Taiwan residents consider the best response to the threat of invasion from China
Part 2 of a 2-part series
By John Groot (You may share this article in whole or part if you link to this post and mention me as author by name. TIA for respect to makers.)
“If China invaded Taiwan, would you fight? Or would you be on the first plane out?” That’s a popular question among expats in Taiwan. I suppose some hot-heads imagine themselves taking out People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks with Molotov cocktails, or stealthily emerging from the shadows like Rambo to cut a throat, grab a gun, and disappear again in the wink of an eye.
“More guts than brains” is an expression that comes to my mind. Expats here have no access to firearms, most have little or no military training, and the few that do have probably never trained with the Republic of China (ROC) military. Taiwan does not have a foreign legion or a territorial defense force like Ukraine that long-term foreign residents could join. So, any ragtag expat vigilantes would be short work for any properly trained and equipped PLA unit, with access to communications, intelligence, air support, and back up.
Despite that fact, a lot of expats here love Taiwan so much that they would want to stay and assist their adopted country in some capacity. And while participating in combat is not a realistic option, the best way to be useful is probably to have already prepared for the emergency, so you could keep your loved ones safe and help maintain order and sanity in your community. Many strongly believe that China will never attack, but this seems like wishful thinking. For those who do take the risk seriously, there are many differing theories out there, ranging from an attack between 2023 and 2027 before Taiwan gets too strong, all the way to an attack by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, by which time the PLA is expected to be able to take Taiwan at low cost.
Needless to say, war is a messy business, and any strong military action by China would badly disrupt daily life in Taiwan. However, an amphibious Normandy-style invasion is not the most likely scenario. If and when war comes to Taiwan, it will probably be in the form of fighter and naval battles, air and missile strikes, a blockade, and a massive cyberattack to disrupt all communications and infrastructure. These could be accompanied by an airborne “decapitation strike” by special forces aimed at taking over Taipei, abducting top leaders, and installing the PRC’s own interim government.
Taiwan would fight back of course, and allies like the US and Japan would most likely try to assist without starting World War III in the process. But whatever the eventual outcome, normal life would come screeching to a halt. Imagine that you have no internet, no phone service, and the power and water in your apartment goes off. ATMs cease to function, food quickly runs out at the stores, as does gas at the pumps. Restaurants are closed, police stations crowded and chaotic, fire and medical services strained and limited. You sit in your dark apartment at night, looking out the window at fires and explosions in the distance, clueless as to what is happening, wondering what the hell to do now.
It’s a horrible prospect, so maybe getting ready for it might not be so paranoid after all, especially given that emergency preparedness is also useful for things like devastating earthquakes and typhoons.
Brace for impact
Taiwan’s government has been getting ready, for sure. Since Xi Jinping upped his rhetoric about Taiwan, and the US increased its level of support, the ROC military has been busily acquiring new forms of weaponry. It has also dramatically increased its production of high-tech missiles. According to an August 14 article in the Central News Agency’s Focus Taiwan: “The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology has completed several new facilities that are expected to more than double Taiwan’s annual missile output to 500, according to a recent Ministry of National Defense (MND) report.” Taiwan’s military also allegedly wants to get advanced hypersonic missiles from the US.
What’s more, after years of criticism and advice from experts worldwide, Taiwan’s military has begun to implement – or at least talk about implementing – “asymmetric” and “porcupine” tactics, such as having small, fast missile boats hidden in fishing ports, acquiring more drones, sea mines, and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles, as well as the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that Ukraine recently received from NATO. The effectiveness of all this (combined with Russia’s lackluster performance in Ukraine, which must have increased the caution level of Chinese invasion planners) is one reason military experts doubt that the amphibious invasion scenario is something China would risk.
Taiwan has also upgraded its civil defense structure and reserve mobilization structure, to some extent at least. Civil defense means helping protect citizens and civilian infrastructure from the worst forms of damage in the event of disaster. In Taiwan, this is under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, primarily through municipalities, counties, the National Police Agency, and the National Fire Agency. It’s not clear what kinds of new training or preparation are happening in these organizations at the moment, but some new online resources are now available, such as maps of bomb shelters and evacuation centers. Reserve mobilization is for military – not civil – defense, although in practice these two areas do need some joint coordination. January 2022 saw the establishment of the “All Out Defense Mobilization Agency” (AODMA) under the control of the ROC Armed Forces Reserves Command, to offer policy and coordination of mobilizing Taiwan’s approximately 1.65 million reservists – many with very limited training – in case of military emergency. AODMA has released a National Defense Handbook, a 28-page PDF document with a fair amount of useful information in it about dealing with air raids, power and water outages, etc. An unofficial English translation is also available. However, emergency preparedness experts have criticized the book as inadequate, and the government is working on an improved version. It is worth noting that neither online maps nor PDF books would be terribly useful if you have no power or internet.
Crisis, what crisis?
One interesting question in all of this is: How are average Taiwanese people responding to the perception of a growing military threat?
Well, after Nancy Pelosi’s recent dragon-poking Taiwan visit, the world was treated to the spectacle of China’s daunting 4-day show of force by the PLA in six maritime and aerial “exclusion zones” encircling Taiwan. Many dubbed this a rehearsal for a blockade – or worse. But as the waters and skies around the self-ruled democratic island crawled with military aircraft, ships, submarines and ballistic missiles, most Taiwanese stoically went about their business. Night markets and department stores were packed, and the mood was light and summery. Many even continued regular coastal activities, like taking beach selfies or free-diving with sea turtles in Xiao Liuqiu Island, less than 10 kilometers away from one of the exclusion zones in the Taiwan Strait.
How can they remain so placid when the rest of the world believes the sky is falling for Taiwan? One woman interviewed said: “After a long time of this, everyone becomes numb to it. People think it’s just words, that they won’t take real action.” Others say that they are used to decades of threatening Chinese rhetoric, and believe that if China were going to invade Taiwan, they would have done it a long time ago.
This ho-hum attitude is a concern to some, including Leo Lin, a colonel in the National Police Agency who works in the field of civil defense and national security. “Forewarned is forearmed” is a saying he likes to use a lot. “Look at the shooting of the former Japanese prime-minister Shinzo Abe. If someone told you a few days before the event that it might happen, you would think they were crazy.” Lin agrees that if there is the possibility of a threat, then that is a threat. “If there is a chance that something might happen, we should be ready for it,” he says.
Lin spent seven years working in Washington DC, liaising with agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security on Taiwan-related security issues. Since returning last year, he has noticed that many expats are more worried about war than are local Taiwanese.
One expat who is ready for anything is South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw. “When I first got to Taiwan, I was told not to worry, that China wouldn’t be able to invade Taiwan for another 10 or 20 years. That was 24 years ago.” Openshaw is technically proficient, having been an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist in the army, was a trained firearms instructor, and has emergency first aid and rescue training. He has leveraged this eclectic skillset to create a series of “bug-out bags” – backpacks of various size with survival related equipment, such as food, solar chargers, batteries, tools, etc., that he can use in different scenarios. He also has two-way radios and a satellite text-phone.
He says that, depending on the emergency, he would choose to either shelter in place, “bug out”, or “bugger off”.
Shelter in place means to just stay at home with family members and stay safe. He’s prepared for that with water, food, flashlights, batteries, an advanced medical kit, and a long list of other supplies and equipment.
However, if fires, explosions, or social chaos threaten, it would be time for him to “bug out” i.e., get out of Dodge. His bug-out bag – a portable survive-and-thrive kit – is already packed, and his all-wheel-drive Land Rover parked downstairs. “I have a cabin in the mountains which belongs to an indigenous friend, and we have an agreement that my family and I can stay there and wait things out. It’s a secluded cabin with an independent water and electrical supply,” Openshaw said.
For those without such careful plans in place, there is always the option of going to your local evacuation center.
“Bugger off” means evacuate out of the country, which he might do if ordered to do, or if he felt the situation was becoming untenable. “This would of course be dependent on evacuation flights being made available”, he says.
Is Openshaw pessimistic about the future? Not really. He’s a realist who has seen a lot of often-violent history happen before his eyes, or those of his friends. He lived through the 9 21 Jiji earthquake, and remembers peeing in the sink and humping buckets of water up 10 flights of stairs for two weeks until the water came back on. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is his motto. It’s a good one.
Serving the public interest
On the other hand, someone who is extremely concerned about the near future is Kameron Johnson, a young and idealistic Australian entrepreneur living in Hsinchu. Convinced an attack on Taiwan is imminent, he has formed an organization called the “Civil Guard”. Kameron says that ‘’If Taiwan falls, it will become the blueprint and gateway to end all democracies and free nations around the world.” The Civil Guard is a group with a quasi-military feel to it: they have a training platoon and a guardsman platoon; they use military-style radio SOP, and have a uniform. Despite the trappings, it is not combat oriented. The purpose of the organization is to protect people in case of a natural – or man-made – disaster. Kameron hopes to build up well-trained mixed groups of local and foreign members to help deal with sick and wounded people, evacuate civilians from combat zones, and get food, water, and medical supplies to those who need them. They have worked with different local organizations to conduct training, such as mountain navigation and firefighting, and hope to start a program to produce civilian MREs – meals ready to eat, high nutrition non-perishable meal units – that people can keep at home for emergencies.
Kameron hasn’t had a lot of expats signing up to his group yet, but he is soldiering on. ‘’The people of Taiwan have proven themselves as a positive asset to our world and the Civil Guard aim to help them continue that trend,’’ his organization said.
Of all the entities out there, the one doing the most to promote civil defense awareness is Open Knowledge Taiwan. The original Open Knowledge group was started in Cambridge, England by British economist, activist, and social entrepreneur Rufus Pollock in 2004. The group is dedicated to the idea of an open society, where citizens can access and share important information.
T.H. Schee, one of the founders of Open Knowledge Taiwan in 2013, said that after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the group decided to focus their non-profit work for 2022 on disaster preparedness and civil defense in Taiwan.
Schee is not your average Taiwanese guy: he drove a motorcycle across Australia at the age of 15 (without a license!) and later dropped out of university to join the navy as a radio communications technician. Now he’s a self-made computer consultant with clients around the world, and a long-time blogger and defense activist, with deep knowledge of Taiwan. He has friends in the citizen’s band (CB) and amateur “ham” radio community in Taiwan, some of whom hear the chatter of PLA air force pilots as they fly into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Schee is a big fan of ham radio as an effective form of emergency communications – both within Taiwan and to the outside world – as it’s hard to jam because there are so many frequencies.
This year he’s been busy, holding dozens of seminars and meetings to spread the word about civil defense.
Does he think Taiwan will have to deal with a Chinese attack? “I think it will happen some time in my lifetime,” Schee says, adding that most Taiwanese have relatives in the countryside somewhere that they can shelter with if need be. Of course, most of the men would be called up as reservists. They might have to fight, or more likely play a support role. “For every one soldier in the field, there are about 5 or 10 people supporting him” with food, logistics, etc.
What will most expats do? That really depends. Many I know personally have said that they’d leave the country as soon as possible. Some have left already. Openshaw said there’s a real chance of evacuation flights like those that took off from Afghanistan as the Taliban army approached Kabul. “There’s a military reason for that. The occupying force tells the foreign passport holders to go and lets them fly out. Then they know that those remaining behind are the enemy.” This is a sobering thought to those who might want to stay. Openshaw is a documentary filmmaker whose work has appeared on National Geographic and Al Jazeera. He said that he would support Taiwan by documenting events and sharing them with the world.
We all hope that we will never have to face the terrors of war: the death and destruction, of people, property, and maybe even the whole democratic Taiwan dream we love so much. But geopolitics doesn’t care about our feelings. The decision of what to do in case of war does is something every individual and family living here has to decide for themselves. There is no advantage to not being prepared.
Thanks to Dean Karalekas and Wendell Minnick for their advice on military matters.
Many people might want to prepare but don’t know how. Openshaw and his partners are working on a detailed Emergency Guide that will be available within a few months. Until then, here are a few pointers:
- Have extra water, non-perishable food, a flashlight and extra batteries at home.
- A crank-charged radio that also charges your cellphone is a very good investment.
- Have a good first aid kit, and get training on how to use it properly. There’s a lot of information available online.
- Access all online government information on civil defense and familiarize yourself with it, especially air raid shelters and evacuation centers. Print it out and make a few copies.
- Make an emergency plan with friends and family members for what to do in various scenarios.
- Ask questions. Tell us what information you want to know, and we will address it in the guide.
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