Bullets whipped through the water and the booming sound of mortar shells echoed as soldiers fired out to sea with howitzers, machine guns and rifles on Dongyin, an island 50km off the Chinese coast where Taiwan’s armed forces were practising for a potential attack.
It was a routine drill on Wednesday but many of Dongyin’s 800 residents took more notice than usual. An incursion by a Chinese aircraft last month and the conflict in Ukraine have highlighted the risk of an invasion by Beijing — and the weaknesses of Taiwan’s military.
China claims Taiwan as its territory, threatening to annex it if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely. Watching the war in Ukraine, the Taiwanese have started to discuss the threat they long used to ignore and whether their military is fit for a fight.
“People here got scared by the Chinese plane,” said Chen Li-ying, the wife of Dongyin’s mayor. “We never have aircraft flying overhead here except for helicopters, and it really flew this close and this low,” she added, pointing to a hill where the plane flew past on February 5 and was filmed by a security camera on the roof of her bed and breakfast.
Liu Hsiang-ying, a secretary at the township’s office, was at a temple that afternoon when she heard a sound she initially mistook for a military truck. “Then I realised it came from above. I looked up, and there it was, very big and very close,” she said.
Dongyin, a former pirate stronghold with a small settlement of fishermen from Fujian province, came under Taiwanese authority only when the Chinese nationalist military fled the mainland after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949. The island is Taiwan’s northernmost territory and serves as a strategic outpost, equipped with Skybow II surface-to-air missiles.
The local army command has tried to reassure residents by saying it spotted the aircraft early and it had “full grasp” of the situation. But the defence ministry’s slow reaction and its explanation of the incident, which appeared to contradict the facts on the ground, has kicked off a heated discussion among Taiwanese politicians and military experts about the armed forces’ early warning capabilities.
In a statement issued 10 days after the incursion, Taiwan’s defence ministry identified the aircraft as a Y-12, a turboprop plane often used by the Chinese coastguard to conduct reconnaissance or assert sovereignty claims in areas disputed with neighbouring countries. The ministry said China might have tested the Taiwanese military’s responses with a “civilian” aircraft, adding that the Y-12 had not entered its territory, defined as air space up to 6km from the coastline.
But military experts dispute that claim. “People on the island would not have been able to see the aircraft this close with the naked eye if it had not entered our airspace,” said a retired Taiwanese air force official.
Two former military officials said the operations centre that analyses all radar signals had probably not identified the object as a potentially dangerous intruding aircraft. “The long time the ministry took to come up with their assessment suggests that they identified the plane only afterwards through comprehensive analysis using other electronic signals and satellite photographs,” said one official.
The debate over the incident has been amplified by a series of recent accidents involving Taiwan’s air force, and the war in Ukraine, which Beijing has refused to condemn. On Monday, the air force grounded its entire fleet of Mirage combat aircraft after one crashed into the sea. Four fighters have been lost in similar crashes since late 2020.
Admiral Lee Hsi-min, former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces, said the Y-12 incident was a good case study of the military’s ability to deal with problems. “If the aircraft was not detected through radar, that in itself is not a catastrophe — these things can happen,” he said, pointing to the 1987 case of German aviator Mathias Rust, who flew far into Soviet airspace and landed in Moscow’s Red Square.
“The key is how you respond. In this case, they should call all operators and analyse what went wrong,” Lee added. “But we often just try to get the incident behind us as quickly as possible by reassuring the public or narrating the heroic lives of the pilots who lost their lives. If we do that, we will not become stronger as an organisation.”
In Dongyin, people have gone back to their normal lives but a sense of unease remains. “People here don’t normally have the same sense of apprehension about the Chinese as people in Taiwan have because many residents here marry Chinese and we have frequent contact with them,” said Tsai Hsin-ju, who moved to Dongyin after marrying a local six years ago and runs a restaurant and a video blog. She said islanders would frequently barter groceries with fishermen from Fujian who ventured close to the island and sometimes came ashore.
“But in fact, we are vulnerable,” she added. “We now sometimes say, ‘What if one day all those mainland fishing boats have not fish in their holds but People’s Liberation Army soldiers?’ There is nothing we could do.”