On a quiet workday morning last week, air raid sirens rang out across Taiwan. The eerie wailing horn would be the first warning to the island’s 23.5 million residents of an incoming attack by their neighbour across the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Republic of China.
On the streets of the capital, Taipei, people carried on with their day, just as they did when an earthquake drill on Friday told them to “stop, drop and hide” in mass text alerts, and just as they do when China sends dozens of air force planes screeching towards Taiwan.
The world is becoming increasingly familiar with Beijing’s claim over Taiwan as a breakaway province, and its pledge to one day “unify”, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s population has lived with the threat day in and day out, but as the danger grows, experts warn the public is not ready.
Analysts say China is closer to being capable of invading Taiwan than it has been in decades, but is not there yet. The potential nature and timing of any conflict is hotly debated, as is the involvement of other countries in support of Taiwan. But after decades of Chinese military modernisation, and significant uptick in aggressive or intimidatory acts in the last 18 months, there are growing concerns about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
“We have about 160,000 folks in uniform facing a military that now claims to be 2 million strong,” says Enoch Wu, a Taiwanese former banker and special forces soldier, and founder of Forward Alliance, which advocates for greater awareness of defence issues and national security.
“They have a signifiant role in the mission, but behind that we need a layered depth of responders who can really make sure that our defences are as strong as possible, so we can prevent military action.”
Wu, a rising figure in the governing Democratic Progressive party, has developed a pilot of resilience training for civilians. Run by Forward Alliance, and supported by first responder groups and the US’s unofficial presence in Taiwan, the American Institute, two workshops have so far hosted about 120 civilians each.
Participants learn about situational awareness and personal safety, and hear from professional soldiers, first responders, and humanitarian workers about their experience on the battlefield or in crisis situations. After a basic first aid workshop focused mostly on serious hemorrhagic injuries it’s all put into practice in a mass casualty simulation.
“There are [staged] injuries, aggressors, things are chaotic, you don’t know who is who, and it forces our teams to operate and deescalate the situation, keep people safe, and be helpful,” says Wu. “[They learn that] it’s the person next to you that’s going to matter most, and you are an actor and you have a choice and you can make a difference in these situations.”
Wu says the resilience workshops are not just about prepping for a military attack, listing Taiwan’s frequent earthquakes, industrial accidents, typhoons, and the recent deadly train crash in Hualien as far more likely reasons to need a crisis-trained society.
But it’s military conflict that people are most focused on. This month the US, Australia and the UK announced a new security partnership, Aukus, aimed at countering China, just days before Australian and US foreign ministers pledged to “strengthen ties” with their “critical partner”, Taiwan. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, refused to rule out getting involved in a conflict over Taiwan.
Taiwan’s government, under the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, says it doesn’t seek conflict. It maintains that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation with no need to declare independence. But that position is irreconcilable with Beijing’s aims.
How to fend off a takeover
According to Admiral Lee Hsi-Ming, Taiwan’s former navy head and deputy defence minister, the first day of a hypothetical invasion attempt by China might involve cyber-attacks and long-range missiles hitting targets across the island including Taipei, paralysing Taiwan’s air force and navy, and destroying its control over the sea and air. It’s a dramatic scenario that Lee says Taiwan has little chance of preventing. But it’s only step one. “You can’t compete with a long-range missile attack, but if you want political control you must send ground troops.”
This is where Taiwan can fend off a complete takeover, says Lee, or ideally be so prepared for one that it serves as a deterrent. But were an invasion to happen, first responders would be overwhelmed, and Wu says a resilient population with key first aid and emergency skills could make the difference between life and death.
“After our professional first responders we need a general population that is prepared at the basic level to be capable of helping themselves and each other and their communities and who won’t fall apart after first impact,” says Wu. “That’s critical in any emergency, especially in war.”
Wu has also called for massive improvements to Taiwan’s system of air raid shelters, which at the moment are primarily sites such as underground car parks with no added facilities or emergency supplies.
‘I wouldn’t know what to do’
Much of Taiwan’s population already has some basic training military conscription ran for decades. But under plans to phase in fully voluntary armed forces, it has been reduced to a four months basic training course, which is often derided as a “summer camp”. Despite annual budget increases, the military at large has also been described as dysfunctional and “in crisis”. One 2018 graduate of the four-month course, surnamed Chen, tells the Guardian that despite the training, if war were to break out today, “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Chen, who didn’t want to publish his full name, says rifle drills used outdated weapons, and he wasn’t taught any first aid. “Combat strategies and guerrilla warfare are what I’m interested in learning if there was training in this, I would go learn it with my own money.”
Wu says, diplomatically, there are improvements to be made to the government’s training, but the resilience workshops are about “everybody else”.
First held in August 2020 and March 2021, the workshops were supposed to run monthly, until the pandemic got in the way. But Wu hopes that they will eventually roll out across Taiwan. “Without a resilient population, which has that will to persist and resist and fight on, folks on the frontline would be left out to dry.”