Island is overhauling conscription as it tries to boost armed forces to face more assertive China.
Taiwanese troops using tanks, mortars and small arms have staged a drill aimed at repelling an attack from China, which has increased its threats to reclaim the island and stepped up its own displays of military might.
“No matter what is happening around the Taiwan Strait, our determination to guard our homeland will never change,” Major General Chen Chong-ji, director of the department of political warfare, said on Tuesday.
The drills at the Hukou Army Base, south of the capital, Taipei, were intended as a show of Taiwan’s determination to maintain peace between the sides through a show of force, said Chen.
They are also meant to reassure the public the military is maintaining its guard before next month’s Lunar New Year festival when many soldiers take leave.
China considers the democratically-governed island, which lies 160km (100 miles) off its southeast coast, as part of its territory.
But President Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected in January 2020, has firmly rejected Beijing’s claim, leading it to stage war games and dispatch fighter jets and reconnaissance planes on an almost daily basis towards Taiwan in recent months. Analysts say the “grey-zone” warfare tactics are aimed at exhausting the Taiwanese military.
Tsai has sought to bolster the island’s defences by launching a programme to build new submarines and buying billions of dollars of weapons from the United States, including upgraded F-16 fighter jets, armed drones, rocket systems and Harpoon missiles capable of hitting both sea and land targets.
Washington stepped up support for Taiwan as its ties with Beijing worsened last year, including record arms sales, visits by high-ranking officials and an end to decades-long restrictions on exchanges between US and Taiwanese officials.
On Monday, Beijing said it would sanction US officials it claimed had behaved badly over Taiwan.
“Owing to the wrong actions of the United States, China has decided to impose sanctions on responsible US officials who have engaged in nasty behaviour on the Taiwan issue,” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
She did not specify the names of the US officials under sanction and the nature of the sanctions.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, reuniting Taiwan with the mainland is an issue of legacy. In a 2019 speech, he warned Taiwan that any effort to assert independence would be met by armed forces. Chinese officials describe Taiwan as the most important and sensitive issue in China’s relationship with the US, and it has previously announced sanctions on US companies selling weapons to Taiwan, although it has not been clear how, or if, they were enforced.
Relations between the US and China, the world’s two biggest economies, have plunged to their lowest level in decades, with disagreements on issues including Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights, the coronavirus pandemic, the South China Sea, trade and espionage.
China last year unveiled sanctions on 11 US citizens, including legislators from the Republican Party, in response to Washington’s sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials accused of curtailing political freedom in the former British colony.
The escalating US-China tensions have prompted alarm, with some observers fearing the “cold war” between the two nations could turn hot. Rex Tillerson, the former US secretary of state, told the Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month that he had “a fear that we will come to military conflict with China within the decade and that will be when they make their move on Taiwan”.
Tillerson said President Xi’s plan was to “raise the stakes so significantly to US military losses that the American people will say, “’Wait a minute, we’re going to incur thousands of casualties to save Taiwan. Why would we do that?’” He added, “And then China will get it de facto, or we’ll have a really ugly war in the Pacific.”
The outgoing administration of Donald Trump last week declassified its strategy to counter China, a policy that focuses on accelerating India’s rise as a counterweight to Beijing and enabling Taiwan to “develop an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities that will help ensure its security, freedom from coercion, resilience, and ability to engage China on its own terms”.
Along with the world’s largest standing military, numbering nearly two million members, China has the largest navy, with approximately 350 vessels, including two aircraft carriers and about 56 submarines. It also possesses about 2,000 combat fighters and bombers and 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles, considered a key strategic and psychological weapon against Taiwan.
Taiwan’s armed forces are a fraction of that number, with much of its ground forces consisting of short-term conscripts, and its fleet numbering only 86 vessels – roughly half of them missile boats for coastal patrol.