How Taiwan is defying China

Taiwanese cherish their democracy, but most of them do not remember what it cost

1411174623 Defending democracy: A military exercise in Taiwan simulating a Chinese invasion | Getty Images

Lu Ji-hua, 60, has not lived outside her zip code—Taipei 114. Her father, Lu Deh-hua, was born in China’s Zhejiang province in 1925, and as a young man, he enlisted in the army of the Republic of China. In 1949, the Kuomintang government was defeated by cadres of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War. Kuomintang leaders retreated to Taiwan with two million people, including six lakh soldiers. Lu Deh-hua was one of them.

After retreating to Taiwan, my father never had a chance to see his parents. In 1989, [when] he took the first trip back, his parents had passed away. —Lu Ji-hua
Taiwan thanks the world for supporting our fight to uphold freedom and democracy. —Tsai Ing-wen, president, Taiwan, to THE WEEK

Before he boarded a ship to Taiwan, he witnessed the horrors inflicted by the People’s Liberation Army. He never told the war stories to his daughter, who was born in Taiwan when he was 38.

“My father left his family behind and started a new family after he met my mother who was Taiwanese,” said Lu Ji-hua. Marriages between mainlanders and islanders were not uncommon, and like many other families, Lu’s family, too, was integrated into what Taiwan is today—the only Chinese-speaking democracy in the world. Her father is no more. Fewer than a hundred Kuomintang veterans who fled China are alive now. For the second, third and fourth generations in Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the voice of Taiwanese nationalism. The younger generation does not identify with China and does not want even peaceful unification.

Life, rebuilt: Lu Deh-hua with his wife Qiu Ing-mei in the 1960s; (below) their daughter Lu Ji-hua. Life, rebuilt: Lu Deh-hua with his wife Qiu Ing-mei in the 1960s; (below) their daughter Lu Ji-hua.

So when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen rubs shoulders with the United States and embraces US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, it is, for the younger generation, a celebration of their freedom from the past. For them, mainland China is synonymous with the communist party’s China—an authoritarian regime. Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, is a full-fledged democracy which upholds human rights and has recognised LGBT rights and same-sex marriages. It has a distinct identity in the free world. For President Tsai, those are articles of her people’s faith. “Taiwan thanks the world for supporting our fight to uphold freedom and democracy,” she told THE WEEK.

While Taiwan has lived as a sovereign nation for 70-plus years, Beijing considers the island a Chinese territory. President Xi Jinping of China has often talked of unification, even by force. Things worsened after Pelosi’s visit on August 2. Xi had called President Joe Biden on July 28 and warned him “not to play with fire” by allowing Pelosi’s visit. But, Pelosi was not deterred.

Lu Deh-hua in his final years. Lu Deh-hua in his final years.

Minutes after Pelosi left, China, in a series of drills, deployed ballistic missiles, truck-mounted self-propelled multiple rocket launchers, fighter jets, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, warships (likely stealth-guided missile destroyers) and drones. This put the Taiwan military on the defensive. Furthermore, PLA officers did not return calls from the Pentagon.

The 161km Taiwan Strait effectively turned into a conflict zone between the US and China. China has continued its incursions. On August 28, the US dispatched two Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers to the strait. It had earlier ordered the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and accompanying ships to stay in the region. On August 30, in a first, Taiwan fired warning shots at a Chinese drone, forcing it back to China.

Smaller Pacific friends—Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu—and bigger powers like Japan, Australia and Canada, apart from the US, have expressed support for Taipei. Saying that five Chinese missiles had landed in its exclusive economic zone, Japan initiated its own strategic deployment. China has the support of all-weather friend Pakistan, Iran and Russia. Others, like South Korea and ASEAN countries, are walking the tightrope, counterbalancing relations with the US and China.

The Taiwan military is preparing itself, keeping its radars and observatory posts in emergency mode. It is bringing out its guns and counting its missiles, aircraft and frigates. The US is assisting with weapons, training and aerial reconnaissance.

The enemy’s symbol: Bank of China,Taipei. The only Chinese entity in the city has become the preferred location for anti-China protests | Namrata Biji Ahuja The enemy’s symbol: Bank of China,Taipei. The only Chinese entity in the city has become the preferred location for anti-China protests | Namrata Biji Ahuja

The hybrid nature and coordination of operations by the PLA is unprecedented. Its air force, navy and rocket force are all involved. Chinese incursions into Taiwan airspace are not new, but, never before had as many as 68 aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on a single day (August 5). The previous record was 56 aircraft on October 4, 2021.

China has breached the median line down the Taiwan Strait, which acts as a maritime border, multiple times in the last fortnight. Earlier, the breaches were at the extreme ends. But, this time, the Chinese navy breached the central point. Fang Tien-sze, deputy director, Center for India Studies, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, said this was the first time China fired missiles over the strait in a public and intimidating way. “The PLA is also crossing the median line routinely now,” he said.

Moreover, it was for the first time that the Chinese military conducted drills near eastern Taiwan. The area is strategically important for resupplying Taiwanese troops and for potential reinforcements from the US. Beijing was, evidently, practising a blockade of Taiwan. Though the exercises were in international waters, some of the sites were close to major ports in Taiwan. This posed a threat to shipping—something Taiwan, a leading exporter of semiconductors, cannot take lightly.

Taiwan’s military strategy is based on a defensive principle and does not include the role of the US. The government has vowed to singlehandedly protect its territory while it looks for the opportune moment to shift to an offensive footing, said Shen Ming-shih, acting deputy CEO of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research.

Life goes on: Taiwan did not issue a warning when China fired the missiles as it did not want panic | Namrata Biji Ahuja Life goes on: Taiwan did not issue a warning when China fired the missiles as it did not want panic | Namrata Biji Ahuja

The US C4ISR system (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) can help Taiwan. The US has an obligation to Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act, 1979. This act of the US Congress says its decision to establish diplomatic ties with China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined peacefully. “If the US is willing to assist, it may be C4ISR and some ammunition and platforms,” said Shen.

Taiwanese have never seen war, and the 23 million people here have been living a comfortable life, earning good money, not to mention PhDs; enjoying their weekends and the benefits of technology that is superior to most of the world. Only a few, like members of the Kuomintang, now the opposition party, remember the cost.

“After retreating to Taiwan, my father never had a chance to see his parents, sister and brother until 40 years later,” said Lu. “In 1989, he finally took the first trip back to his hometown to meet his siblings. His parents had passed away. He brought back a photo of my grandma and put it in his room. I know my father was missing his mom very much, though he never shared his sorrows with us.” Lu Deh-hua died this year, aged 98.

Lu said her father looked terribly disturbed whenever he saw Chinese military presence on the strait. “Now I understand why he never talked about it,” she said. As for herself, some protests outside the Bank of China in Taipei were the only signs of tension with China she had seen before August. The bank is the only Chinese entity in the city. So, when people want to raise anti-China slogans, the bank becomes the protest site.

Taiwan did not issue a warning when China fired the missiles. “Every time there is an earthquake, my cellphone beeps so loudly! Sometimes, it alerts five seconds in advance,” said Lu. “But, when missiles flew over Taiwan, we did not know! I read it in a Japanese newspaper the next morning.” The Central Weather Bureau’s 10-second emergency response system, which Lu referred to, is actually capable of flagging a tsunami half an hour before it strikes.

When the “Chinese tsunami” hit, the government did not create panic. But, the military strategists in Taiwan know that channels of communication, especially with the US, need to be active. Taiwan cannot afford to get cut off. In the last one month, Taiwan has faced multiple cyberattacks. There have also been disinformation campaigns and attempts at spying. The lessons from Ukraine are helping Taiwan prepare for asymmetric warfare. But there is hope that war may not be imminent.

Taiwanese military strategists say that the Chinese military exercises were a message to the US, more than to Taiwan. A Taiwanese officer, who analysed the drills, said that at one time 11 missiles were fired and then the tests ended abruptly. The deduction is that even China was worried that the exercises could have a cascading effect on regional security and economic activities.

No one knows the Chinese mind better than Taiwanese. They also know that one day, China could well use the learnings from these military exercises to fulfil its dream of unification.

But, for now, what did China gain? It achieved a new normal where the median line will no longer be respected. Air defence identification zone violations will be more frequent; cyberattacks will increase; gaps in multidomain warfare will be filled; and the blockade scenario testing will enable it to factor in situations that can be counterproductive to Chinese interests.

China’s latest action, as well as its seemingly blind pursuit of supremacy, is a wake-up call for countries like India. India has normally been measured in its response to cross-strait issues. On August 27, India used the phrase “militarisation of the Taiwan Strait” in a tweet by its High Commission in Colombo, amid a spat with China over a Chinese ship docking in Sri Lanka.

Lee Che-chuan, associate research fellow at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, Taiwan, said it was high time members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan and the US) demonstrated to the world that QUAD was not “merely a talk shop, but a substantive platform for the defence of democracy”.

Fang of National Tsing Hua University said India could be a new security stabiliser for the region if it played its cards right. “I appreciate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement at Shangri-La in 2018 that India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a club of limited members,” he said. “Most countries are looking for development, rather than competition. India could take the lead in forming a development bloc.” New Delhi’s challenge will be achieving this while maintaining ambiguity over the ‘one China’ policy.

The US, China and Taiwan all have elections coming up. For the US, it is the crucial mid-term polls. The communists in China are holding their party congress in November, where Xi’s third term will be reaffirmed. Taiwan will have its local body polls in November, where the Kuomintang could face a challenge to 14 out of its 22 seats if the DPP can ride the nationalist wave.

Even underneath the clouds of war, legislators in Taiwan are on the ground—arguing, protesting and, above all, promising to protect freedom. Fan Yun, a DPP legislator, said the ruling party represented the voice of the majority as well as the minorities which stood for human rights and democracy. “The DPP has taken a decision to stand with the minorities like the LGBT community and bring progressive reforms,” she said. “By doing so, it also protects its own identity which is very different from communist China.” Though Taiwan has constantly been living under China’s military threat, she said, it is “learning from bigger democracies and working with the civil society”. Pelosi’s visit was a big win for the DPP, which has helped Taiwan arrive on the world stage, with the US backing it publicly. The DPP’s worry, however, is over sanctions against Taiwan—farmers and fruit-sellers are facing a tough time.

On August 27, Kuomintang leaders protested against the government in front of Legislative Yuan (parliament). Legislator Chen I-hsin said the Kuomintang had maintained peace and stability in the region for 30 years. “There was common ground between Beijing and Taipei, which is important because on a daily basis more than 1.5 million people are doing business in mainland China,” he said. “The product chain across the strait, particularly information and communication technology products, serves the whole world.” He said the only condition from Beijing was that it would not allow Taiwan to go independent.

What the pro-unification camp within the Kuomintang fails to understand is that before Kuomintang strongman Chiang Kai-shek came to Taiwan to use it as a base to capture the mainland, the islanders did not speak Chinese. “They did not like his coming because they were forced to learn Mandarin; they spoke Taiwanese or Japanese,” said Namrata Hasija, research associate, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. “To expect Taiwanese to live under the communist party regime is out of the question.”

When Kuomintang vice chairman Andrew Hsai recently went to China to hold talks with Taiwanese businessmen, the DPP was annoyed. But, the Kuomintang tried to score brownie points by taking up the cause of cross-strait businesses and tradesmen. Hsai returned to Taipei on August 27 and is learnt to have told Kuomintang chairman Eric Chu that he had conveyed to the Chinese side that the people of Taiwan were against pressure and the blockade tactics. The DPP has clarified that talks with the communist party broke down because of China’s preconditions.

Politics aside, the people of Taiwan have demonstrated to the world that they are not ready to submit to China’s bullying anymore. As the year-end chill slowly sets in, high tides on the strait may prompt the PLA to ease up on its routine breaches. But Taiwan will continue to be monitored by China. Not just by spies who mingle and merge with the island population, but also by watchers who keep tabs on celebrations, visits and elections. Even if Taiwanese voters want to focus on broken water pipes or public transport problems, Chinese hackers would creep in, trying to steal their data to potentially influence elections.

So, even as Taiwanese voters make their democratic choice, they cannot forget their autocratic neighbour. China wants to keep reminding Taiwanese that they are the Republic of China. For Xi, the extent of this strategy’s success will decide whether the process of unification will be smooth or forcible.

History has lessons for everyone who cares to learn. And Taiwanese have shown before that they are champions of their own cause. Taiwan was under martial law till 1987. The first presidential election was held almost a decade later in 1996, a landmark event that ushered in democracy on the island. Now, faced with unprecedented Chinese aggression, Taiwanese are once again showing how resilient they are.