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Invasion checklists and survival academies: How Taiwan is preparing for war

Jun 09, 2023

Aaron and Alison Smith, an American-Taiwanese couple living in the southern city of Kaohsiung, keep a checklist of warning signs over a possible Chinese invasion to help decide if the time is right to flee Taiwan.

Alison, who was born and raised in Kaohsiung, said that when the couple made the decision to move from Colorado to Taiwan in 2022, her husband's family in Denver grew alarmed.

"Right before we moved back, Aaron's family kind of questioned us, they heard that the threat is more and more serious and they asked, ‘Are you sure you want to go back?’" she said in an interview with The Hill from the couple's apartment in the southern port city.

"And Taiwanese think, we heard those threats for over 40 years, it's not a big deal. But the second day we moved back, the Ukraine and Russia war started — we do a lot of research and keep that in our minds."

Decades of Chinese threats and intimidation against the island have taken on new urgency in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion against Ukraine and rock-bottom relations between Washington and Beijing.

Caught in the middle is the democratically-governed island of Taiwan — a country that operates autonomously from the People's Republic of China but has strategically held back from demanding global recognition of its full independence.

The tropical island's mountain landscape — it boasts the highest peak in East Asia at nearly 13,000 feet — provides an advantage for its defense but is vulnerable on its coast, which is only about 100 miles from mainland China.

Kaohsiung, the island's primary port city and home to naval, army and air bases, is a natural target in the event of a Chinese blockade or massive air assault — if Chinese President Xi Jinping calculates the reward of aggression is worth the cost.

"We do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures," Xi said about his designs on Taiwan, in a 2019 speech that sounded intense alarms across the island.

U.S. officials, while cautioning that Chinese military action is not inevitable, have warned that China's People's Liberation Army has the ambition of being capable of launching an invasion by 2027 — a nod to the military's 100th anniversary.

"This is logical time, 2027," said Ming-Shih Shen, director for security research at Taipei's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank funded by Taiwan's Ministry of Defense.

But Ming-Shih added that "timing is more important than timeline," and laid out a range of considerations that Beijing is likely to weigh before taking action.

If Taiwan's military is perceived as being weak, he said, China may decide to "take Taiwan like a piece of cake."

Taiwan's population is increasingly confronting the possibility of conflict, and are taking steps to prepare themselves.

In Taipei, classes provided in person and online through the nonprofit Kuma Academy aim to give civilians the tools and know-how to take care of themselves in the event of war.

"Our goal is to awaken the Taiwanese public to realize that, in Xi Jinping's third term [as president], with his team not having a correct risk assessment and himself having no limit in his aggression, Taiwan has to be prepared," said Aaron Huang, who manages communications for the organization.

Huang said the academy builds its syllabus in close communication with Taiwan's civil defense structures — such as the police or the Interior Ministry — understanding that in the event of an invasion the majority of the public would likely flee from the coast to the mountains and working out how this can be done in a safe and organized manner.

"It is crucial that this part of the population, the larger part, could sustain themselves," Huang said of Kuma's teachings.

"So that means, to provide them with the knowledge and skills of how to avoid danger, how to protect themselves, how to sustain their basic, biological needs, and how to keep a family safe."

The academy's logo is a black bear holding a rifle, but Huang said the academy does not engage in weapons training. Instead, the organization focuses on emergency first aid, like applying a tourniquet to grievous injuries and evacuating the wounded. Other training includes evading enemy forces, organizing into defensive groups that seek out safe shelter but are vigilant in identifying risks and avoiding danger.

The academy was founded in 2021 but held its first training in January 2022, amid the warnings surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Taiwan has to be prepared because the island hasn't been under the direct impact of warfare for over 70 years," Huang said.

Taiwan's relations with China are an important political issue but are often trumped by criticisms of the government over how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled and the economy.

"During the COVID-19, the government shows that I cannot trust them anymore," said Hsu, a 32-year-old waiter at the Kavalan Whisky bar in Taipei — the award-winning, domestic whisky is a point of pride for Taiwanese even as the country is more renowned for its semiconductor production.

Hsu was born and raised in Taipei and, even though she's disappointed with the last three years of the Democratic Progressive Party government (DPP), she's likely to vote for them in January presidential elections, viewing them as a better option than the most prominent opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

"I only have two options, KMT and DPP, I still chose DPP."

She said she talks with her family about the threat from China and how they would react in the event of conflict and sees some generational differences on the issue.

"My parents they might think they are from China, they and their parents, but for me, I think I’m Taiwanese. Most of the people in my age range think of [themselves as] Taiwanese, don't want to identify as Chinese," she said.

And is the U.S. an important relationship for Taiwan?

"Yes of course," Hsu said. "I think it's like China and U.S.A., Taiwan is in the middle. But since Taiwanese-China [tensions] is lasting about 60 years, I think it's gonna last a little longer."

For Alison Smith, in Kaohsiung, how the politicians talk about China is the priority issue that will determine her vote.

"Tension between Taiwan and China is number one, but for my friends: reduce the cost of the house, the economy. Every time I talk about politics with my friends or family, ‘you are strange, alarmist.’"

In the wake of Russia's invasion against Ukraine, Alison put together a "go-bag" in case of an emergency. There's shelf-stable food and water, a solar-powered battery pack to charge cellphones, a first-aid kit, utility gloves to protect against sharp debris and a radio.

The intelligence surrounding the buildup before Russia's war also influences how the Smiths evaluate the warning signs of a possible Chinese invasion.

This includes whether travel warnings are issued for Americans to leave the island; if major companies begin evacuating their staff; if Chinese troop buildups are reported across the Taiwan Strait; if Beijing issues ultimatums against Taiwan; or if large-scale sanctions are imposed.

They’ve decided against buying a house in Taiwan or starting a business, concerned over the unpredictable geopolitical situation. While they plan to move back to the U.S. sometime in the future, they’d like to make that decision themselves and not under duress.

Generally, the couple find their lives in Kaohsiung — and Taiwan in general — relaxed, convenient and lively. Dinner out can include sampling foods in the winding aisles of the night market or taking a short ferry ride to a seafood restaurant on the island of Cijin.

They ride around the city on bikes or their motor-scooter, often toting their small dog, Gingrich (named after the Republican House Speaker who made a famous trip of U.S. solidarity to Taiwan in 1997.)

President Biden has said at least four times that U.S. forces would come to Taiwan's defense in the event of a Chinese invasion, and the island's ability to withstand such aggression is heavily reliant on U.S. air and naval assistance.

Ming-Sheh, the security researcher, ticks off a list of scenarios describing how long Taiwan would need to hold out depending on from where the U.S. dispatches reinforcements.

An aircraft carrier from San Diego? Taiwan will have to hold out for two weeks, he said. From Hawaii — a shorter time frame, about a week or eight days. U.S. bombers from Guam could arrive faster, or an aircraft carrier from Japan would take two days.

"Many congressmen ask our Minister of Defense, ‘How long you hold your position?’ Many ministers have different answer: Maybe someone say four months, maybe someone say two weeks, it's according to their thinking, not very optimistic calculation," he said.

The potential military cost for the U.S. to intervene is sobering, with tens of thousands of American forces killed and dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft destroyed, according to a war games analysis carried out by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But U.S. support for Taiwan in the face of aggression from China is a rare area of bipartisan support in Washington. Democrats and Republicans share the view that the Chinese Communist Party is an all-around threat to U.S. security and a democratic world order.

"Taiwan is a cornerstone of the global economy and a vital partner of the United States," House lawmakers wrote in a recent report outlining recommendations to strengthen Taiwan's defense.

Strengthening Taiwan's ability to deter any threats from China are at the forefront of Taipei's concerns and Washington's pledges of support — whether a military invasion, armed blockade, diplomatic isolation or information warfare.

The U.S. is working to fulfill a $19 billion backlog in military supplies to the island that American officials say is held up because of lingering COVID-19 supply chain issues and dormant production lines.

In late May, the U.S. delivered on a 2019 weapons order to Taiwan for 250 anti-aircraft Stingers, shoulder-mounted missiles viewed as a key munition for the island's defense.

Biden is also expected to announce the first tranche of $1 billion in weapons transfers to Taiwan directly from Department of Defense stockpiles that were earlier authorized by Congress, using the so-called Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA).

"I think that what Taiwan needs is significant," Jessica Lewis, Assistant Secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told lawmakers on May 24 when asked if Congress should increase the PDA for Taipei in the next budget.

Taiwanese officials stress that they are also stepping up for their defense, putting renewed focus on their conscription army by extending mandatory service from four months to one year, training their reserves more intensely and broadcasting the dire consequences for China if it chooses military action.

Taipei has been stressing that conflict would crater the global economy. Sea routes transiting between 40 to 50 percent of the world's commercial shipping would shut down, and semiconductor manufacturing responsible for more than 90 percent of the most advanced parts of the chips would be put at risk.

"If the worst case scenario happens, that is when China is using force against Taiwan, the kind of impact will not be on Taiwan only, the impact is going to be on the rest of the world," Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Hu said in a briefing with international reporters in mid-May.

"So we are working with major countries to deter China from using military force against Taiwan. And of course, we don't hope that war happens."

The writer was in Taiwan as part of a press trip paid for by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).

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Preparing for the worst ‘Not very optimistic’