‘It feels like the end of the world’: Taiwan civilians practise for war as Ukraine revives China fears

On a muggy night in a Taipei park, its concrete pavilion lit by the glow from nearby lampposts, a dozen people spread yoga mats and plastic bags on the floor.

The atmosphere is convivial and relaxed as they warm up, taking turns to lead the group through exercises copied from US army basic training videos online. They practise drills, dragging each other as injured deadweights, out of the way of a fictional harm.

The scene, inside the charming Da’an Park, is made all the more incongruous by the pavilion’s other visitors: young people on dates or in study groups, a couple practising bachata dancing to tinny Latin music.

But there is a seriousness among those here. The group is preparing for, well, anything. Taiwan has been under the threat of invasion for decades, but the ratcheting up of Chinese military missions and government rhetoric in recent years, and last month’s attack on Ukraine by Xi Jinping’s key ally Vladimir Putin, have set nerves on edge. Beijing claims Taiwan as a Chinese province and has sworn to “unify” it, by force if necessary.

A grassroots community group trains for disaster at a city park in Taipei
A group of volunteers trains for disaster in Da’an Park, Taipei. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

Those gathered on this night – a mix of men and women of various ages and occupations including market researchers, tour guides, landlords and digital designers – joined the group months ago, but membership has tripled since the Ukraine invasion.

They are learning first aid, self-defence and military fitness, but others practise firearms drills with airguns.

“It feels like the end of the world,” says 34-year-old Lin. (Few participants opt to give their full names.) “It was just fitness [when we started], but then we added first aid … A lot of people want to learn these skills but don’t have access, so this is a start.”

The invasion of Ukraine has provided a powerful lesson for people in Taiwan: that a smaller party can resist, and even fight back against a mightier invading force. Residents who spoke to the Guardian said Taiwan shouldn’t rely on others for its survival, pointing to the lack of international boots on the ground in Ukraine, and early delays in coordinating sanctions and other responses.

Before the war, a 2021 survey found public support for better training, longer national service and even conscription of women across demographic and political groups. Anecdotally there is an even greater hunger for civilian defence programs. Existing community groups and courses have reported three- to 10-fold increases in inquiries, and new grassroots initiatives have sprung up across cities.

Enoch Wu, the founder of one of the more high-profile and professional civil training courses, says the undercurrent of demand was there for some time, but “the events in Ukraine gave us an opportunity to express that desire more urgently, and drove more people to take immediate action”.

Taiwanese protest the war in Ukraine during a rally in Taipei in March
Taiwanese protest against the war in Ukraine during a rally in Taipei in March. Photograph: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Calls for a citizens’ army

Taiwan has spent billions on weapons purchases from the US and has strengthened its international relationships and partnerships. It is reforming its reservist program, and last week the defence minister flagged a return to a full year of conscription for young Taiwanese men and the abolition of a non-military public service alternative that many had sought out as an easier term. Domestic polling found the proposals were welcomed by the community, who also showed an increased willingness to fight in Taiwan’s defence.

But Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s, with well-reported issues with its resources and training and troop levels reportedly as low as 60-80%. . Despite this, the government appears resistant to the growing calls for training civilians.

Admiral Lee Hsi-ming, the former navy chief and chief of the general staff, is among those who have called for a government-backed territorial defence force. Lee’s proposal, written with Michael Hunzeker, a military expert at George Mason University, suggested Taiwan should develop a force made up of civilians of any age and gender. The force could be deliberately decentralised, trained in small but powerful arms such as javelin missiles and small drones, with hyper-local leadership and access to weapons and first aid caches.

“They can conduct guerrilla warfare, hit and run – they can be kinds of logistical force,” Lee tells the Guardian.

He acknowledges the proposal would require a dramatic and unlikely shift in the government’s current stance and direction, including changes to gun laws.

“The Territorial Defence Force in Ukraine destroyed a lot of tanks and armoured cars,” he says. “It’s time for the leadership to change [its thinking].”

Huang Kwei-bo, a professor of diplomacy at the National Chengchi University and former deputy director of the KMT opposition party, doesn’t think a European-style civilian force would work well in Taiwan.

“A territorial defence force [TDF], all voluntary and part-time, is not impossible in Taiwan, but if not trained and equipped well, it will become both a branch and a burden for the armed forces,” Huang says.

Taipei protests in March against the Ukraine invasion
Taipei protests in March against the Ukraine invasion. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

Both Admiral Lee and the creators of, and participants in, existing civil groups stress they are not just about preparing for war.

Taiwan is a land of frequent disasters, both natural and manmade. A year ago this week, 49 people were killed and more than 200 injured in a horrific train derailment in Hualien. Unable to access crushed carriages, first responders were luckily able to rely on communication with some uninjured passengers who had trained or served with the military and fire departments. People like Enoch Wu want to broaden these skills out to everyone.

But the government, which recently drew up a civilian defence handbook instructing people on evacuation routes, does not appear supportive yet of any level of civilian combat force.

The defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has fended off calls from fellow legislators, saying he was unaware of desires for a “citizen army” and needed more time to examine it. He told reporters last week the existing system of reservists and armed forces was the priority. “If you want to be included in the training, you need to join the whole process, not just two days,” he was quoted by local media as saying.

‘You have to prepare’

Not everyone who wants more training believes in a formalised citizens’ army. One of the Da’an Park group’s organisers, Tân Lê-i, is adamant that the benefit of their program is its volunteerism, and any government involvement – even support – would diminish it.

“The spirit of our program is autonomy. People need free will to realise what they want to achieve,” Tân says. Some other members say they would relish weapons and tactical training.

Chen, a middle-aged woman in North Face activewear, is sweaty and laughing after the drills but sombre when asked about her reasons for being here.

She spent a decade as a carer for family members and knows being healthy and safe is not guaranteed. “My job was dealing with life and death, and I understood how things can change in a short time,” she says.

Chen joined the group several months ago and felt vindicated after Russia’s invasion, when she saw videos of older Ukrainians “saying if they hold a weapon it lessens the burden on young people”.

“Maybe one day I can use this – the preparation isn’t perfect but you have to prepare.”

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin

The Guardian

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