“Today it’s Israel, tomorrow it could be Taiwan”

Taiwan in the shadow of the Chinese threat and in solidarity with Israel – an exclusive Israel Today report.

By Yossi Aloni | | Topics: China
Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office
Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

“People like me know the threat from China. But I have to say that the younger generation has never experienced this kind of threat. People like me at my age are ready. In the shadow of the threat from China, we are always ready. Young people live in a different world, they have never experienced a disaster, except natural disasters. We have two very important examples before us: one is the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel. We are trying to tell young people: today it’s Israel, tomorrow it’s Ukraine. It could also be Taiwan, so prepare yourself.”

That’s what Taiwan Deputy Foreign Minister Tien Chung-Kwang told us as China began a large-scale military exercise around Taiwan, practicing a siege of the island and simulating attacks against key military targets. The exercises began just three days after the inauguration of new Taiwanese President Lai Chingde (also known as William Lai), who, like his predecessor Tsai Ing-Wen, is firmly opposed to unification with the communist regime in China. Lai’s inauguration speech, in which he called on China to stop threatening and declared that the island’s future would be determined solely by its 23 million people, was strongly condemned in Beijing.

Chinese media reported that dozens of fighter jets with “live missiles” took part in the exercise, while CNN said there were about 30 aircraft. A senior Taiwanese security official told the US broadcaster that the fighter jets had crossed the so-called “median line,” which extends into the detection range of Taiwanese air defense systems. It is not an official border line, but China does not recognize it, and until a few years ago its planes and ships avoided crossing the line that runs through the Taiwan Strait, a sea route very important to the global economy that separates the island from mainland China.

Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called it a “disgraceful” speech, and Chinese state media labeled the new president’s remarks as “very offensive” and responded by saying that the island’s future should be decided by all 1.4 billion Chinese people, not just the island’s 23 million inhabitants (even though China is not a democracy). A Chinese military statement said the drills were “a harsh punishment for the separatist actions of Taiwan’s independence forces and a stark warning against interference and provocation by foreign powers” – a message, of course, to Taiwan’s most important ally, the United States.

According to CNN, about 12 warships were deployed around Taiwan during the exercise, and about 12 more Chinese coast guard ships were sent near the smaller islands in the strait, which are under Taiwanese control and border mainland China. The exercise was codenamed “Joint Sword 2024A,” and various media outlets point out that the “A” in the name indicates that China may conduct more exercises in the future.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry condemned China for the military exercises, calling them “senseless provocations that undermine peace and stability in the region.” It said it was pursuing the Chinese armed forces and had sent fighter jets into the air and put land, sea and missile troops on alert in response. “We are prepared with determination and restraint. We are not seeking confrontation, but we will not avoid it either. We are confident that we can maintain national security,” the Defense Ministry said.

Taiwan’s new President William Lai at his swearing-in ceremony on May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

For the new president, it is the first test of office, into which he was sworn in just early last week. Lai, 64, had served as deputy to outgoing President Tsai Ing-Wen for the past four years and succeeded her as chairman of the Progressive Democratic Party, which has been in power for more than a decade. Lai, a trained doctor, called on China in his inaugural speech not to threaten the island’s democratic government. “By standing side by side with other democratic countries, we can create a peaceful world community that can demonstrate the power of deterrence and prevent war, and we can achieve our goal – peace through strength,” he said.

In response to the Chinese military exercise, Lai’s spokesman said: “It is regrettable that China is threatening Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, as well as regional peace and stability, through unilateral military provocations. In the face of external threats and challenges, we will continue to defend democracy.” The President’s spokesman, like the Ministry of Defense, stressed that Taiwan is confident in its ability to defend itself. President Lai himself visited a military base and raised his fists in the air together with the fighters there to demonstrate strength.

Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

Taiwan is the island where the government of the “Republic of China” took refuge after it was defeated in the civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in 1949. Since then, the majority of Taiwanese residents have opposed life under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Taiwanese government has stressed that it alone has the right to decide its future and has firmly rejected pressure from Beijing for reunification.

The communist regime in China has never given up on the possibility of Beijing taking over Taiwan by force, and although President Xi Jinping has called for a process of “peaceful reunification,” he has made it clear that China’s takeover of Taiwan is ultimately “inevitable.” Over the past two years, China has already conducted several large-scale exercises around Taiwan, including in retaliation for a visit by then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in 2022.

The Chinese exercise surprised me while I was on the island, where I was invited to the presidential inauguration. The truth is that there was no sign of anything on the streets. People continued with their lives.

Swearing-in of the 16th President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

But more and more people I’ve spoken to understand that we’re entering a new era in which the likelihood of a Chinese invasion of the island is increasing. The Taiwanese aren’t taking any chances. They’ve taken two important steps: They’ve extended the military service for young people from four to 12 months. “This is probably the first step we’ve taken to make young people understand that this is a real threat that we have to take very seriously,” Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister said. In addition to extending the duration of military service, Taiwan has also increased investment in defense from 2 percent of the GDP to 2.5 percent last year. The island’s ruling party has set a goal of increasing the defense budget to 3 percent.

“China’s drills are a show of force for the sake of this new government,” Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister told me. “We have to understand that there is now a broad consensus in the world about how to ensure security, peace and stability in Taiwan. This is an important issue for all democracies. Such actions endanger peace and stability. We are not provocateurs. Our main goal is to maintain the status quo. We want to send a message to everyone in the world who is trying to destroy the status quo. That is how I see the exercises that China is conducting. We are building our own defense and trying to make it clear to the world where we stand. We will keep the economy going,” he added.

Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

The Taiwanese understand what happened to Israel on October 7. For them, it only strengthened the identity of values ​​- the alliance of democracies, liberal countries that promote human rights. The democracies of the free world were under attack by authoritarian regimes and needed to help each other.

After October 7, Taiwan embraced Israel. Taiwan’s representative in Israel, Abbi Lee, donated over a million dollars to Israel, including food packages for families, donations to Magen David Adom, and security equipment for the Center for Local Government. Not everyone in parliament was happy about these donations – and there were inquiries from members of the opposition about which units of the IDF Taiwan had donated to. There have also been some demonstrations against Israel in Taiwan. But there have also been large solidarity events, including an emotional event by the Christian community in Taipei last Saturday.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Taiwan Office even participated in an agricultural volunteer day to help with the harvest and took a trip to the north of Israel together with the Confrontation Line Forum the represents communities under siege near the Lebanon border. The Israeli mission in Taiwan has received many inquiries from Taiwanese citizens. A Taiwanese blogger who visited Israel after October 7 even published a book in Chinese about October 7, which will help Israel gain more exposure in China.

Taiwanese admire Israel’s resilience and want to learn from it. After October 7, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense set up a task force to study the war between Israel and Hamas. The task force was created with the understanding that intelligence is a key factor in preparing for possible enemy attacks, Taiwan’s defense minister explained. In other words, Taiwanese want to make sure they too are not caught off guard, as Israelis were last year.

Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister said his country supports Israel’s right to self-defense after October 7. “The October 7 attack not only hit Israel, but the entire region. It set off a chain reaction. We learn from what is happening in Israel on all issues of international cooperation and mobilizing allies. We strongly condemned the Hamas attack. Our stance against terrorism is clear. Any attack by terrorists is obscene, and when North Korea fires missiles, we condemn it in every way,” Kwang added.

My Taiwanese companions were amazed to hear about the dramatic night of April 13, when Israeli interceptors stopped hundreds of drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles fired by Iran at Israel. “Israeli technology is amazing. Exactly what we need,” said one of my Taiwanese companions. But he also knows that there is no chance of Israel providing military assistance to Taiwan. The last thing Israel needs is to get into a fight with the Chinese. Incidentally, Israel has already turned down a request from Taiwan to help train an active reserve formation—something Israel specializes in.

Tien Chung-Kwang, Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister. Photo: Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I asked the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs how Taiwanese see themselves. He replied: “In the past, if you asked people here, half said they were Chinese and half said they were Taiwanese. Today, over 70 percent say they are Taiwanese. Period. And fewer and fewer say they are Chinese. In the past, 40 percent of our exports went to China. That is no longer the case. Since 2016, we have introduced a new policy to diversify our business in 18 countries. Exports to China have dropped to 33 percent.”

For Kwang, it is important to emphasize that Taiwan sees itself as a source of good for humanity. That was the case during the Corona pandemic, when Taiwan was the first country to inform the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak of the virus in Huan, though the WHO ignored it. At that time, Taiwan donated 50 million masks to the world. But today, under pressure from China, it is prevented from attending World Health Organization meetings even as an observer, although it has much to contribute. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Taiwan has trained doctors and medical personnel from 80 countries in its hospitals, successfully fighting the pandemic.

Despite the great distance, Taiwan provided humanitarian aid in Ukraine and, after natural disasters, also in Turkey and Japan.

“We know that China is much bigger and much stronger,” the deputy foreign minister added. “We know that, but we have more support in the democratic world. What China does affects not only Taiwan – it can affect the stability and security of the entire region. Fifty percent of world trade passes through this region. A blockade of Taiwan can affect many countries in the region. It can also lead to harassment of other countries, and that is why the world should take this to heart.”

The deputy foreign minister warns that a continued blockade of Taiwan could impact the export of semiconductor chips from the island to the world. Taiwan is considered a computer chip powerhouse and is one of the largest chip manufacturers in the world.

What lessons do you draw from the Hong Kong model, especially when China promises peaceful reunification with Taiwan?

“China promised a country with two systems. Hong Kong actually joined China. China promised not to change the system in Hong Kong for at least 50 years. And what happened? They changed the whole system there. Now they are offering Taiwan the same model. But they messed it up. In the end, China’s promises are empty. It is unfortunate what happened to Hong Kong, but Taiwan has learned its lesson well.”

In the island nation, there are fears that Taiwan could be the next victim after Ukraine and Israel. And they are preparing for war – with a focus on defense. In the streets of the capital Taipei, signs point the way to the nearest bunker. Recently, residents received a disturbing text message warning them about the launch of a Chinese rocket or satellite into space – something Taiwanese are not used to. The US Congress recently passed an $8 billion aid package for Taiwan—the bipartisan majority for aid to Taiwan was even larger than the majority for the aid package for Israel. Taiwanese people take heart from this when they talk to us about the possibility that American support for Taiwan could decrease or be stopped completely after Donald Trump returns to the White House.

People we spoke to on the street were divided about the threat of a Chinese invasion. Chen Yun, a shopkeeper in central Taipei, is not worried: “There will be peace. There will be no war,” she says confidently. And I remind her that the day before the war, almost all residents of Ukraine were sure that Russia would not invade. John Lu, a local student, on the other hand, says that Chinese aggression is very worrying, and that people are afraid of war.

Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

The Taiwanese army is being modernized with Western weapons and is preparing for scenarios of a military invasion by China. The regular Taiwanese army comprises 180,000 soldiers and about 1.7 million reservists, according to publications. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Taiwan has been training its reserve forces. Taiwan’s strategy is to deter China from invading and, if it does invade, to delay it through asymmetric warfare. In previous polls, 73 percent of Taiwanese said they would defend the island if China invaded.

Recently, the Taiwanese even built their own attack submarine for the first time, called the “Sea Monster.” The emphasis is on deterrence and defense – not attack.

President Lai’s inauguration was a celebration of democracy, a veritable carnival of music and dance, but, as mentioned, also a show of force with soldiers, 21-gun cannon salutes and fighter planes. The impressed vice president shed a tear. At the end of the ceremony, the President and his Vice President sang and danced with children.

Swearing-in ceremony for the 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2024. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office

An honor guard of soldiers throwing their rifles in the air was followed by dance, music and acrobatic groups, baseball players, judo teams, a motorcade of scooters, hip-hop dancers, Taiwanese rap artists, children’s groups and even paper kites and a giant horse puppet that spit smoke. New and old. Modern and traditional. Beauty as an expression of strength and determination. The Taiwanese deliberately chose a ceremony with many children and young people – to convey a message: the government is on the side of the young people who want to preserve their independence from China – against the opposition and the older generation who want to unite with the Chinese.

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