Each year, Taiwan's military holds the Han Kuang exercises - a public showcasing of military might, simulating how prepared the island is to defend itself.

In the 2013 war games, live ammunition was used for the first time in years. The move was seen as a renewed effort by Taiwan to signal to China its desire to remain independent.

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It comes at a time when China’s president, Xi Xinping, has vocally expressed his impatience and has stressed the “need” for Taiwan to acknowledge Chinese authority.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, but the island sees itself as an autonomous nation, and has operated with its own government for half a century.

For decades, with the support of the United States and other Western powers, Taiwan’s military capabilities were seen as being able to counter China’s. This kept Asia in a political balance, but that is now shifting. China is increasing its military might and spends more than 10 times Taiwan on its forces.

At the same time, the US is showing less willingness to provide Taiwan with the latest technological weaponry, despite laws which legally bind the world superpower to defend Taiwan.

In 2008, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-Jeou launched a programme to scrap mandatory conscription and professionalise the military by turning it into an all-volunteer, fully salaried force.

But when news broke of the death of 24-year-old Hung Chung-Chiu, a young army conscript, more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets in front of the presidential office.

Opinion polls showed that the public's already dim view of the island’s military worsened further and the president delayed plans to professionalise its military until 2017.

The appeal of the military profession is lacking for many young Taiwanese, who choose to prioritise their education and seek employment in better paid jobs.

Taiwan's best bet is its most elite force. Known as 'Frogmen', these soldiers endure gruelling training, and are considered some of the best in the world.

101 East gains exclusive access to new cadets as they endure "hell week", a five-day test of their stamina that leaves them bruised and bloody.

And at a time when Taiwan's public sentiment is very much against the military, and China's influence is growing, questions remain over how to keep the balance across a Strait still considered the most dangerous flashpoint in the world.

We visit Taiwan’s military training facilities and investigates whether the island’s modernisation efforts are doomed.

Will #Taiwan be able to fend off China with a volunteer army? Join the conversation at @AJ101East

In pictures

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.     

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Source: Al Jazeera