warplanes it deployed to Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) between October 1 and October 5. This has since continued; just before November ended, China had Taiwan scrambling combat aircraft again after at least 27 planes from the mainland entered Taiwan’s air defense buffer zone.or the past two months, international headlines have made it appear as though a Chinese invasion of Taiwan were imminent. China, after all, set new historic records with the number of Chinese
An ADIZ refers to the airspace in which aircraft normally identify themselves for security purposes. The Chinese planes have not entered Taiwanese airspace. Chinese air incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, however, prompt Taiwan to scramble fighter jets in response and to issue radio warnings to Chinese pilots. During the air incursions, Chinese pilots have reportedly responded with profanity over the radio when asked to identify themselves.
In October, China deployed 150 warplanes in the course of five days, in a year in which Chinese air incursions in Taiwan’s ADIZ then numbered 680. As such, around 22 percent of the total air incursions that Taiwan saw between January and October 2021 took place in the course of five days. Significantly, the air incursions were done in the five days after Chinese National Day on October 1, and shortly before Taiwan commemorated its own national day on October 10.
Aside from sending fighter jets, Taiwan has responded to these incursions with indignant statements. At one point, Taiwan Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang accused Beijing of “wantonly” engaging in “military aggression, damaging regional peace.”
For many Taiwanese, however, China’s military threats seem to be, well, just flying over their heads.
A September poll by Intelligentsia Taipei, which is run by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), found that 50.2 percent of the public were not concerned about the possibility of war across the Taiwan Strait, while 42.5 percent of respondents were. Nearly 60 percent also felt that war was unlikely in the next 10 years. The results, in fact, conflict somewhat with KMT talking points. As the pro-China party, KMT claims that President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party — which says Taiwan is an independent state — has increased the possibility of war across the Taiwan Strait.
Taking threats in stride
While the poll was done before the escalation in the number of Chinese flybys, its results are likely to still reflect how the more recent Chinese air incursions are being perceived by the Taiwanese. In an early October story run online by Voice of America, a university student in New Taipei City was described as being afraid of an invasion by China. Yet it also quoted him as saying that a “lot of people said Taiwan is safe.”
Indeed, while the Chinese flybys have been front-page news in Taiwan, they have often quickly receded in favor of other headlines, such as those regarding entertainment news, dashcam footage, or gossip. For instance, by October 5, the attention of the Taiwanese public had already turned to a story about a bus driver being bitten by a female student. Similarly, gossip about the background of a talk show host replaced stories about the flybys from October 1 to October 5.
The inability of Chinese threats to have staying power in Taiwanese political discourse could well be traced partly to Taiwan’s media landscape, which is, oftentimes, more focused on tabloid gossip stories than serious political matters — this even from the island’s major media outlets and regardless of political slant.
Yet, at the same time, it is probably not that the Taiwanese are unconcerned about the threat of China. To be sure, the most important dividing issue in Taiwanese politics is the question of unification versus independence; this has been the most important issue in presidential elections in the last decade or so. The Taiwanese vote either for the pro-unification KMT or the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, on the basis of which party they believe would be able to maintain Taiwan’s current de facto independence from China or what is also referred to as the status quo.
The Tsai administration even successfully got reelected by highlighting what has happened to Hong Kong, capitalizing on fears among Taiwanese that closer relations with China would lead to the loss of democratic freedoms for Taiwan. The Taiwanese feel a strong cultural affinity for Hong Kong, given their shared language and a history of cultural exchanges, and with Hong Kong film, music, and other cultural exports having been influential in Taiwan in past decades. Hong Kong’s recent history provides Taiwan with proof of the negative effects of having closer links with China. Arguably, though, the Tsai administration was merely repackaging longstanding concerns regarding independence/unification issues in a new form when it leveraged on the issue in the 2020 elections.
Other recent actions by China, such as the disappearance of international tennis star Peng Shuai after she made public allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex, are unlikely to help the Taiwanese see Beijing as a benevolent and friendly neighbor, much less ruler. As it is, they have already faced decades of threats from China, with thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait. Not surprisingly, a May 2021 survey conducted by researchers from the Brookings Institute found that the escalation in Chinese military threats was something nearly 80 percent of the Taiwanese respondents said they were aware of.
Yet while 57.6 percent were concerned about war breaking out between both sides of the Taiwan Strait, only 30 percent were more worried about war than they were six months prior. As the survey authors put it, “[After] 70 years, the military threat is so routine that most Taiwanese people no longer notice or react to it.” The Taiwanese are conscious of Chinese threats, they added, but “few Taiwanese people believe it is imminent or inevitable.”
In other words, it is not that the Chinese government’s efforts to project power have been lost to the Taiwanese. It may just be that China has failed to establish a narrative of escalating, developing, and progressively increasing threats. Instead, these threats come off as monotonous and repetitive to Taiwanese, as a result of which they fail to linger as a news item — even when Chinese flybys occur at historic highs.
The question, however, is whether or not the Taiwanese are correct in reading Beijing, and in turn, their future. In the past two years, China’s air incursions have increased to become near-daily occurrences. It is generally believed that the rise in air incursions from the mainland was in response to the strengthening ties between Taiwan and the United States under the Trump administration. China also broke from precedent by conducting nighttime flights, as well as flights that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
These seem intended to send a signal regarding China’s capacity to strike at Taiwan and to imply that this could happen at any time. The composition of the warplanes sent into the ADIZ is also meant to gesture toward China’s military capacities, including bombers capable of carrying nuclear arms. That being said, military threats directed at Taiwan are not just meant at targeting the island but are sometimes primarily meant as a response to the actions of the United States and other Western powers.
Air incursions occur now with sufficient frequency that they cannot merely be viewed as a form of signaling. Apparently, they also serve as a form of training exercise for Chinese pilots. The air incursions allow China as well to gather data on the pattern of Taiwan’s response, with regard to how it scrambles its fighter planes, and the frequent interceptions worn on Taiwanese airframes. The Taiwanese government reported spending close to US$900 billion responding to Chinese air incursions in October 2020.
Particularly perilous for Taiwan is the pattern of military escalation between Western powers and China. After Chinese National Day, on October 2 and 3, joint exercises were carried out between two U.S. carrier groups, a U.K. carrier group, and a Japanese warship. Following the exercises, the U.K. carrier group transited through the Luzon Strait to conduct joint exercises with the Singaporean navy.
It is not uncommon for the United States to respond with naval exercises after Chinese flybys of Taiwan — which have sometimes occurred as a reaction to events such as diplomatic visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan under the Trump administration or Biden administration. China then responds with further naval exercises at times.
All these activities have helped lead to speculations of “a new Cold War” by the Western media, with some even suggesting that nuclear war is potentially on the horizon for Taiwan and China. Months before Beijing decided to turn Taiwan’s ADIZ into a playground for its fighter jets, The Economist was already calling Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth.”
But the Taiwanese themselves have begged to differ with that view, even as China keeps on throwing its weight around. Some Western pundits have also begun arguing that Beijing’s recent saber-rattling is merely an attempt to deflect the attention of the Chinese public from its bad handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other governance fumbles. And despite its unprecedented show of military might during Taiwan’s most recent National Day celebrations, Taipei obviously would still rather make money, not war. For all their political bickering, China continues to be Taiwan’s top trading partner, with nearly 30 percent of the island’s total exports making their way to the mainland last year. ●
Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of the Taipei-based New Bloom Magazine and is a freelance editor and translator.