With Hong Kong languishing under Beijing’s newly imposed security law, and repeated provocations being issued from an increasingly belligerent China, Taiwan faces a very precarious geopolitical and security situation.

First, after the national security law for Hong Kong was announced in May, fears arose for protesters and activists at whom the law is targeted. Foreign countries have been urged to grant Hongkongers refuge and residency. Given the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen’s outspoken sympathy for the movement, Taiwan was expected to be one of these. 

Photo: Office of the President of Taiwan, via Flickr.

In response, the government has set up a dedicated office to help Hongkongers move to Taiwan. While this office will provide humanitarian assistance to those seeking to flee, it is also looking to attract business owners, investors and professionals from Hong Kong.

There are reportedly a few hundred Hongkongers in Taiwan who have sought refuge after coming over last year following a mass protest movement which sprung up to oppose an extradition bill. While not officially granted asylum status, they have been allowed to stay in Taiwan, with some Hongkongers receiving assistance from NGOs and studying in local schools.

As the national security law has now been implemented and political and civil freedoms are becoming rapidly constricted in the city, more Hongkongers are expected to make their way to Taiwan.

However, some critics have pointed out the Taiwanese government has not come up with any specific laws or regulations for officially helping asylum seekers from Hong Kong. This is in line with Taiwan’s pre-existing refugee stance in that the island does not have an official refugee law. Also, helping Hong Kong refugees on an informal, case-by-case basis helps Taiwan manage a difficult cross-strait relationship with China.

A pro-Hong Kong protester flag reading ‘Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time’ flies above a Democratic Progressive Party rally on election day, January 10, in Taipei. Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Helping Hong Kong refugees adds an extra bit of complexity to Taiwan’s problems with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and refuses to let Taiwan be recognised as a country on the global stage.

Given that China regularly threatens Taiwan for varied reasons, it is no surprise China has already warned Taiwan against providing shelter for Hongkongers fleeing persecution for participating in the protest movement. China has also threatened countries such as the UK and Canada for respectively offering pathways to residency to Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports, and ending their extradition agreements with Hong Kong.

This leads to Taiwan’s second major issue, which is that it is having to fend off numerous military provocations from China in recent months. This includes military flight intrusions, the sailing of an aircraft carrier fleet around Taiwan, and even boat collisions and the stealing of sand from Taiwanese waters.

Some of this is not new, especially the military flight intrusions. However, the frequency of these incidents, happening over consecutive days, is a huge escalation from usual, as is the type of exercises.

For instance, an intrusion on March 16 by a group of Chinese fighters and early-warning aircraft was the first time that Chinese military planes had flown into Taiwanese airspace at night.

A Chinese aircraft. File Photo: Wikicommons.

In May, there were reports the Chinese military would undertake a large exercise in the South China Sea in summer that would simulate an invasion of Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, also known as Pratas. While Chinese experts refuted the idea that the drills were targeting the Taiwanese islands, Taiwan sent Marines in June to the islands for “training,” in a move to reinforce the garrisons which up to that point were manned only by Coast Guard personnel.

The ultimate nightmare scenario is a full invasion from China. This would not be a simple move, as it would require China to first establish aerial and naval dominance over the 180-km-wide Taiwan Strait. And even if China carries off an actual invasion, the outcome will not be an automatic Chinese victory.

However, given China’s recent aggressive and reckless behaviour in Hong Kong, its deadly border clash with India, and its continued belligerence in regional waters, an invasion in the near future cannot be ruled out. 

Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen. File Photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

There have been recent reports suggesting that China intends to take Taiwan this year or next year. Recently, John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post the national security law in Hong Kong is a prelude for how China wants to rule Taiwan after it is captured.

Quoting a Chinese hard-line think-tank head, Pomfret said Beijing eyes next year as a deadline for taking Taiwan, since it is the centenary anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese leader Xi Jinping bluntly demanded Taiwan agree to unification in a New Year’s Day speech last year and has previously stated that unification should not be passed onto future generations.

As if to back this up, China has heavily stepped up naval ship production in recent years and has launched large amphibious assault ships, which are vital for any naval invasion attempt. 

Taiwan’s government under Tsai Ing-wen has taken steps to boost its military such as launching its first-ever “indigenous” submarine programme, building new naval vessels, and buying more tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and missile systems from the US.

A PLA Navy ship. File photo: Wikicommons.

While the authorities seem to be taking the military threat of China very seriously, they could be doing more to notify the Taiwanese public about this danger and any possible preparations it should undertake. 

Taiwan’s military is also not in the most optimal state. For instance, Taiwanese males serve only four months of conscripted military service, in comparison to over 20 months for Singaporean men and at least 18 months for South Korean men.

The short length of time means it is difficult to learn much beyond basic training. There have also been concerns raised about the state of active military units, as well as the inadequate capability of Taiwan’s reserve force of over two million. 

While US assistance during a Chinese attack would be quite likely, Taiwan will need to make sure its military can put up a good fight.

Even when much of the world’s focus is on China’s security law crackdown on Hong Kong and its border clashes with India, Taiwan could very well be the next theatre of action.

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Hilton Yip

Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.