When fighter jets and military helicopters streaked across the skies over the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, at 6.30am on Thursday morning, social media lit up with anxious posts.
The defence ministry quickly clarified that the sorties were a practice run for Taiwan’s National Day in October, but the timing had been unfortunate – Chinese military aircraft have been intercepted over 40 times since mid-September while flying uncomfortably close to Taiwan’s airspace, fraying public nerves.
For decades, democratic Taiwan has grown accustomed to threats of invasion from China’s Communist leadership, which has never ruled the island of 24 million yet claims it as its own territory.
But the recent rise in military intimidation, warnings of war from state media and an increasingly belligerent Chinese foreign policy have raised fears in recent months that conflict across the Taiwan Strait is a realistic possibility.
“It’s certainly a Chinese Communist Party that is no longer biding its time,” said Enoch Wu, 39, a rising political star who recently launched a resilience training programme to teach individuals and communities how to organise shelter and deliver First Aid in the event of a catastrophic invasion.
“In the worst case scenario, we have this belief that defending Taiwan will take a whole of nation, whole of society approach, especially if you consider the fire power that the People’s Liberation Army has built up, whether that is in the number of missiles or the airstrike payload,” he said.
In August, at the first of what will be monthly sessions, 400 people applied for 60 places. The 12-hour event began with lectures and training from disaster response professionals followed by a mass casualty simulation in a Taipei park.
Mr Wu said he created the initiative after touring Taiwanese university campuses and civic groups with his NGO, Forward Alliance, which aims to raise awareness about defence challenges and national security.
“Over the last ten, twenty years, the PLA has been very clear about their force-building objective and at the top of that mission set is unifying Taiwan by force,” he said.
“When we give these talks around the country, the question people ask always come back to this – ‘what can we do?’ My sense is that there is this angst, there’s anxiousness to be more prepared.”
As we travel across TW raising awareness of emerging threats and advocating for defense reform, this is the question we hear most: “what can I, as an individual citizen, do to help?” We are encouraged and optimistic, bc our public wants to step up.
— 吳怡農 Enoch Wu (@Enoch_TW) September 6, 2020
Public disquiet has heightened this year as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy grows increasingly assertive, stoking tensions with the US, India, and in the South China Sea, and prompting speculation he is trying to deflect attention from domestic troubles over the pandemic and economy.
For Beijing, absorbing Taiwan into the mainland has long been at the top of its expansionist ambitions and President Xi has publicly committed to taking the island – which operates like any other nation with its own democratic government – by force if it refuses to accept Chinese rule.
China has stepped up military drills simulating the takeover of Taiwan, practicing underwater mine clearance to create safe passage for warships and landing forces, and repeatedly flying fighter jets across the median line, which has served since the 1950s as the unofficial demarcation of the Taiwan Strait.
The military intimidation campaign intensified during a visit to Taipei earlier this month by Keith Krach, US undersecretary of state for economic growth.
Beijing, which rejects Taiwan’s right to diplomatic relations, was infuriated by the visit and by signals from the US, Taipei’s biggest arms supplier, that it intends to sell it $7 billion in coastal defence missiles, drones and mines.
While increased US support had boosted Taiwan’s morale, it also carried a security risk, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“On the one hand we reassure Taiwan that we care about them, on the other hand we are the cause of this great military pressure,” she said. “I think this administration is almost hugging Taiwan too tightly.”
Euan Graham, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia, warned that the period between the US election and the inauguration, while it was preoccupied domestically, could “frame a window of opportunity” for China to take action against Taiwan.
It may not necessarily be a “full across-the-beach invasion,” he said, and could take the form of a cyber attack, blockade or assault on an outlying island.
But he added: “You can’t dismiss it as bluff and bluster because they are serious that they want to reunify and they have built a world class military that is built essentially for that purpose.”