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The Taiwan Paradox: Preparing For War And Ready To Do Business With China

Large segments of Taiwan seem underprepared or indifferent when it comes to the possibility of Chinese invasion. But some are actively preparing, using Ukraine as a role model.

Taiwanese tanks fire cannons during a live-fire drill in Pingtung county, Taiwan, on Sept. 7 2022.

Taiwanese tanks fire cannons during a live-fire drill in Pingtung county, Taiwan.

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA Press Wire
Lucie Robequain

TAIPEI — Hsu has just completed the required four months of military service in Taichung, central Taiwan . He had spread the training over the course of the past four years, training for one month every year. “Many guys go there during the summer. It’s like a summer camp: we go to a shooting range, we make friends,” he explains.

Yet these words seem somehow strange, incongruous, as his country is threatened by one of the most powerful armies in the world. “There is a kind of collective denial toward the Chinese threat. Many still think that the possibility of an invasion, in the short or medium term, remains very unlikely,” says Raymond Sung, a political expert based in Taipei.

In Taiwanese companies too, people remain overly confident . "What’s the point of worrying? Taiwanese are working on the technologies of the future! Thinking about war would just distract them," argues Miin Chyou Wu, head of Macronix, a company that makes memory cards.

Though relatively rare, some companies are even expanding in China . That’s the case with Delta, a Taiwanese flagship that produces equipment essential to a green energy transition (including charging stations and solar panels). Based in the outskirts of Taipei, not far from the Keelung River, Delta recently bought new land last May in Chongqing, southwest China. Their goal is now to expand their electric generator factories.

“We’re not very worried: we know that we won’t be the ones who will solve the conflict with Beijing," says Alessandro Sossa-Izzi , the head of Delta’s communication team. "But our grandchildren’s grandchildren will."

Of course, the Taiwanese government is more concerned .

“Our fear is that China would invade Taiwan so that people would forget Beijing’s internal struggles . If China’s economic growth slows, if social protests worsen, it’s actually bad news for us,” explains Joseph Wu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Unless you work at the Chinese government, it’s impossible to know what is happening there. The only certain thing is that Xi Jinping’s military defense is getting stronger .”

Trouble with deliveries

Taiwan has also resolved to increase its military capability, but with a reluctance that worries some experts. “Maybe there is some kind of intention, on the military side, of not doing too much. Maybe what they fear is to feed panic and threaten China," says Mathieu Duchâtel, head of the Asia section of the Montaigne Institute in Paris.

Military spending seems low, given the tension engulfing Taiwan . The country is investing about 2% of its gross domestic product, which is roughly the same as most Western countries. “We cannot do much more than that because then we would have to raise taxes. And two years from the next presidential elections, no political party would take such a risk,” explains Raymond Sung.

For Taiwan, the issue is not about economics, explains I-chung Lai, president of the Prospect Foundation, a government counselor on defense matters.

“We have all the money we need, but we just are not able to get the weapons delivered,” Lai says.

Despite messages of solidarity offered by Western countries, none have responded to the island’s demands. The U.S. has refused to deliver the latest combat aircraft (the famous F-35) despite an official request from the Taiwanese government. They will therefore have to settle with their fleet of older F-16 aircraft.

Help from the West

The United Kingdom is the only country that has agreed to train Taiwanese soldiers on its soil. While Taiwanese are welcomed in UK schools and think-tanks, they have no official contact with the British army. And Taiwanese defense officials say there is no hope of help from Germany and the Netherlands because of fear of Chinese retaliation.

Lacking those international partnerships , Taiwan has decided to achieve the unthinkable: to build their own ships and their own fighter aircrafts. “The Western world helps us quietly. They don’t want to deal with any problem with China,” says Lai. "This won’t happen in the course of a few months. We think that we will be able to build our own aircrafts in two or three years."

Inspired by the success of similar initiatives in Ukraine, Taiwan is also relying on its population to ensure its own defense and, if necessary, set up a coastal defense brigade. The training is being funded by one of the island's tycoons, Robert Tsao, who is investing to train three million civilian fighters.

On a Saturday morning, in a basement behind a church in central Taipei, we got to meet them.

There, almost 50 of those fighters-in-training listen religiously to instructions on how to react to a Chinese invasion , depending on the nature of the attack. The youngest is 13; the oldest is 70. And they are not learning how to use weapons, but how to defend their families as best they can. “We explain to them how to apply a tourniquet, how to help your family evacuate, how to find a shelter and guarantee that you will have enough water,” explains Ho Cheng-hui, co-founder of the Kuma Academy.

Taiwan's greatest vulnerability

One two-hour class also focuses on cyberattacks . And for a good reason: most experts think that a Chinese attack will start with an Internet attack. “Taiwan is already the country that suffered the highest number of cyber-attacks in the world,” explains the Foreign affairs minister, Joseph Wu.

The issue of cyber-attacks is quite important for Taiwan, and the country even created a new Ministry of Digital Affairs last August. Yet it still remains strangely indifferent to what constitutes its greatest vulnerability: its energy dependency. 99% of Taiwan’s needs are met by imports.

Liquefied natural gas alone constitutes a third of its supplies, and the country only stores up to a 10-day reserve.

If China imposes a trade blockade, the island may therefore not be able to hold out for long.

"We are going to increase our reserves to last two weeks, and even three in the long term,” promises Kung Ming-hsin, Minister of National Development. "And if necessary, we will reduce our electricity consumption," he adds, at the risk of stopping the production of semiconductors that power the entire planet.

Offshore wind turbines have been hastily built in Taichung, in the Taiwan Strait — the very place where the Chinese would land if they launched an invasion by sea. Built a few hundred meters from the beaches, they obstruct the horizon and force fishermen to seek fish elsewhere. "We had problems, and nets had to be cut, but things are better now,” explains a park official.

But to revive the country's nuclear reactors is out of the question. The island is regularly swept by typhoons and the Fukushima accident traumatized its population. Taiwan thus relies on renewable energies to ensure its autonomy. Yet many considered this strategy as suicidal.

The island also utterly depends on its submarine cables, especially for their Internet network. They are now betting on satellite networks: “We have just applied to access Elon Musk’s network, Starlink ,” says Ning Yeh, the vice-minister of digital affairs. This network saved the Ukrainian army early during the conflict with Russia, he explains.

No international recognition

One thing is clear, at least: Taiwan’s role model is Ukraine . The island hopes to prove, too, that David can fight and win against Goliath. Still, it must contend with a major disadvantage not shared by any other country in the world: Taiwan is not recognized by the international community. Only 14 countries recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and it is not even recognized by the UN, which stripped the island of its seat in 1971 and gave it to Beijing.

Support for Ukraine is based on the United Nations Charter, and the right of UN members to defend a sovereign state. But this is not something that’s replicable in Taiwan.

In that particular context, would Western countries risk supporting the Taiwanese? It is true that Americans leave little doubt about their determination, but it remains uncertain what Europeans would do.

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Updated November 29, 2023 at 12:00 p.m.

As a key proponent of expanding the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara became the target of much the ire of the U.S. anti-war movement. He finally resigned after being the longest serving Secretary of Defense.

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