Bullets shot through the water, and the booming sound of mortar shells echoed as soldiers with howitzers, machine guns and rifles blasted out to sea on Dongyin, an island 50 km off the Chinese coast where Taiwan’s forces were training for a possible attack.
It was a routine exercise on Wednesday, but many of Dongyin’s 800 residents paid more attention to it than usual. A raid by a Chinese plane last month and the conflict in Ukraine have exposed the risk of an invasion by Beijing – and the weaknesses of the Taiwanese military.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to annex it if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely. Looking at the war in Ukraine, the Taiwanese have begun to talk about the threat they have long ignored and whether their military is fit for combat.
“People here were scared by the Chinese plane,” said Chen Li-ying, the wife of the mayor of Dongyin. “We’ve never seen any planes fly over here, except helicopters, and it really flew that close and so low,” she added, pointing to a hill the plane flew past on Feb. 5 and was filmed by a security camera on the roof of her house. bed and breakfast.
Liu Hsiang-ying, a secretary at the congregation’s office, was at a temple that afternoon when she heard a noise that she initially mistook for a military truck. “Then I realized it was coming from above. I looked up and there it was, very big and very close,” she said.
Dongyin, a former pirate stronghold with a small settlement of fishermen from Fujian Province, only came under Taiwanese rule when the Chinese Nationalist army fled the mainland after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The island is the northernmost area of Taiwan and serves as a strategic outpost equipped with Skybow II surface-to-air missiles.The military exercises were designed to test Taiwan’s preparedness for a possible Chinese invasion © Ann Wang/Reuters
Local military commanders have tried to reassure residents by saying they spotted the plane early and “fully understood” the situation. But the Defense Ministry’s slow response and explanation of the incident, which appeared to contradict the facts on the ground, have sparked a heated debate among Taiwanese politicians and military experts about the armed forces’ early warning capabilities.
In a statement issued 10 days after the raid, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense identified the aircraft as a Y-12, a turboprop aircraft often used by the Chinese Coast Guard to conduct reconnaissance or assert sovereignty claims in areas over which neighboring countries is discussed. The ministry said China may have tested the Taiwanese military’s responses with a “civilian” aircraft, adding that the Y-12 had not entered its territory, defined as airspace up to 6 km from the coastline.
But military experts dispute that claim. “People on the island would not have been able to see the plane so close with the naked eye if it had not entered our airspace,” said a retired Taiwanese Air Force official.Tsai Hsin-ju, a resident of Dongyin, said islanders tended to have good relations with the Chinese fishermen who frequented it, but added: ‘In fact, we are vulnerable’ © Kathrin Hille/FT
Two former military officials said the operations center that analyzes all radar signals likely failed to identify the object as a potentially dangerous intruding aircraft. “The length of time it took the ministry to come up with their assessment suggests that they identified the aircraft only afterwards through extensive analysis using other electronic signals and satellite photos,” an official said.
Debate over the incident has been heightened by a series of recent accidents involving the Taiwanese Air Force and the war in Ukraine, which Beijing has refused to condemn. On Monday, the Air Force grounded its entire fleet of Mirage fighter jets after one crashed into the sea. Since late 2020, four fighters have been lost in similar crashes.
Admiral Lee Hsi-min, former Chief of General Staff of the Taiwan Armed Forces, said the Y-12 incident was a good case study of the military’s ability to deal with problems. “If the plane was not detected by radar, that in itself is not a catastrophe — these things can happen,” he said, referring to the 1987 case of German aviator Mathias Rust, who flew far into Soviet airspace and landed on the Red Sea. Moscow Square landed. †
“The key is how you react. In this case, they should call all operators and analyze what went wrong,” Lee added. “But often we just try to put the incident behind us as quickly as possible by reassuring the public or telling the heroic lives of the pilots who lost their lives. If we do that, we will not become stronger as an organization.”
In Dongyin, people have returned to their normal lives, but a sense of unease remains. “People here don’t normally have the same sense of concern for the Chinese as people in Taiwan because many residents here marry Chinese and we have regular contact with them,” said Tsai Hsin-ju, who moved to Dongyin after dating a local six years ago and runs a restaurant and video blog. She said islanders often bartered groceries with fishermen from Fujian who ventured close to the island and sometimes came ashore.
“But in fact we are vulnerable,” she added. “We sometimes say, ‘What if one day all those fishing boats on the mainland don’t have fish in their hold, but soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army?’ There’s nothing we can do.”
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