Sjoerd den Daas
Sjoerd den Daas
“A difficult decision,” Tsai Ing-wen called it at the press conference where she announced that she would extend her military service for a year. She considers the four months that now apply to be insufficient. “As president and head of the armed forces, it is my inescapable duty to defend our national interests and democratic way of life,” Tsai said.
Not only the army, but also civilians are preparing for what no one hopes is coming.
Like apparently badly mutilated arms and legs, they lie scattered in the training room. White tubes with artificial flesh wounds where the red fake blood flows out. When one of the participants in a tutorial presses a bandage deep into the artificial wound, the instructor screams.
It must be as realistic as possible, here on this war first aid course. “We learn here what we can do to prevent blood loss,” says one of the students, who has just put on a mask.
“People should be prepared,” is Enoch Wu’s firm belief. He is the founder of Forward Alliance, a think tank that organizes workshops. “An earthquake or an event like in Ukraine,” he refers to the possible foreland of Taiwan. Beijing has repeatedly indicated it wants to ‘reunify’ the de facto independent island with the Chinese mainland by force if necessary.
“From first aid to wounds, to rescue operations and emergency communication, we handle pretty much everything that people can do themselves when the emergency response fails,” says Wu. Only 1 percent of Taiwanese are able to provide first aid, he says. “That’s enough in a normal situation, but not in a crisis. Everyone has to roll up their sleeves.”
Every morning, sometimes in the middle of the night, I hear the roar of airplane engines.
Taiwan is used to something. There is no panic on the island, although no one denies that the threat from China is visibly increasing. Earlier this week, Beijing sent a record number of planes into the air over the waters around Taiwan. 43 of them crossed the unofficial center line between China and Taiwan.
“My house is opposite the Tainan Air Force Base,” said lawmaker Wang Ting-yu in his office in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. “Every morning, sometimes in the middle of the night, I hear the roar of the airplane engines.” Taiwanese aircraft coming into action as China appears in the Taiwan Strait. “My son only goes to primary school. He himself knows: the People’s Liberation Army is harassing us again.”
The Chinese threat is an integral part of everyday life, DPP politician Wang would like to say. Tensions flared again last summer when Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. Even then, the People’s Liberation Army was threatening, at sea and in the air. Rockets were launched from the mainland and landed in the sea. “Pelosi’s visit was just an excuse for Beijing,” Wang said.
To counter the growing threat, conscription is now being extended. From 2024, all men born after 1 January 2005 must serve one year. “Peace cannot be taken for granted,” Tsai said. “No one wants war. But only by preparing for a war can we avoid it. Only by being able to fight a war can we stop one.” A stronger, better equipped army should simply deter China.
We need to send a clear signal to Xi Jinping: if he launches a full-scale invasion, he will fail.
“A difficult task,” says Wang. “Even if we could win, a war in this region would kill the world economy. We must send a clear signal to Xi Jinping: if he launches a full-scale invasion, he will fail. Taiwan’s self-defense capacity will therefore be increased.” Then Wang takes a rifle from his office. “Not a real one,” he laughs. “We are trying to set up training centers for civilians all over the country.”
The Taiwanese army numbers less than 200,000 soldiers, less than 10 percent of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Reservists, about 2.3 million in total, are mostly untrained. “We have to make them better, get more women into the army. They learn to shoot, to aim,” says Wang. “We hope not, but if it happens, they should know what they can do. America is our strongest partner, but ultimately we have to be able to defend Taiwan ourselves.”
For most citizens, this is not the main reason for attending the first aid workshop. “Taiwan has been through a lot of disasters lately,” says Scott, one of the many young people signing up, on his first day of training. “Earthquakes, train derailments. I think it’s important to learn what I can do in such an event to help others and myself.”
“Of course, I don’t expect war, and I hope to never have to use the actions we learned today,” says Denise, another student. “But if it’s necessary, I hope I’m at least ready.” Scott thinks so too. “Across the street, people are thinking what they’re thinking. All we can do is prepare.”