International headlines have been blaring about Chinese incursions into Taiwanese airspace at levels never seen before.
The reports are true. It is the case that Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan have increased to levels arguably not seen in decades, or possibly ever. Between October 1st and October 5th, around 150 Chinese warplanes were deployed to Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the airspace in which planes normally identify themselves for security purposes. This prompted Taiwan to scramble its own warplanes in order to conduct interceptions.
In the two months since, Chinese air incursions have continued, sometimes in evident response to visits of foreign politicians, such as delegations from the US or Europe. 196 Chinese warplanes were detected in October, and 159 in November, with November’s incursions including nine from nuclear-capable bombers. An article in The Economist named Taiwan “The Most Dangerous Place in the World” in a headline some months back.
Yet life continues as usual in Taiwan. Certainly, the 150 warplanes were a front-page headline in the days between October 1st and October 5th. But not long after, headlines returned to the usual celebrity gossip, dashcam footage, and political conspiracy theories. People are going about their everyday lives, rather than panicking about the effects of a possible Chinese blockade. Though there were some reports of panic buying in China in response to reports that an invasion of Taiwan could be imminent, an eventuality that might lead to a blockade of China by western powers.
Since I appear sometimes on media outlets seeking commentary on Taiwan, it’s been surprising to find, on what I otherwise perceive as a normal, average day, a sudden spate of international television and radio outlets calling me up for interview or quote requests. International media sometimes magnifies quite different issues from those perceived as significant or meaningful within Taiwan itself.
Some anchor or host might ask, in tense, worried tones, about what people are thinking or feeling on the ground in Taiwan, and I’m just like, “Uhhhhhhh, people are calm. Nobody is freaking out. Life goes on.” This sort of response can be completely at odds with the vibe they’re going for, the host appears nonplussed, and the segment abruptly ends as they charge ahead to the next emergency.
I guess there are a number of explanations. For one, Taiwan has had years and years of living with Chinese military threats. China has had missiles pointed at Taiwan for decades. To be Taiwanese is to live under this constant existential threat. In my case, this has been true my whole life.
There has been an increase in rhetoric from Chinese nationalist types intimating that they’d be willing to just clear out and eliminate the population of Taiwan and seize the land. But China would doubtless prefer to take Taiwan with its infrastructure and resources intact, and would want to minimize disruption—China is itself reliant on Taiwanese supply chains, after all —so logically, it’s not yet a serious threat.
Polling and survey data show that Taiwanese are concerned about Chinese belligerence. It’s not like these threats are perceived as not being real, in spite of all the hand-wringing about the low willingness of Taiwanese to join the military or to increase the military budget—but it seems clear to me that nobody is itching to fight a war. I sometimes wonder whether support for the status quo, rather than seeking outright independence—something that would lead to armed reprisals from China—may be linked to this disinclination to join the military; that is, there appears to be a lack of interest in armed conflict of any sort. I don’t have the data to back that up, but it’s one of my hypotheses.
In any case, the threat of Chinese invasion is not an imminent one. If it were, there would be proof from satellite imagery of Chinese troops gathering in preparation for an invasion. China would also have to be ready to shrug off the enormous loss of life and global economic disruption that would inevitably result from an invasion, which it is currently not prepared to do.
Data suggests that Taiwanese are aware of this, even if the long-term threat is real. For example, China currently lacks the lift capacity to bring enough troops over to Taiwan to conduct a long-term invasion—meaning that they can’t fit all the troops they’d need onto the number of boats they currently have. But they do appear to be working on this by expanding the size of their fleet and developing the capacity to conduct a staged invasion.
Knowing all this can be quite strange. As a reporter, I have access to much more information than your average person, of course, which sometimes means seeing airplane watchers idly speculating on the movements of US and Chinese warplanes, and what this may mean, e.g., are deployments of US anti-submarine aircraft in response to Chinese naval activity? After the fact, confirmation from the Ministry of National Defense press releases or other sources sometimes provide confirmation.
There can be no doubt that the Chinese government wants Taiwanese to be afraid. If Taiwanese are convinced that resistance is futile, then they won’t fight back, making it easier for them to take Taiwan with minimal loss of life and without destruction of the infrastructure that they themselves need.
I also believe that part of the reason why Taiwanese don’t react to these obvious threats is that China has really failed in constructing a narrative of progressively increasing belligerence to Taiwan. Military and defense analysts may note the increasing numbers of Chinese warplanes, naval exercises, and other signals that China intends to send to Taiwan regarding their capacities and intentions. But the public at large doesn’t notice this. It’s just another repetitive news item that comes up from time to time, as it has done all our lives.
Given how fast the headlines about military threats recede in favor of celebrity gossip, it’s clear that the highly sensationalist, unserious, and tabloidy nature of Taiwan’s media ecosystem contributes to the low-key response. Heck. It would be ironic if the sheer goofiness of Taiwan’s tabloid media, always in search of the next hot story, ends up being Taiwan’s best weapon against Chinese psychological warfare.
Taiwanese sociologist Wu Jieh-min came up with the term “China factor” to describe how China’s political and economic influence is always a substrate of Taiwanese politics; election after election has shown that the major dividing line in Taiwanese politics is between the pro-unification and pro-independence camps. I think that’s the case—the “China factor” is always there in some form.
Michel de Certeau, another sociologist, described the “practices of the everyday” as a site of resistance in his book by the same name. Perhaps that’s the case with Taiwan, then, in that the everyday is what staves off the attempts by the Chinese government to make Taiwanese demoralized and unwilling to resist. Maybe the everyday is that site of resistance for Taiwanese, as well, even if most probably won’t ever realize it.