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11 October 2021

Fighter jets and street markets: Taiwan’s daily dissonance as tensions with China ramp up

Invasion by China remains an abstract threat, but it is hard to shake the anxiety that the worst could happen.

By James Chater

Early on Tuesday morning (5 October), I received a concerned message from a Taiwanese-American friend. A simple question: “Is everything OK over there?” 

Taiwanese fighter jets had woken me 20 minutes earlier as they roared over Taipei, but everything did feel OK. Even in the best of years, early October is a sensitive time on the Taiwan Strait. The aircraft swooping over the capital were rehearsing for Taiwan’s 10 October national day. The People’s Republic of China had marked its own national day just over a week before, on 1 October. 

But hearts are certainly beating faster this year. In recent weeks, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has set a number of daily records for incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). In the four days from 1 October, nearly 150 PLA aircraft entered the south-west corner of the ADIZ.

On the ground in Taiwan, meanwhile, there is cognitive dissonance. In a place where tensions are perpetually “rising” and anything and everything “will be met by anger in Beijing”, what constitutes a genuine inflection point?

Taiwanese defence officials are indeed nervous. On 6 October, Taiwan’s defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the military tensions were “the most serious” in 40 years. And on 7 October, the Wall Street Journal reported US troops had been secretly training their Taiwanese counterparts for over a year. 

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But beneath the humdrum of military posturing, life in Taipei is stubbornly regular. On a sunset walk through the city’s narrow back alleys, people nonchalantly snake through night markets as phones buzz busily at mom-and-pop restaurants. 

This is not a society that feels “at war”. The majority of Taiwanese have lived their entire lives under the abstract threat of Chinese invasion. And for the most part, that’s how it still feels; only occasionally does that threat become jarringly realistic. One such example pierced the abstraction last week when, in preparation for national day, a vast Taiwanese flag billowed below a helicopter as it circled above the city. It was a reminder of the militarism that murmurs below daily life here.

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That is the peculiar psychology of life in Taiwan, especially during a military flare-up that is grabbing headlines around the world. Despite the threat it faces and the surge in incursions, Taiwan’s militarism is far from strident. There are no bloodthirsty calls for revenge, nor retribution.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say the incursions have no impact. They form part of Beijing’s grey warfare strategy, designed to wear Taiwan down into psychological submission, not to mention the literal exhaustion of Taiwanese pilots forced to intercept Chinese aircraft night after night. People are operating normally, but you can never really shake the indistinct anxiety that the worst could happen. 

But if Beijing’s military activity is increasing, so too are the actions of those sympathetic to Taiwan. Across the world, China is low on diplomatic friends, and Taiwan – at times unmentioned in diplomatic contexts – is increasingly present as an item of discussion.

In Tokyo, newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida installed an almost entirely new cabinet in the first week of October, choosing only to retain his Taiwan-sympathetic defence and foreign ministers. Kishida also established a brand new ministerial position for economic security, interpreted by many as an indication of Tokyo’s growing vigilance towards China. 

In Europe, although China and Taiwan were pushed down the agenda of a 6 October EU summit in Slovenia, the challenges in Asia are growing increasingly central. In recent months, some Baltic states have struck out alone; Lithuania recently passed a law to open a trade office in Taipei this autumn.

Back in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen held talks on 7 October with a delegation of French senators, including former French defence minister Alain Richard. The following day, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott spoke alongside Tsai at the Yushan Forum, an annual political dialogue held in Taiwan. He underscored a global trend when he admitted he’d hesitated to attend the conference two years ago for fear of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wrath; now, he said, “the only drums we beat are for freedom”.

Encapsulating this all in her national day address, Tsai said: “In Washington, in Tokyo, in Canberra, in Brussels, Taiwan is no longer sidelined… Taiwan is no longer the orphan of Asia.”

Taken one by one, these events might fade into insignificance; together, they indicate an increase of the non-militaristic tempo. All this must be taken into account before making assessments about the likelihood of Chinese invasion, the costs of which – both economic and political – would still be enormous.

On 9 October, without mentioning recent military intimidation, Xi once more vowed “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan. Over 23 million people live in Taiwan – just less than Australia – and very few want unification with China under the Chinese Communist Party. In the frenzy around military build-ups, this crude mathematical point is often neglected. 

Tsai oversaw the national day celebrations with Taiwan’s defensive capabilities on display. But importantly, while the cross-strait military environment may indeed be more fraught, there is no commensurate surge of anxiety among the Taiwanese population.

Understanding this distinction is important. It is not a lack of concern born of apathy, but of long being reduced to fodder in great-power posturing. And that speaks of a deeper, tragic meaning about Taiwan’s existence: that if war were to really happen here, it would happen because of powers elsewhere.

James Chater is a reporter with Taiwan+, a new English-language broadcaster based in Taipei.

[See also: As China stumbles, the West must ask: what if its rise is not inevitable?]

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