Tsai Hui-chun has lived under the roar of fighter jets her whole life. In her hometown Hualien, on Taiwan’s east coast, they can be seen and heard everywhere, taking off from the local air base.
But over the past year, the patrols and exercises have grown almost constant. “They used to do a couple of sorties in the morning,” said the retired teacher. “Now they are active in the afternoons, too, and even take off at night more and more often.”
The jets were being scrambled in response to growing harassment from China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to invade if Taipei refuses to submit indefinitely. Last week, the Chinese military said it held live-fire drills in the waters and airspace south-west and south-east of Taiwan.
Beijing’s more belligerent stance has alarmed the US, Taiwan’s unofficial protector. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, then-commander of US forces in the Pacific, said that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could be launched within six years.
But on the ground in Taiwan, there is no sign of panic.
“We are used to it,” Tsai said about the air activity. Instead of the threat from China, she would rather talk about pension reforms that have cut into her retirement income.
“What you see is not the fear you would expect,” said Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.
According to a poll published in April, only 39.6 per cent of respondents believed that China and Taiwan were headed for military conflict. Although that figure was a rise from 35 per cent last year and just 25 per cent in 2004, well over half of Taiwan’s population still believed that war could be avoided altogether.
While President Tsai Ing-wen and her government frequently highlight Taiwan’s plight as a target of Chinese aggression to the international community, they have done little to harden the country against an attack from Beijing, or even prepare society for the possibility of war.
Pointing to Afghanistan’s government and army being overrun by the Taliban the moment the US withdrew from the country, Tsai told her compatriots that they would have to stand together to avoid a similar fate at the hands of China.
“Taiwan’s only choice is to make ourselves even stronger, even more united and even more determined to protect ourselves,” she wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
But for most ordinary Taiwanese, there is barely a flicker of concern.
“There is a lack of discussion, and of a clear sense of what the threat is,” said Bush, who argued in a recent book that Taiwan’s democracy has failed to address how the country can survive and preserve its “good life”.
“What we have seen is avoidance of the underlying reality, of real choices.”
Public opinion, never in favour of unification, has grown more hostile towards Beijing. Since early 2019, when Xi Jinping, China’s president, rejected flexibility in offering Taiwan a political deal, and during Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy, pro-independence sentiment has climbed to historical highs.
The youth are even more anti-China than society at large, as reflected in the 2014 Sunflower student protest movement against the previous administration’s engagement with China.
“Since 2014, people just have this natural aversion to anything to do with China,” says Liu Kuan-yin, editor of the English web edition of CommonWealth, a Taiwanese news magazine.
The government argues that the Taiwanese want peace but know the risk of conflict is always present.
Liu, however, blames Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party for channelling the sentiment of patriotism and rejection of China in the wrong way.
“The government should be raising people’s awareness of the military threat. But instead of doing real things, they just talk, telling people to hate China and love the US and Japan,” she said.
As Taiwan’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign gained traction this summer following donations from the US and Japan, many Taiwanese posted pictures of their inoculation records on Facebook with the words, “Thank you, Daddy America!”
Critics said Tsai’s administration had fed complacency by highlighting Taiwan’s ever-stronger relations with Washington. “The public will think that we are so safe, America loves us and will come to our rescue when push comes to shove — it takes away the urge to be self-reliant,” said Liu.
But the root of Taiwan’s failure to tackle the military threat is not a lack of government leadership. The Kuomintang, China’s former ruling party that fled to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949, ruled with martial law for 38 years.
Cherishing its hard-won democracy, which created a social welfare system and Asia’s most socially progressive society, the Taiwanese public has no appetite for militarising society or even discussing defence.
But there are some attempts to change that mindset.
Enoch Wu, a former special forces officer who chairs the DPP’s Taipei chapter, has teamed up with Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s military, to educate the public about how Taiwan can better resist a Chinese invasion. He also organises safety and first aid seminars for young people.
“We are getting thousands of sign-ups for these events. That tells me folks are aware we face serious security challenges and believe in the idea that everyone can do more,” Wu said.
But his audience remains limited and for some Taiwanese, there is a sense of futility. Tsai Hui-chun, the retired teacher, believes that although she has no desire for Taiwan to become part of China, it will eventually happen.
She said: “When they come one day, what could we do about it anyway?”