China's war games spark international alarm but collective eye roll in Taiwan

25 May 2024, 16:46 | Updated: 25 May 2024, 21:16

In Keelung, about 30 minutes from Taiwan's capital Taipei, China's recent war games seem to promote a kind of collective eye roll.

It's less than 24 hours after Beijing encircled the self-governed island, firing mock missiles aimed at showing how it could seize power.

Those moves, coupled with ramped up talk of "punishment" by Beijing, sparked alarm in the international community.

The US State Department said the United States was "deeply concerned" and strongly urged China to act with restraint after it ended two days of war games, in which it simulated attacks with bombers and practised boarding ships.

The drills came with less warning than usual - 45 minutes, not a day - and Beijing pumped out visuals that looked like a full-scale simulated demolition.

It seemed to signal a subtle shift - perhaps a more hawkish strategy being employed by President Xi Jinping to "reunify" Taiwan with mainland China.

And yet in Keelung, home to a naval base, people seem to shrug their shoulders at the notion of an increased threat from China.

On a humid morning, all eyes instead are on a hip hop group performing for the crowds.

There's a woman roaming around with a python round her neck and another with an iguana on a lead. It's an incongruous, slightly comic sight.

People's minds seem far away from political tussles. The young people gathered here, drinking beer in the midday heat, say they've seen and heard so much rhetorical bluster between Beijing and Taipei in their relatively short lives, that they've stopped taking it seriously.

One man tells me: "After so many years of military exercises, people have become used to it and they just don't think China will actually attack."

Another says: "I'm more worried about China influencing and infiltrating Taiwanese politics than I am about war."

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But when we step on board Ke-Ming Wu's boat, we hear a different perspective.

Ke-Ming takes us on a tour to see the naval base. We pass by sailors he thinks have just returned from an operation in response to the Chinese war games in recent days.

He's seen decades of tension and undulating threats and he understands the possibility of war. He just doesn't see the logic.

He tells me: "China is huge - Taiwan is just such a tiny place. One lake in China is 10 times bigger than Taiwan. Do you think this land is of any benefit to them?"

But the reality is China is desperate for "reunification" with Taiwan and some US intelligence sources believe it is preparing to be ready to invade by 2027.

Lu Li Shih, a former Taiwanese navy captain, says that date feels like a reasonable estimate.

"Certainly, China is preparing for war," he says. "Based on the number of military ships and the hiring of new recruits. It's all for self-defence and Taiwan."

But he, like many analysts, acknowledges it would be a hugely politically risky move for Beijing and, right now, far too costly for a country whose economy is struggling.

What happened this week feels more like warning shots, than a huge shift in strategy.

Beijing loathes Taiwan's new leader Lai Ching-te - a man it views as a dangerous separatist.

The fact he used his inaugural speech to say that both sides "are not subordinate to each other," infuriated Beijing and it clearly wanted the world to know it.

But right now, war would be hugely costly, economically and politically for Beijing. A squeeze of Taiwan rather than a seizure seems more plausible currently.

But it feels inevitable that there will be more drills. It seems no coincidence China called this operation 2024A. B could come pretty soon.