Canadian veteran Ray Buxton and his Taiwanese wife, Judy, had just moved into their dream home on the southern coast of Taiwan in the summer of 2020 when they heard a deafening roar overhead.
“Like a bat of the hell came these two fighter jets,” Buxton recalled. “They ascended up and they just kind of disappeared.”
The Taiwanese planes had scrambled from a nearby airbase to confront a fleet of Chinese fighter jets, which were heading straight for Taiwan.
Pilots issued a warning, and eventually, the enemy planes retreated to China. But after a couple of days, the jets returned again. And again. And again.
“It’s become much more frequent,” Buxton said. “It’s all part and parcel with Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Show of strength, sabre rattling, provocation.”
The Chinese Communist Party has vowed to take control of Taiwan, by force if necessary. The Taiwanese have lived under that existential threat for seven decades, and many have learned to ignore it. But Beijing’s recent rhetoric and military posturing are prompting some to prepare. And they’re taking lessons from Ukraine.
On a Sunday afternoon, a few dozen Taipei residents sit on the floor of a church basement, learning how to tightly wrap a tourniquet around their leg to stop the flow of blood in case of a catastrophic injury.
The training is offered for free to Taiwanese civilians by a nongovernmental organization called Forward Alliance — one of several NGOs launched in recent years to provide survival courses in case of a Chinese military invasion.
“The better prepared we are, the more likely we can deter or delay Chinese aggression against Taiwan,” said Enoch Wu, the founder of Forward Alliance.
Over the past year, Wu’s team has trained 6,000 civilians to provide first aid, search and rescue, and evacuation planning, among other lessons. Another organisation, Kuma Academy, has trained 10,000.
Organizers say they’re overwhelmed by the demand for the training. The courses are fully-booked online within minutes. They’ve seen spikes in enrolment following large-scale Chinese military exercises and after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Obviously, with Ukraine, I think it drove home the message that our world can get turned upside-down, just like that, at the whim of an autocrat,” said Enoch Wu. “That’s entirely out of our control. What is within our control is how prepared we are.”
While Ukraine effectively thwarted Russia’s plans for a full-scale invasion last year, recently leaked U.S. intelligence suggests Taiwan is highly vulnerable to a Chinese air attack, with barely half its aircraft reported to be fully mission capable.
Global News asked Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs about Taiwan’s military readiness.
“The Taiwanese people are more determined than ever in defending themselves,” Minister Joseph Wu replied.
He noted his government is increasing its national defence spending to record levels and extending mandatory military service starting in January — from four months to one year for men born after 2005, with a greater emphasis on air defence and weapons training.
Minister Wu pointed to a Ukrainian flag, which hangs in the corner of his office for inspiration.
“The Ukrainians are able to withstand the onslaught of one of the largest militaries in the world. And that tells us that determination and strategy might matter,” he said.
“We are learning from the biblical prophecy of David versus Goliath. I want to say that Taiwan will prevail and democracy will prevail.”
After years of Taiwanese complacency regarding the threat of a Chinese military invasion, Beijing’s belligerence and the war in Ukraine are providing a wake-up call, according to Canadian Taipei-based security analyst J. Michael Cole.
“It’s going to take a number of years. There’s a lot of catching up that needs to be done,” he said, regarding Taiwan’s military readiness.
A senior advisor for the International Republican Institute in Washington and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Cole has lived in Taiwan for two decades. If the Chinese wargames are intended to intimidate the Taiwanese people into submission and surrender, he said they appear to be having the opposite effect.
“Beijing, I would argue, shot itself in the foot with its major drills. It makes the threat all the more apparent to the Taiwanese. Since they are adamant that they want to defend their way of life, they are willing to do what is necessary,” Cole said.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn comparisons to a hypothetical attack on Taiwan, there are numerous important differences. The most obvious and significant is Taiwan’s geography.
“It would be much more difficult for the Chinese to try to invade Taiwan than it was for the Russians invading Ukraine,” he said. “They only had to cross the land border. To try to invade Taiwan and occupy Taiwan, you need to send across the Taiwan Strait at least 150,000 soldiers, and crossing that channel with a very limited number of beaches that are suitable for landings.”
“The conditions here are actually more complex than the Normandy landings during World War Two.”
Since Buxton, the Canadian veteran in southern Taiwan, had his first encounter with the fighter jets in 2020, China’s incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone have become routine. Taiwan recorded 970 incursions by Chinese warplanes last year, compared with roughly 380 carried out in 2020.
In a rural village nearby, next to the Chiayi Air Force Base, residents converse by shouting over the thunder of jet engines. Planes and helicopters fly back and forth overhead. Some are so close you can read the serial number on the aircraft tail and feel the shock waves in your chest.
80-year-old Chen, who lives down the road from the air base, showed us photographs of her bedroom ceiling, which recently collapsed from a sonic boom.
“They start flying from around 4 to 5 am in the morning and continue flying until evening,” she said. “They have made so much noise that we all have become hard of hearing.”
Every time Buxton hears the jets coming, he fears they could mark the beginning of bloody conflict. “I wonder, ‘Is this it? Could this be it?'” he said. “Admittedly there have been a couple of semi-sleepless nights. We’re worried about the future, just like many other people.”
And if that day finally comes: “I think the military would put up a hell of a fight. They would not take this lying down.”