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Taiwan is preparing for China's attack, however unlikely


For years, Taiwan has lived under the threat of attack from its much larger neighbor, China. This year, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is spurring Taiwan to start preparing for the worst case scenario, however unlikely. Taiwan's president announced this week she will extend military conscription from four months to one year. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports, Taiwan has a long way to go.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Twenty-nine-year-old Yao Guanjun did not tell his parents he was quitting his job as a coffee bean distributor to go and volunteer to fight in Ukraine.

YAO GUANJUN: (Through interpreter) They actually found out I was there when they were watching the evening news.

FENG: After making it to Ukraine, Yao served as a medical and logistics officer. That often meant ferrying munitions to Ukrainian soldiers during active fighting.

YAO: (Through interpreter) I was extremely terrified. The sound of the artillery, the earth exploding near your head - you have to experience it for yourself to know what it's like. But what's very important is other people have gone through this and survived and can teach others so they survive, too.

FENG: That's why Yao is now back in Taiwan with the lessons he learned in Ukraine.

YAO: (Through interpreter) The number of weapons or soldiers you have don't matter. It matters how you use them.

FENG: He wants to train his fellow citizens in case of a potential Chinese invasion.

YAO: (Through interpreter) We can't make our defense someone else's responsibility. We have to prepare ourselves mentally to be ready.

FENG: Taiwan now lives under the vague threat of invasion from China. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the absolute consolidation of power under China's leader Xi Jinping, and a much more powerful Chinese PLA - their military - has made that threat feel much more immediate than in decades past.

LEE HSI-MING: We have to wake up. We don't have too much time to prepare ourself anymore.

FENG: This is Admiral Lee Hsi-ming. In the 1990s, he was head of a Taiwanese submarine unit monitoring a far inferior Chinese navy and knew Taiwan was far stronger militarily. But the tables have turned, Lee says. Until 2017, Admiral Lee was Taiwan's defense chief. Since retiring, he's broken with Taiwan's tight-knit military establishment to warn Taiwan is not ready for any fight with China. One of his biggest criticisms is Taiwan's big weapons purchases from the U.S. He's the most well-known proponent of a broad concept called asymmetric warfare - using smaller, mobile units of people and weapons to defend and attack, a strategy used successfully by Ukrainian soldiers.

LEE: We need to develop a large amount of the land-based mobile anti-ship missiles. We need a large number of the mobile air defense system instead of the large number of the fighter jets.

FENG: But Taiwan's military establishment has been slow to react, Lee says. It continues to run outdated military exercises, and its army reservists are poorly trained. Paul Huang, a researcher at the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, says the focus on heavy weaponry gives Taiwan's military easy photo ops but no fighting advantage if there were ever war with China.

PAUL HUANG: No matter what kind of tanks, no matter what kind of artillery they have, they're going to die. They're going to get destroyed because they have been preparing for the wrong war. They have been doing exercises, deployments, training completely wrong.

FENG: Taiwan is making some changes. It is expanding compulsory military training for all young men to one year. Taiwan has also launched the All-Out Defense Mobilization office to boost its reservist system - an effort partly modeled after Ukraine's civilian Territorial Defense.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Ordinary people are now proactively doing what they can to prepare too by taking civil defense classes. Numerous organizations offer this training now, and the classes nearly always sell out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: On one recent Saturday, about four dozen people of all ages crowded into this requisition church space. They're learning basic first aid and emergency response techniques. This class is offered by a civic engagement organization called the Forward Alliance. Enoch Wu is a rising political star in Taiwan who founded the organization, and he explains why he started the classes.

ENOCH WU: I think facing this - our current challenge, you know, our very current challenge of our very national existence - it's also going to rely on our engaged citizens to really - to take a stand.

FENG: Ukraine had eight years to prepare between the Russian invasion of Crimea and the war this year, Wu says. That's why it's good Taiwan is starting now. But no one knows if that is soon enough.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.