A small group of soldiers dressed in green prepare on the hot sand. On the cargo floor of a military vehicle is a missile battery. The flame propels a small arrow across the sky. Seconds later, the burning remains of a drone fell into the sea.
– We’re ready. “We can protect this country and our citizens,” says Chi Han Pan.
The young soldier had just fired a Stinger anti-aircraft missile from the beach in Jioping, a desert area on the southern tip of Taiwan.
– To be honest, my heart and my hands were shaking. The combination of pressure and excitement made me extremely nervous. With great concentration, I was able to overcome my emotions and achieved the goal of the operation: hitting the target, as the soldier says.
As the thermometer moved toward 35 degrees, soldiers from the Taiwan Armed Forces shot down a number of drones and missiles over the sea. The goals dropped on this June day were not real. The shooting was an exercise against an imaginary opponent.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s potential enemy is very real. The People’s Republic of China – in the context of Taiwan, often referred to as mainland China – considers the island part of its territory. China regularly conducts military exercises near Taiwanese waters. Military activity around the island has increased in recent years.
– Suppose that a few decades in the future, I think the possibility of war between the United States and China is greater than no war, says Øystein Tonsjo, a professor at the Norwegian Defense Academy.
Many experts in defense and security policy agree with Tunsjø that an attack on Taiwan in the foreseeable future is likely. For many, it’s just a matter of time.
It is clear that Taiwan is among China’s ambitions. “I believe this threat will become a reality within this decade, within the next six years, in fact,” then-Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Philip Davidson, stated during a 2021 Senate hearing.
Preparations are visible
But on the island itself, people are more moderate. Representatives of the two largest parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Democratic Progressive Party, play down the threat posed by China.
– I do not think it is likely that China will attack in the near future, says Cai Shieh-ying, a member of parliament from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Cai Shieh-ying, Member of Parliament
For the ruling party DPP.
Official name: Republic of China
Population: 23.9 million
region: 36,179 square kilometers
official language: Chinese (Mandarin)
The Chinese Civil War between the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong ended with the expulsion of the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949.
Taiwan has never declared itself an independent state. Until 1971, Taiwan represented China at the United Nations, before it was replaced by the People’s Republic of China. The United States switched from recognizing Taiwan to the People’s Republic in 1979.
From 1949 to 1988, there was a state of emergency in Taiwan, a period known as the White Terror. The ban on opposition parties was lifted in 1989.
Source: The Great Norwegian Dictionary
– Both sides are very important economies. Both sides realize that a large-scale military conflict would have enormous consequences for the Asia-Pacific region and the entire economic system. Also, if you’re going to start a war, you have to have a reason. So far there is no reason, he continues.
At the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), a think tank with ties to the Taiwanese authorities, staff are careful not to overstate the risk of war.
– At the moment, I think that Chinese military activity around Taiwan is just intimidation and military pressure, because China is engaged in a form of hybrid warfare and to some extent war tactics, says Si Fu Au, a researcher at the National Research and Research Institute.
However, one cannot avoid being reminded of the danger of war when in Taiwan. Inside the INDSR grounds in the capital, Taipei, armed guards and armored vehicles stand ready should anything happen.
Si Fu Ou, INDSR researcher.
In Taipei, there are posters marking the entrances to shelters. Around the country’s air bases, Air Force pilots practice advanced maneuvers directly over rooftops. China’s military campaign in the waters surrounding the island is in the news daily.
Taiwanese military spokesman Li Fang-sen wrote in an email that it is impossible to rule out that the Chinese Communist Party will attempt an invasion, regardless of whether they are able to seize the island or not.
– Tensions have increased in the Taiwan Strait thanks to the increasing activity of the People’s Republic of China. These activities include the use of military aircraft, ships and drones near the mean Taiwan Strait. Moreover, China has begun to use gray zone tactics, such as using civilian drones, weather balloons, and military-equipped fishing boats, to harass and provoke the region, Sun writes.
Every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has made reunification with Taiwan a declared goal, but current President Xi Jinping is putting greater military pressure on the island than his predecessors. Chinese planes fly almost daily near — and in some cases above — the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, which has long served as an unofficial border between the two countries.
-We must actively resist external forces and separatist activities for Taiwan independence. We must work meaningfully to promote national rejuvenation and reunification, Xi said in a speech to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, in March.
The Chinese Embassy in Oslo wrote in an email that “national reunification is a common goal for all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” and that China will make every effort to work for peaceful reunification.
– However, we reserve the right to use all necessary means, writes the embassy.
US intelligence claims that Xi ordered Chinese military forces – the People’s Liberation Army – to be able to seize Taiwan within the next four years.
“We know that President Xi has instructed the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military command, to prepare to invade Taiwan by 2027, but that does not mean he has decided to invade in 2027 or any other year,” CIA Director William Burns said. In an interview with CBS in February.
It is very likely that the war will involve the United States. President Joe Biden has stated that the United States will defend Taiwan if China invades the island. Other countries in the region may also be drawn into the conflict.
Many have speculated whether China will make an effort regarding the presidential elections in Taiwan and the United States, respectively, in January and November next year. Tonscu would not rule out attacking China in 2024, but he considers that unlikely. The professor believes that the risk of war will increase by 2027.
– There are many who expect that if Xi Jinping steps down in 2027, or if it takes another five years, until 2032, he will want to step down as the leader of China that has taken control of Taiwan. I somewhat agree with that, so I would say the probability increases again. But there is always the question of whether they are militarily capable of doing so, he says.
According to Tuongcu, China will not be ready to invade Taiwan for a decade or more.
– In 2027, I would say that the probability of war will be close to 30-40 percent. And then, if we can imagine Xi Jinping waiting for another term, and then another nine years go by, until we start getting to 2032, I think we start to go up toward 50 percent, maybe more than 50 percent. But it is also possible that there will be no war. He says there is a large percentage here who say there will be no war either.
Although most Taiwanese live without thinking much about the threat of war, uncertainty lurks there. The Stinger missiles launched in Gyeongping in front of local and international journalists remind residents that the country must be on constant alert when one of the world’s most powerful military powers launches its weapons.
Reformer in Taiwan: Su-Chen Ava Kuo
Read other articles in the Defense Forum’s Taiwan series here:
Taiwan Special 2023
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