Taiwan elects a new president on January 13, 2024. Peace across the Taiwan Strait is on people’s minds, but where the candidates and their political parties differ is how to maintain it. All three presidential candidates have indicated they would continue Taiwan’s current foreign policies, though they have different views of what shape relations with China and with the United States should take, as well as different priorities for Taiwan’s defense preparedness.

Dispatch from Taiwan,” a podcast by USIP and Taiwan-based Ghost Island Media, delves into the policy debates within Taiwan that could have implications for the region and beyond. Each episode features Taiwanese local experts and voices weighing in on social, economic and defense issues and discusses how Taiwanese society is responding to these challenges. 

As China continues its military aggression in the region, many in Taiwan are thinking of how best to defend their home. In 2024, Taiwan will see a record-high national defense budget of 19.4 billion USD. Military conscription also was extended to one year.

In his New Year’s speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping renewed the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to take over Taiwan, which China considers its own but has never ruled.

This episode includes expert views from Ying-Yu Lin from Tamkang University and Chieh Chung from the National Policy Foundation, as well as the civilian voices of Robin Hsu from the Taiwan ADIZ club and Tsung-lin Tsai.


Narrator: July 8, 2023, that was the hottest day of the month in the city of Taichung in central Taiwan. It was 35.8 degrees Celsius, or 96 degrees Fahrenheit. That was the day 23-year-old Tsung-lin Tsai began his walk around the island of Taiwan.

Tsung-lin Tsai (Translated): I felt like an idiot. Why did I begin my walk then? I was drenched in sweat everyday. I almost had a heat stroke. The beginning was the most painful. And my feet - the shoes hadn’t been worn in. It was scorching hot. I cried secretly. It was so painful.

Narrator: Even Taiwan’s most diehard fans have few good things to say about the summer season here. But for 52 days, Tsai endured 560 miles around the island at the height of summer, in full army kit and on foot. It was tough, but he had a point to make.

Tsung-lin Tsai (Translated): I wanted to defend Taiwan. Because of my ideals, I had to go on.

Narrator: Tsung-lin Tsai is a former paratrooper. During COVID, he completed his four months of mandatory military service. He then enlisted in the army for another two years before he was discharged. He felt then that China was a great threat to Taiwan. He wanted to make a personal contribution.

Tsung-lin Tsai (Translated): The Chinese Communists is a great threat to us. If I can, then I can make a personal contribution.

Narrator: Tsai is not alone. From former soldiers to civilians, 23 million citizens, many in Taiwan are thinking about how best to defend their home from China who has said often it would take Taiwan by force if necessary. So what’s the way forward?

This is “Dispatch from Taiwan,” a podcast series where we take a deep dive into debates that influence Taiwan’s policies that can shape the region. My name is Emily Y. Wu and I’m your host. Welcome to episode one.

For a country that sits just 80 miles at its closest point to China, Taiwan is remarkably conflicted when it comes to the idea of building up its defense. Unlike others in Asia that face similar existential threats, like South Korea, Taiwan’s military has swung between two extremes, from conscription lasting two to three years, to just one year, and then just four months. In 2013, Taiwan’s then President Ma Ying-jeou had wanted to transform Taiwan’s military to an all volunteer force. It was said that the armed forces had more conscripts than what it needed. But, what is needed? Turns out, that depends a lot on China’s own military development.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): Our defense must be adjusted based on how others might attack us. If the tactics of the PLA today is different from 30 years ago, then we must make adjustments.

After 1996, as the PLA underwent vast modernization, it understood that it lagged behind the U.S. military, that there was a big gap. It needed a counter against aircraft carriers. So then, came the Kilo-class submarine, or a modern ship, or other kinds of R&D.

Narrator: That’s professor Ying-yu Lin from Tamkang University in Taipei. Between 1995 and 1996, when Taiwan was preparing to hold its first direct presidential election, China held missile tests into the waters surrounding Taiwan. Lin was still a teenager then. Today he is an expert on military organization and strategy. He studies both militaries of Taiwan and China.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): The economic mood and the political atmosphere of the 1990’s was absolutely different from what it is today. Similarly, the military activities of the Chinese Communists back then exposed a lot of the problems within the PLA. Compared to the PLA of today, it went through a military reform in 2016. Everyone is keeping a close eye. What kind of military weapons or methods will the People’s Republic of China use against us?

Narrator: So while Taiwan’s defense capabilities continue to shift according to China’s build-up, just how does one keep up? For the year 2022, China’s official defense budget was reportedly around US$230 billion. That’s 12 times larger than Taiwan’s budget. And in a U.S. Department of Defense report, it said that much of this budget was “focused on developing the capability to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force.”

China’s leader Xi Jinping has not given Taiwan any reason to believe otherwise.

In 2021, U.S. military officials indicated there was reason to believe that China would try to take over Taiwan by force in 2027. It was said then that the assessment was based off of a speech by the Chinese leader who challenged his military to “accelerate their modernization programs to develop capabilities to seize Taiwan.”

2027. While 2027 isn’t a certainty, the naming of an exact year made the threat more real to the rest of the world at least.

To an average person in Taiwan, the threat of a Chinese invasion had always been imminent. Kids half joked about it in school in the same way they joked about Y2K. It was something that was beyond anyone’s control. Meanwhile, a series of exercises is staged every year to simulate Taiwan’s military response against invasion by sea, by land, and by air.

Residents respond to air raid sirens known as Wan An. Stay off the street. Pull over. Find shelter. If you’re indoors, figure out where your nearest bunker is. Map that route. Remember it. 2023 saw the largest exercise in the 39-year history of the military exercise known as Han Guang. Computer simulations, war games, counter-amphibious landing exercises, dispersal exercises, a mock hostage rescue drill in the center of Taipei, and drills around critical infrastructures.

But what would actually happen when the clock struck? No one knows. How? Could they? Would they? Whether or not a timeline actually exists for Beijing, the assessment for a potential attack date was enough to set off alarm bells among analysts, but it wasn’t enough to bring defense to the forefront of public attention - at least, not until February of 2022.

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Chung Chieh (Translated): Before the Russian-Ukrainian War, many people in Taiwan somewhat believed that in modern international conditions, the likelihood of a country conducting large-scale invasions or attacks on another region or country was low. However, since then, I believe the Taiwanese people have been considerably shocked and affected.

Narrator: That’s professor CHIEH Chung. He’s an associate researcher of national security at National Policy Foundation in Taiwan. He links Russia’s war on its neighbor to the rise of awareness and concern from the Taiwanese public of how precarious its position actually is.

Chung Chieh (Translated): Over the years, there has been a significant rise in the intensity and frequency of CCP military activities around Taiwan. This has made the Taiwanese populace genuinely concerned about the real possibility of CCP military aggression.

Narrator: In August that same year, a day after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan, China launched a four-day military live-fire drill into waters encircling the island. This was the largest missile drill since 1996. But this wasn’t just a practice run for China. Taiwan was learning too. One of the missiles flew over Taiwan and landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Taiwanese had no idea this had happened until they saw it on Japanese news.

Professor Lin from Tamkang University.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): There’s a lot of room for improvement for the military when it comes to public relations. When the missile was over our head, the Ministry of Defense did not tell us immediately. People learned about it from Japan’s NHK news. “What?! A missile flew over my head! And I had no idea!” The fact that people had to learn from international news that we were under attack. That’s a very negative feeling.

Narrator: Lin believes this public communication has improved since then.

In addition, China’s missile tests combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did succeed in pushing some things forward. By the end of 2022, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen announced a plan that would “realign the nation’s military force structure”. The heart of this was to reinstate military service from four months back to one year. Here’s Professor Chieh.

Chung Chieh (Translated): In the past, the extension of mandatory military service to one year had been a taboo topic in the legislature. But since the Russian-Ukrainian War, this passed swiftly. Up till now, it’s widely supported by over half of the Taiwanese public. This was unthinkable before the war in Ukraine.

Narrator: The extension of conscription began on January 1st, 2024. Also new in 2024, Taiwan will see record high national defense budget: U.S.$19.4 billion, the equivalent of 2.5 percent GDP.

Chung Chieh (Translated): There has been an increase in public support for increased defense-related spending and a more favorable attitude towards enhancing military and political exchanges with the United States. Additionally, the successful Ukrainian resistance through asymmetric warfare methods has left a strong impression.

Narrator: In 2023 Taiwan unveiled its very first domestically-made submarine. And weapon sales from the U.S. continued. U.S. President Joe Biden signed off on an $80 million dollar grant under the “foreign military finance” or FMF plan – the same scheme used to provide weapons to Kyiv.

Is all this enough for Taiwan? And just what is it about the military that keeps people on their toes here? One would think that for a country under threat, national defense is a bipartisan issue. It is, to a certain extent. Everyone here agrees that this home is worth protecting. But talking about defense is, ironically, tricky. Politics get in the way.

Here’s Professor Lin.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): Why is it that defense issues often cannot be discussed in depth in Taiwan? Aside from the lack of interest among the public, another issue is that national defense expertise is easily overshadowed by political rhetoric, political positions, or political contradictions. People might first off say, they dislike this person’s party affiliation or leaning, and then the conversation stops there without diving deeper into national defense. Biases against political parties stand in the way of professional expertise on national defense.

Narrator: In the past several years, members of Taiwan’s civil society have entered the conversation on national defense. One non-profit organization, Forward Alliance, equips residents with skills like emergency response, search & rescue, field medical care, navigation. Another organization, Kuma Academy, teaches military and information warfare, open source intelligence, and even horticulture. Its mascot is a distinctive Formosan black bear holding a rifle. One of the founders of the organization is set to enter parliament after this upcoming election.

And then there’s the group, Taiwan ADIZ, a fan club on Facebook. ADIZ as in air defense identification zone. The volunteer group has tasked itself with monitoring radio exchanges that take place across the Taiwan Strait.

Robin Hsu (Translated): I’m Robin. I’m the head of the Taiwan ADIZ fan club. I’m asked quite often, why do I do this? I always give the same answer, our government had been lying to us. They said there was peace across the Strait. But if we’re at peace, then why do Chinese Communist military jets harass us everyday?

Narrator: Robin HSU is no ordinary citizen with everyday comms skills. He was a radar officer in the Navy back in the days of his conscription. Today he’s 51 years-old, and he’s still putting the skills he’s learnt to good use.

Recording: This is China’s Air Force. You are approaching our air space. Leave immediately. Or I will intercept. Narrator: This was a recording from May 25.

Recording: This is Chinese PLA aircraft. You are violating Chinese air space.

Narrator: Robin said this was probably a practice broadcast to what a PLA jet would say when they intercepted other jets.

Robin Hsu (Translated): These recordings were from the airspace around the northwest of Taiwan.

Narrator: To people like Robin, hostilities between Taiwan and China is inevitable.

Robin Hsu (Translated): A military power must be backed up by the economy. That’s my opinion. There will ultimately be a fight between the two sides of the Strait. China will definitely instigate a war. We just don’t know who it will be against, but they for sure will instigate a war. Why? Because their economy is crumbling. They will instigate a war so they can solve their domestic needs and their economy, whether they win or lose.

Narrator: Robin won’t tell us exactly how many other volunteers he works with throughout Taiwan, but he showed us his receiver. It’s an ADS-B consumer grade receiver with a Software Defined Radio USB dongle. Anyone can buy the kits. It’s said to be able to cover up to 250 nautical miles. Robin and his group buy the equipment out of their own pocket.

Robin Hsu (Translated): Each board costs around two-thousand NTD. This part here is also around two-thousand NTD. So that’s about five-thousand NTD for each machine. Yeah. Some of our members, they provide free space for us to set up the machines.

Narrator: Everyday at 9AM, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense releases numbers from the previous day of PLA aircrafts that entered Taiwan’s ADIZ or crossed the median line. The number changes daily and can swing between single to triple digits. In September 2023, a record high of 103 PLA aircrafts were detected entering Taiwan’s ADIZ. That’s not all. In December, a Chinese balloon was spotted. It crossed the median line before it headed east, then it disappeared. More balloons have been detected since.

The actions of citizens like Robin HSU and TSAI Tsung-lin might seem extreme to some, but they are a sign of Taiwan’s unease over the uncertainty of its own future. Throughout the conversations we’ve had with analysts and citizens, one thing is clear: there is a sense that not enough is being done to bring the situation to equilibrium.

There’s no shortage of opinion as to what it will take to get Taiwan, its government, and its people to that point. Professor Lin points to technology and equipment.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): Whether it's the F16V or others, we've been making enhancements in our systems. But what we call second-generation aircrafts and second-generation ships, those were mostly acquired in the 1990s. It’s been thirty years. We need to make adjustments.

Narrator: The usage of drones in the Russian-Ukraine war, for example.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): The use of drones has introduced new applications in the military. While strategies remain the same, tactics are evolving. But how will our national armed forces keep up with these changes and redesign our strategies? I believe this is our most significant challenge.

Narrator: But to Lin, it also comes down to leadership. With the rise of civilian initiatives and awareness, can the government consolidate the different efforts? And for analyst Chieh, he’s thinking long term.

Chung Chieh (Translated): My concern is that after 2027 passes and as CCP has succeeded in joint island landing operation transformation, do we have sufficient time to adjust our operational structure, weapon systems, and troop compositions? This is a looming concern.

Narrator: Another concern is the lack of formal defense arrangements between Taiwan and its partners like the U.S. and Japan, even though Taiwan is a critical part of the U.S. First Island Chain strategy. CHIEH is worried about the effectiveness of any joint ground effort.

Chung Chieh (Translated): There hasn’t been large-scale joint operation exercises or frameworks for joint operations. Therefore, even if the U.S. military was to support us, frankly, they would not be able to conduct joint operations. So the biggest problem when other countries want to assist in warfare is the inability to conduct joint operations with Taiwan's military.

Narrator: But that doesn’t mean things aren’t happening. In early 2023, it was reported that the U.S. would increase its deployment of troops to Taiwan for a training program that includes both the U.S. special-operations forces and the Marines. If implemented, the increase of 30 military personnel to around 100 or 200 would make this the largest deployment of U.S. forces to Taiwan in decades.

So what should be the strategy? For CHIEH, he points to two principles. First, militarily.

Chung Chieh (Translated): Militarily, it is crucial to not allow the CCP to become too optimistic. Don’t let them think that they can easily achieve a swift and decisive victory.

Narrator: Secondly, politically.

Chung Chieh (Translated): Politically, at least in the medium term, avoid making the CCP feel too pessimistic. This way we can effectively delay the timing to which the CPP might use force to resolve the Taiwan issue. The hope is to secure a situation where, over time, changes within China or the international landscape is at a place where it’s more favorable to us. As a small nation facing CCP stance, realistically our approach can only be characterized as one of delay and adaptability.

Narrator: Professor LIN agrees.

Ying-yu Lin (Translated): The so-called "non-fighting environment." We need to have the determination to not engage in conflict, and we need forward-thinking strategies, but we must prevent the outbreak of war.

Narrator: As Taiwan prepares for a general election this Saturday, January 13th, a new president and a new class of legislators will be voted in. The outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen has been in office for two terms and cannot run again.

Peace across the Strait and in the region, that’s on everyone’s mind, but where the candidates and their political parties differ is how to maintain it. All three presidential candidates have indicated they would continue Taiwan’s current foreign policies, though they have different views of what relations with China and with the U.S. should be. And also, different ideas for defense. Boost military training. Boost international collaborations. Boost non-conscription force. Boost salary.

But what does peace entail? Is it the renunciation of force by China once and for all? Or is it the day China stops its jets from crossing the median line and its ships from circumnavigating Taiwan?

Peace under the Democratic Progressive Party’s William Lai is expected to look as it does now – closer ties with the U.S., which remains Taiwan’s biggest defense benefactor, as well as tensions with China, which views Lai and his party as a separatist. Should the Nationalist Party (KMT) triumph, the administration of Hou Yu-ih is expected to pursue a strategy of deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation. He says Taiwan should prepare for war, and he also thinks he can reopen contact with China. China cut contact with Taiwan in 2016 when President Tsai began her first term in office. And while the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je has said he would apply “pragmatism and professionalism”, it’s not known how his proposed hybrid approach of preparing for war and engaging dialogue with China will win over Xi Jinping.

And in their first televised presidential policy presentation in December, one candidate reminded others that it is China that has the hostile takeover of Taiwan as its national policy.

Tsung-Lin Tsai, the former paratrooper, echoes this call for unity. At the end of our interview with him at his home in Taichung, where he told us about his trip around the island to raise awareness of national defense, he added this:

Tsung-lin Tsai (Translated): Most importantly, our enemy is the Communist Party of China. Not the Democratic Progressive Party. Not the KMT Kuomintang. Not the Taiwan People’s Party. I really hope everyone, please stop pointing the finger at our own people. We must unite. That’s how we can resist the invasion of foreign enemies.

Narrator: Whatever defense policy the next government adopts, most of Taiwan’s people say they are happy with the status quo, but this is a reality that China is not happy with. So the question is how far Taiwan is willing to go to maintain this way of life, one where it continues to enjoy its independent and democratic system with free elections, its own military, financial system, freedom of speech, as well as diplomacy and trade with international partners.

You’ve been listening to “Dispatch from Taiwan” from the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. and Ghost Island Media in Taipei, Taiwan. Thank you to all the guests who took their time to speak to us. We urge you to follow their work, and ours, on all of our websites and social media.

Views in the podcast do not reflect those of the United States Institute of Peace and Ghost Island Media.

Subscribe to the show whatever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

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