Taiwan ends week-long defence drills amid China tension

Military personnel and a police officer guiding residents during the annual Wan An air defence drill in Taipei on July 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - Taiwan has ended a week-long annual air-raid exercise and military drills as the island steps up preparations in the event of a Chinese attack.

From Monday to Thursday, sirens rang across the island as part of the Wan An air defence drill, aimed at raising civilian awareness of what to do in an air raid.

At the same time, the land, air and naval forces carried out the annual Han Kuang military exercises that simulated responses to a Chinese invasion.

While both drills are held every year, this year's exercises took place amid increasing Chinese military manoeuvres around the island.

They also happened at a time of raised tensions between the United States and China, as rumours of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plans to visit Taiwan next month angered China.

China views the self-ruled island as a renegade province, which it will retake by force if necessary. Taiwan rejects China's sovereignty claim and has vowed to defend itself.

This year's Wan An air defence drill was its "biggest scale" yet, reported local media, as the Ministry of National Defence scheduled it to coincide with the Han Kuang exercises, which are the island's main live-fire military drills.

The Wan An exercise was similar to that in recent years, with Taiwan divided into four areas, each undergoing a 30-minute drill where pedestrians were asked to seek shelter and vehicles to come to a halt.

But local governments have taken things to the next level.

For the first time in many years, the Taipei City government asked passengers and drivers to vacate their vehicles upon hearing the siren and head to the nearest air-raid shelter, and requested that those in schools, markets and other public spaces do the same.

"As the capital, Taipei's population density is high and is also where the central government is located. If there is an air strike, Taipei may be the first (target). This is why we have been more tense about the drill," said Taipei Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan last Friday.

Besides rising tensions with China, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also renewed debate in Taiwan about how best to react in the event of an attack.

The police department in Chiayi City, on Taiwan's south-western coast, filmed videos in seven different languages, including Mandarin, English, Japanese and Thai, to educate all residents, including foreigners and migrant workers, of the upcoming drills.

In addition, all residents received an alert on their phones in the minutes leading up to the drill, reminding them to stop what they were doing and seek shelter.

However, not all Taiwanese see the need to comply.

"I don't really get the point of the Wanan drill... if there really is an air strike, how will these exercises be helpful? It is just a bother for us," said university student Lee Kai-te on Dcard, an online forum popular among college students.

His post drew comments from netizens who criticised his attitude. "It's but half an hour of your time and you can't spare that? These drills are important and necessary", said one.

"This is like an earthquake evacuation drill, so you know how to react when something does happen," other netizens retorted.

The Wan An air defence drill is to raise civilian's awareness of what to do in an air raid. PHOTO: REUTERS

To try and educate Taiwanese on the island's national security and defence measures, the Ministry of National Defence had published a handbook in April, instructing people on what to do when a military invasion occurs. The instructions include QR codes to scan for maps to the nearest bomb shelter, and numbers to call when resources are running short.

Military analyst and National Policy Foundation researcher Chieh Chung said that while the handbook was a positive first step, its writers were "impractical".

"They suggest that one calls a hotline when food and water run short. This is something you can only do in stand-alone accidents or natural disasters. How can the government ensure that these hotlines stay connected when a war is going on?" he asked.

Some Taiwanese do not even know the handbook exists, and that it is free to download.

"You can download it off the government website? Maybe they should make it a requirement that every household receive a physical copy as well," said pottery instructor Lin Li, 62, in Taipei.

This year's Han Kuang military exercises, which took place from Monday to Friday, focused on defending the mouth of the Tamsui River, the nearest waterway to Taipei, as well as incorporating a team to fight disinformation and spread corrections in real time when a war is being fought.

President Tsai Ing-wen oversaw the war games and boarded a naval warship on Tuesday, where she lauded the military's determination to defend the island.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, when asked about the drills at a regular briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, repeated China's warnings about any military moves by Taiwan.

"Taiwan's attempt to confront China militarily is akin to a mantis trying to obstruct a chariot," he said. "In the end, it is doomed to fail."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.