Taiwan greets Chinese military intimidation with parties rather than panic

The revellers carried on drinking and dancing even as the Chinese fighter jets kept up their simulated assault on Taiwan.

On Taipei-controlled Dongyin island just off the Chinese coast, which would be among the first to be hit if Beijing was to launch an invasion, hundreds of people joined a foam party that took place last week in the main square next to the harbour.

Most of the partygoers arrived on the overnight ferry from Taiwan, which had sailed around “danger zones” shut off by the People’s Liberation Army which was firing missiles and rocket artillery.

US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this month infuriated China, which claims the territory as its own. It vented its rage by conducting live-fire drills, scrambling fighter jets and blockading Taiwan.

But on Dongyin, China’s anger and belligerence were largely ignored. The day after the foam party, Dongyin put on an annual obstacle race that winds its way through the island’s rocky terrain.

Ella Chiu, an endurance runner who participated in the race, said she did not even consider calling off her trip. “If the ferries are running, that means it’s safe,” she said. “I didn’t see or hear any shooting, and life on Dongyin was completely normal. I wouldn’t have missed the race for the world.”

The absence of panic in the face of unprecedented Chinese military intimidation surprised outside observers as they debated whether Beijing’s military exercises heralded war.

John Eastwood, partner in the Taipei office of law firm Eiger, was holidaying with his family on Liuqiu, an islet off Taiwan’s south-western coast when the drills began last week. He said the Taiwanese tourists there were completely unfazed by the exercises, even though one of the live-fire zones was just 9km away.

The PLA declared its drills over on Wednesday, but Beijing has indicated it would normalise a military presence closer to Taiwan.

In Taipei, however, streets thronged with shoppers and restaurants were full throughout the Chinese manoeuvres.

“I would say this is an ostrich mindset. They’re putting their heads in the sand,” said one European diplomat in Taipei. “Taiwan has long had a problem acknowledging the growing risk they’re living under, but it’s extraordinary that they’re oblivious even in this situation.”

Aircraft from the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conduct a joint combat training exercise near Taiwan © Li Bingyu/Xinhua/AP,

China has gradually ratcheted up military activity around Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen, denounced as a separatist by Beijing, became president in 2016.

For more than 70 years, the Chinese Communist party has threatened to attack Taiwan if it refuses unification indefinitely. In the face of that constant intimidation, the Taiwanese have grown numb to the threat and continue to go about their lives.

Beneath the surface, however, many are less sanguine than appearances suggest.

Richard Bush, a former chair of the American Institute in Taiwan, the conduit for Washington’s interaction with Taipei, said Beijing’s military posturing and bellicose rhetoric had already had an effect.

While no more than 5.5 per cent of Taiwanese support unification, according to the latest poll by National Chengchi University published last month, 27 per cent think Taiwan is more likely to be unified with China in the future than be independent, according to the Taiwan National Security Survey, last conducted in 2020.

The same survey found that 60 per cent believed Taiwan’s military would not be able to defend the country on its own against a Chinese attack.

“China’s deterrence strategy has had an effect in undermining confidence,” said Bush, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call for many in Taiwan, igniting a public debate about whether the US would defend the country if China attacked, and how Taipei could bolster its defences. Young people especially have been flocking to train in first-aid and civil defence and even learn to shoot.

But the public’s reaction to Beijing’s latest intimidation campaign has been more complex. While many Taiwanese refused to take any notice, others said there was no point in being anxious because resistance would be futile if China made good on its invasion threat.

Others, though, expressed defiance. “If we allow ourselves to be intimidated now, that would only help China win,” said Chiu, the endurance athlete.

The government and the military have tried hard to balance the need for making the public more alert with avoiding panic. “Nobody will be helped if we trigger a collapse in public morale,” said a senior official.

In the Taiwanese port city of Keelung, Chen Ming-chu listened as one of the customers at her food stall explained how China was practising for a blockade that would cut the country off from vital energy imports. “You will not even get the gas for your stove if they [attack],” the customer told her.

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