week, next month and in the decades to come,” Paparo said.

Within Taiwan itself, many in the generation that might have to fight say they would rather not think about a conflict until it comes.

“Some people are determined, some are scared,” said one male student. “I am one of the scared ones.

• Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

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