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Why Taiwan doesn't seem too worried about the threat from China

Amid global concern over the future of the self-ruling island, many residents say they are used to intimidation by Beijing and are prepared for more.
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — China appeared to be rehearsing an invasion just miles away. World leaders issued forceful condemnations. But as Beijing’s military sent missiles and jets over their heads in a display of fury, many residents of Taiwan remained unmoved by what outside observers fear is a rising threat of war.

“We grew up with this,” said Rui Hao, a 40-year-old resident of Taipei, the capital, shrugging off the potential for conflict.

When he was a boy, his parents considered emigrating from their home in Taiwan to escape the threat of war with China. Three decades later, they still live here.

“I don’t think China will attack because our rockets can also reach Beijing and Shanghai,” Rui said. “There will be mutual destruction. We’re just a small island, but they are the ones who have much more to lose.”

Rui, who now has a child of his own, said he rarely discusses the possibility of a Chinese invasion with his friends and family.

Image: Taiwan On High Alert As China Conducts Live-fire Exercises
People visit the harbor where Taiwanese navy warships are anchored in Keelung, Taiwan.Annabelle Chih / Getty Images

It has been a major point of discussion around the world, however, as the live-fire military exercises China launched in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit raise fears it is looking to change the long-established status quo across the Taiwan Strait. 

Chinese officials say it is the United States that is trying to change the status quo by strengthening its unofficial relations with Taiwan, a self-ruling island that Beijing claims as its territory.

“Faced with this, China has no choice but to fight back and defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday. 

But either way this latest crisis has sharpened global concerns about the future of the island, a longtime flashpoint in U.S.-China relations and a flourishing democracy in a region where autocracy has been making steady gains.

We only want to protect our way of life

Lee Ming-che was among the human rights activists who met with Pelosi last week, during the brief visit in which she reiterated Washington’s support for Taiwan.

Lee spent five years in a Chinese prison as a political prisoner. Now, only four months after his release and return to Taiwan, Chinese threats to the freedoms he can again enjoy at home are escalating.

From left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Lee Ming-che and Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, in Taiwan last week.
From left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Lee Ming-che and Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, in Taiwan last week. Courtesy Lee Ming Che

“I saw and personally experienced in prison how the Chinese government disregards human rights and the law. And now this kind of country wants to encroach on Taiwan’s democracy and human rights,” Lee told NBC News by phone on Tuesday.

“Because Taiwan’s previous generations have dedicated a lot of effort for Taiwan’s freedom, democracy and human rights, we only want to protect our way of life, to live in our own country, but China uses its military might to threaten Taiwan.”

Beijing’s military exercises around the island have gone further than in the past and than many experts had expected. On Wednesday, a spokesman for China’s Eastern Theater Command said the military had “successfully completed” various tasks around the island but would “carry out military training and preparedness continuously.”

“It is possible we will see the staging of additional military exercises, at intervals, over the coming months,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group, who is based in Taipei.

But for generations of people in Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled in 1949 after losing to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in China’s civil war, these security concerns are nothing new. Co-existing with Beijing’s threats is simply part of life, which has carried on across Taiwan this summer as usual. 

On Dongyin, a Taiwanese island just 31 miles off the coast of China, an electronic dance music rave with clouds of foam, fog and jets from water cannons kicked off on Saturday evening even as China’s military drills were unfolding in the surrounding skies and waters.

This measured approach flies in the face of some rhetoric abroad comparing Taiwan to Ukraine, where many residents reacted with disbelief to Russia’s long-signaled invasion in February. U.S. military experts and former defense officials have warned China’s army is now much more advanced than the last time cross-Strait tensions soared in 1996, leading some to ask whether Taiwan is being too complacent.

“There’s a lot of what feels like judgment from experts in the U.S. looking at Taiwan’s calm reaction and saying people in Taiwan need to take this more seriously, they don’t fully appreciate the circumstance they’re in,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist and associate professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “To which I think a lot of the Taiwanese response is, ‘We fully appreciate the circumstance we’re in, we’re just choosing to react to it in a more calm way than you are.’”

Air raid drills are held regularly in Taiwan, and officials are revising a civil defense handbook that was issued earlier this year. But the island also says it needs continued support from the international community.

“This has repercussions for the entire region, which we are all witnessing real-time,” said Enoch Wu, the founder of Forward Alliance, a nonprofit group that holds public workshops to prepare Taiwanese for conflict and crises. “This is why it is in the common interest of democratic partners to enhance defense alliances now, as the only means of preserving peace and ensuring stability.”

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Life in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, continued as normal last week despite live-fire drills by the Chinese military. Lam Yik Fie / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Resilience and confidence’

Asked whether he was worried about China’s actions, President Joe Biden told reporters Monday: “I’m not worried, but I’m concerned that they’re moving as much as they are. But I don’t think they’re going to do anything more.” A Defense Department official said the U.S. had not changed its assessment that China would not try to invade Taiwan in the next two years.

“We’re not naïve — we don’t necessarily think that the U.S. will come help us if China did invade,” said Sophia Hsieh, a 44-year-old English tutor based in the city of Taoyuan. “We just all tacitly know that if they do attack, we won’t let them benefit from it.”

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu pointed to that resolve in comments on Tuesday.

“Taiwan’s people, society, military and government have displayed resilience and confidence, and remained calm,” he said at a news conference. “China’s continued attempts to intimidate Taiwan will not panic us, nor will they defeat us.”

He accused Beijing on Tuesday of rehearsing for an eventual invasion, while Taiwan started its own live-fire drill that it said had already been planned and was not a response to the Chinese exercises.

On Wednesday, the Chinese government released a white paper on Taiwan, its first since 2000, that reiterated its desire for “peaceful reunification” but did not rule out the use of force as a “last resort.”

The paper argued that the Taiwan issue is not one of “freedom and democracy” but one of “safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The majority of Taiwan’s almost 24 million people say they have no desire to become a part of China, preferring to maintain the status quo whereby the island runs independently but does not make any official claims of independence. In an opinion poll published this week by Taiwan’s Chinese Association of Public Opinion Research, 60 percent of respondents said they were either not that worried or not worried at all about a war between Taiwan and China.

Beijing’s aggression may end up backfiring, alienating even elements in Taiwan that have long supported “reunification” with China while leaving the broader public more skeptical than ever.

“How can you expect reunification if even before you come you’re already threatening us like this?” said Li Ao, a Taipei taxi driver in his 30s who used to travel frequently to the Chinese mainland. “Most people will be antagonized by this.”