Status: 02.10.2023, 06:48 a.m.
By: Sven Hauberg
Taiwanese soldier at military exercise in Kaohsiung (archive image). © Ceng Shou Yi/Imago
China threatens violence, Taiwan is calm. But how well is the country prepared for an attack? Visit to a defense fair in Taipei.
Taipei – Captain Lin Hsin-yu stands in front of the model of a "Mirage 2000" and goes into raptures. The French fighter jet flies excellently, says the Taiwanese pilot, much better than the F-16 of the Americans or the fighter-bomber "Ching-kuo" of domestic production. The acceleration, the controls, everything is great. The machines have a few years under their belts. As early as the mid-1990s, Taiwan began buying 60 "Mirage" from the French manufacturer Dassault. Now several of them are to be brought up to date technically. This is also urgently needed, says Lin. Because China – Lin speaks of the "enemy" – is becoming more and more aggressive, and if Beijing once again sends dozens of fighter jets into Taiwan's air defense zone, the machines are needed as a deterrent.
It's a Saturday morning in September: while the thermometer outside climbs towards the 30-degree mark, the crowds of people push their way through an exhibition hall in the east of Taipei. After a four-year break, the defense trade fair "Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Expo" will take place again in Taiwan's capital for the first time. According to the organizers, it is the largest edition to date, with around 280 exhibitors attending. They present drones, machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles.
"China has changed. That's why Taiwan has to change too."
The booth of the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense, where Captain Lin patiently answers visitors' questions in front of the "Mirage" model, takes up most of the space. The ministry shows here what it has in its depots and hangars. This is, of course, a message to China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that should be united with the mainland by force if necessary. But also to our own people: Look, we are prepared.
Captain Lin Hsin-yu in front of the model of a "Mirage 2000". © Sven Hauberg/IPPEN. MEDIA
The message seems to be getting across. Anyone who talks to the visitors of the defense fair senses a mixture of pride and defiance: Let them come, the Chinese! Hardly anyone here is afraid of an invasion. "We've been living with the threat of China for decades," says a man in a "Top Gun" T-shirt. With his son, he hurries from booth to booth to dust off stickers for a scrapbook. A defense fair for recreational fun. In general, the Taiwanese seem to stand behind their military. At the end of last year, the government decided to triple the duration of compulsory military service from four to twelve months – a step that 70 to 85 percent of people support, depending on the survey.
Before Tsai Ing-wen moved into Taiwan's presidential palace in 2016, defense was not a priority for the government, says Sheu Jyh-Shyang of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank that claims to be independent but is funded by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense. Today, things are different – also because China under state and party leader Xi Jinping is intensifying its rhetoric towards Taiwan. "China has changed. That's why Taiwan has to change," Sheu said at a meeting at the heavily secured institute in Taipei's government district. However, he does not believe in an imminent attack, as China's People's Liberation Army is not yet well enough prepared. U.S. experts take a similar view.
"It must never get to the point where Xi Jinping says: Today is the day"
Taiwan's Deputy Foreign Minister Roy Lee also does not believe that China will get serious any time soon. "If you were Xi Jinping, you would be offsetting the costs and benefits. I believe that war would be the most expensive option," Lee said at a meeting at Taiwan's Foreign Ministry. "And it would be the most unsafe option. You can win or lose a war – or you get stuck, like Russia, and you can't get out of it." Nevertheless, Taiwan is "of course preparing for the worst-case scenario," Lee explains. "It must never get to the point where Xi Jinping wakes up one day and says: Today is the day."
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Deterrence, for military expert Sheu, means that Taiwan must rely on a "mixture of classic and asymmetric warfare". On the one hand, fighter jet against fighter jet, in order to retain air supremacy in the event of war. Not only the French "Mirage" will be modernized because of this, but also the American F-16s will receive an upgrade. Also, 66 new F-16Vs are to be delivered to Taiwan in the next few years, at a cost of around eight billion dollars. An order for 108 American Abrams tanks, which are to be delivered from 2024, is also part of the arsenal of classic war strategy for military expert Sheu. In 2027, Taiwan also plans to put at least two domestically developed submarines into service.
However, many experts, especially from the United States, consider asymmetric warfare to be even more important. Why does Taiwan need expensive tanks when China's air force can take them out within hours? "We have no real chance in a symmetrical conflict with China," Taiwan's former army chief Lee Hsi-min said in March. "The fact is that we cannot compete with the much larger People's Liberation Army, bullet by bullet, ship by ship, or plane by plane."
"Porcupine" strategy: Taiwan must make itself impregnable
Experts speak of a "porcupine strategy" that Taiwan must pursue. In other words, the island state with its almost 24 million inhabitants would have to acquire "spikes" in order to become impregnable for the huge China. Sheu cites as examples tetrapods on the beach, which made it difficult for China's navy to land on the Taiwanese coast, as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. But food and energy supplies would also have to be increased in order to be able to hold out longer in the event of a Chinese blockade. In a defense report published at the beginning of September, Taiwan's government devotes a lot of space to this asymmetric warfare and speaks of a "David vs. Goliath fight." Deputy Secretary of State Lee says: "That's what the Ukraine war has taught us: size is not the decisive factor."
Rather, the decisive factor, says defense expert Sheu, is "whether the United States and the West support us." He recalls that US President Biden has already promised four times to intervene militarily if China launches an attack on Taiwan. In addition, America has been supplying weapons to the Taiwanese for decades. For the US, its own credibility is at stake, but so is the supply of microchips, of which more than 90 percent of the most advanced models come from Taiwan.
U.S. supplies weapons to China
This year, for the first time, exhibitors from the USA will also be represented at the defence trade fair in Taipei – including the manufacturers Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, which China wants to impose sanctions on because of its arms sales to Taiwan. Europe, on the other hand, is struggling with military support for Taiwan. "We have a great interest in German weapons systems," says Sheu.
From the Federal Republic of Germany, there is only one drone manufacturer from Gilching near Munich in the spacious hall in Taipei. Its representative explains that the aircraft can be used not only for military purposes, but also for civilian purposes – which makes export to Taiwan much easier. Rheinmetall is also represented in Taipei – with a device that is used to start aircraft engines. That's not much. Yes, says expert Sheu, one hopes for the West. At the same time, however, the plan is to stand alone in an emergency.