Taichung, Taiwan – The noise from the jet engines reverberates across Taichung, drowning out the sounds from the congested traffic and continuing construction as a squadron of F-16 fighters roars past the rooftops of the city’s skyscrapers.
The planes quickly disappear behind the light cover of smog that often shrouds the horizon around Taiwan’s second-largest city. The fighter jets are heading towards the sea in the west where a group of Chinese military aircraft has penetrated the Taiwanese air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the Taiwan Strait.
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When United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 2, tensions between the self-ruled island and China reached boiling point and Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own, in the months since has sent its military jets deeper and deeper into Taiwan’s ADIZ.
Chef and former soldier Hsin Song, 27, has stopped on the street looking towards the hazy horizon for a glimpse of the F-16s. She is not bothered by the roaring of the jet engines above Taichung.
On the contrary.
“I feel more reassured seeing that our fighters are ready to stop the Chinese advances into our airspace,” she said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Hsin Song has been convinced China, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island, will do the same with Taiwan.
She believes it is not just Taiwan’s air force that needs to be ready to counter China.
“All Taiwanese need to be ready.”
The threat of war
Hsin Song is far from the only one worried about China’s plans for Taiwan.
Polls show that both cross-strait experts and Taiwanese people share the same concern.
The US Department of Defense in its annual China Military Power Report released in November classified China as “the most consequential and systemic challenge to national security and to a free and open international system”.
Fang-Yu Chen is an assistant professor at Soochow University in Taipei, researching the political relations between Taiwan, China and the US. According to him, the growing unease surrounding China can be attributed to the increasingly heavy-handed Chinese approach directed at Taiwan.
“Chinese intimidation of Taiwan rose markedly following the Taiwanese presidential election in 2016 and has increased since to reach a culmination so far this year, with the massive military exercises that took place around Taiwan following Nancy Pelosi’s visit in early August,” said Fang-Yu Chen.
“At the same time, the undermining of Hong Kong’s free system in 2019 and 2020 as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the Taiwanese that certain events that previously were believed to be unthinkable can actually happen.”
Fearing the unthinkable, private Taiwanese organisations and actors have taken matters into their own hands in terms of preparing Taiwan for war.
One of these is the controversial business tycoon, Robert Tsao.
Tsao is an outspoken China hawk who often criticises the Chinese Communist Party’s conduct towards Taiwan in harsh terms and regularly accuses Taiwanese politicians of being too weak on China.
Leading up to the Taiwanese local elections last month, which resulted in a resounding defeat for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), he went so far as to warn that victory for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party could impede efforts to obtain advanced weapons for Taiwan’s defence from the US.
But Tsao has not always been a China hawk.
He actually renounced his Taiwanese citizenship in 2011 and moved to Singapore in protest when Taiwanese government legislation prevented his semiconductor company, United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), from investing in China. At that time, he was also an advocate for Taiwanese unification with China under the right circumstances.
The tycoon’s case reveals how much the mindset towards China has changed for many Taiwanese over the past 10 years – from an earlier focus on business and peaceful integration to a present one of decoupling and combatting coercion.
During a press conference in early September, Tsao announced he had regained his Taiwanese citizenship. At the same time, he pledged to donate three billion Taiwanese dollars ($100.17 million) to bolster Taiwan’s defences as a response to the military drills the previous month which had effectively surrounded the island.
Part of the donation went to the civil defence training group, Kuma Academy, founded by academic Puma Shen and activist Ho Cheng-Hui – two other private individuals taking steps to prepare Taiwan for war.
Through Kuma Academy, Shen and Ho offer private classes with theoretical and practical lessons that teach participants basic skills such as how to combat online misinformation, how to identify a Chinese soldier, how to perform first aid and how to staunch bleeding.
“The military repeatedly carries out exercises to practise a defence of Taiwan should a Chinese attack occur but most Taiwanese civilians don’t know how what to expect or what to do should such an attack materialise,” Ho explained to Al Jazeera.
“We started Kuma with the aim of giving interested Taiwanese civilians some tools that help them act before, during and after a potential military engagement in Taiwan.”
Additionally, Ho hopes the classes will instil a sense in Taiwanese people that countering China requires full mobilisation of the island’s entire society.
“We do not teach or encourage violence but we do teach people how to defend themselves and each other so that if war breaks out, everyone knows that they have a part to play.”
‘Better to be ready’
According to Soochow University’s Chen, demand from civilians for classes on war preparation has been rising. But until recently, there were few to choose from.
Kuma Academy held its first training session in early September.
“When we open for online booking to our classes these days, only a couple of hours pass before we are fully booked,” Ho said.
As a result, they are planning to expand beyond their current base in Taipei to other big Taiwanese cities such as Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taichung.
University student Yuchi Pao, 29, from Taichung, took part in Kuma Academy’s training at the beginning of November. She used to believe war was something that would never happen in her lifetime. But the continuing war in Ukraine changed her perception.
“Since the Russian invasion [of Ukraine], I have felt that I should know more about what I can do for Taiwan’s defence if war breaks out.”
After participating in the Kuma class, she says she feels more aware of the ways civilians can stand up to potential pro-Chinese online manipulation as well as how she can assist as a civilian in case of conflict.
She thinks more Taiwanese people should consider their own readiness in the face of a potential Chinese attack.
Back in Taichung, former soldier Hsin Song believes preparing civilians for war should not be left to private initiatives but should become a required civic duty for all Taiwanese.
The roar from the fighter jets is fading away and traffic commotion and construction noise once again dominate Taichung’s soundscape.
But Hsin Song keeps her gaze fixed in the direction of the F-16s and the Taiwan Strait.
“It is better to be ready for a war that never comes than to be unprepared for one that does,” she said.