Taiwan faces threat of invasion. Many Taiwanese aren't worried

In Ximending, Taipei’s equivalent of Times Square, teenagers perform for the camera hoping for a big break on YouTube. Many aren’t worried by China’s regular invasion drills, or threats to reunite Taiwan by force, if necessary. (David Common/CBC News - image credit)
In Ximending, Taipei’s equivalent of Times Square, teenagers perform for the camera hoping for a big break on YouTube. Many aren’t worried by China’s regular invasion drills, or threats to reunite Taiwan by force, if necessary. (David Common/CBC News - image credit)

Teens performing a synchronized dance on the rainbow-painted street of Taipei's Ximending shopping district don't exactly reflect the face of a people fearing invasion.

Despite Beijing's near-monthly attack drills against Taiwan — and its oft-repeated claim that the island will be reunited with the mainland, by force, if necessary — many Taiwanese just don't buy it.

"I don't think they're coming," says 16-year-old Yu-ze Wu. "We're pretty used to China's threats."

Yu-ze We, right, with her friends in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. Younger generations are especially skeptical about Beijing’s threats of invasion, though China’s military capability has never been greater than it is now. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

Taiwan has lived under self-rule for 70 years since supporters of the KMT political party fled to the island after losing in the civil war to the Communists.

Every Chinese leader since has claimed to have a formal military plan to reclaim Taiwan.

But it hasn't happened, so doubt has set in.

However, China has built up its military power in recent years — now with the world's largest navy — and its leader, Xi Jinping, has made reunification a high priority.

"We will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures," he said at last year's major party conference.

Some in Taiwan believe now is the time to formally declare independence, but others fear it would provoke China into war. (David Common/CBC News)

Taiwan's political choice: To claim independence or not

Although it governs autonomously, Taiwan has never formally declared independence.

With a presidential election campaign now underway for a vote in January, there are some who believe now is the time to end the status quo.

"If we establish as a new country, we will be allied with other democracies — and fight with the communists," Bi-Xian Huang with the Taiwan Independent Flag Parade told CBC News.

"I don't think China really has the ability to do reunification by force."

That gamble underscores the difference between Taiwan's two main political parties.

The current opposition KMT (the same party that founded modern Taiwan) stands for harmony with the Communist Party across the Taiwan Strait, seeking not to provoke or anger Beijing.

The governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pushes independence — though has never forced the matter.

Street vendor Shu-Fun Hsiao, 64, says the chances of an invasion rest on the election.

"If we change to the China friendly party then there won't be any attack. But if it's the same government, China will come soon."

Pilots with China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force regularly conduct drills across the Taiwan Strait and have increasingly penetrated Taiwan’s air defence zone over the past year. (PLA Air Force Handout/Reuters)

China would lose war, says Washington-based think tank

Whether and when China might invade is unknown — but assessments from U.S. officials have ranged from 2024 to 2035.

One of the most prominent assessments came from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank that ran a data-driven computer simulation for a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan.

The war simulation imagined an attack in 2026, indicating "the United States, Taiwan and Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained an autonomous Taiwan."

But the cost would be enormous to all sides, according to the simulation.

At least two U.S. aircraft carriers would lie at the bottom of the Pacific, along with dozens of ships from the United States and allies.

Tens of thousands of American troops would be killed.

China's navy would be in "shambles." Its Communist Party would be destabilized.

The conclusion from CSIS: "The United States needs to strengthen deterrence immediately."

And that is happening.

230215-N-AT895-1074 SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 15, 2023) A landing craft air cushion (LCAC) from Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 5 maneuvers in front of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73). Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (NIMCSG) and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (MKI ARG), with embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), are conducting combined expeditionary strike force (ESF) operations, demonstrating unique high-end war fighting capability, maritime superiority, power projection and readiness. Operations include integrated training designed to advance interoperability between the two groups while simultaneously demonstrating the U.S. commitment to our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. NIMCSG is in U.S. 7th Fleet conducting routine operations. 7th Fleet is the U.S. Navy's largest forward-deployed numbered fleet, and routinely interacts and operates with Allies and partners in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird)

A landing craft speeds past the American guided missile destroyer USS Decatur in the South China Sea in February, part of regular military exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is permanently stationed in the Indo-Pacific region as a counterweight to China’s growing armed forces. (USS Nimitz (CVN 68))

The U.S. has long sold modern weaponry — including warships and fighter jets — to Taiwan. But in July, the Biden administration authorized the rare transfer of $1 billion worth of munitions directly from the Pentagon's inventory.

This is the same mechanism used to send weapons to Ukraine.

"Deterrence is real; deterrence is strong," Ely Ratner, the assistant U.S. secretary of defence for the Indo-Pacific, said as Reaper drones, missiles and ammunition made their way to Taiwan.

Beijing was not impressed.

"Stop selling arms to Taiwan, stop colluding with Taiwan, and stop arming Taiwan. Otherwise, China will resolutely retaliate," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in her daily briefing.

The idea behind the weapons transfers is sometimes referred to as the porcupine effect.

Make Taiwan such a prickly target that the cost to attack would be high.

However, the Washington Post reported that leaked military documents show Taiwan is currently poorly equipped to hold off a Chinese air attack, and that it remains highly susceptible to a blockade of its ports.

More than 91 per cent of its energy — coal, oil and gas — is imported, with only about 10 days of gas reserves on hand.

When Ukraine was invaded by Russia, Tony Lu saw a parallel with his homeland. With some military training, he joined the fight in Ukraine for three months, and is now back in Taiwan preparing for what he believes will be an invasion of Taiwan. (Philippe Leblanc/Radio-Canada)

Ukraine invasion a wake-up call

While many in Taiwan believed the decades-old threat of forced reunification had begun to ring hollow, Russia's invasion of Ukraine gave many pause.

It demonstrated that a powerful nation may try to seize its neighbour by force.

"Taiwan is also in a very similar spot as Ukraine. The war may happen at any time," said Tony Lu, a civilian living in Taipei who trained and fought in Ukraine for three months.

When Russia's full-scale invasion happened in February 2022, Lu left immediately to join the fight in Ukraine.

"From the beginning, they were using stones, then petrol bombs, then guns. I was touched."

But his primary goal was to gain skills to defend against invasion of his homeland, and build support for the notion that others might come to Taiwan's defence.

"Some people in Taiwan don't think that the war will happen. But Communist Party of China is becoming tougher now," he told CBC News, predicting invasion is likely.

War has been threatened for more than seven decades — but has yet to come. The question for the Taiwanese: Is it different now?