In Taiwan’s Keelung port dispatchers spent much of Thursday broadcasting warnings to fishing boats heading north, reminding them that China’s military was conducting live-fire drills nearby.
“This is the Keelung radio station,” the radio system crackled. “China’s People’s Liberation Army will conduct military exercises from August 4th at noon…”
The warnings, at the top of every hour, were a stark reminder that Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants live under the constant threat of invasion — a danger that has intensified under China’s current leader Xi Jinping.
Throughout the day, dispatchers received calls from Taiwan’s navy detailing which vessels were heading too close to the multiple danger zones China declared around the island.
They would then scramble to contact individual vessels and warn them off.
“We have had to continuously warn 10-20 boats by radio to leave and stay away,” Huang Li-yue, the 61-year-old chief of Keelung fishing fleet radio station, told AFP.
“There are also enquires from boats about the locations of exercise areas.”
Huang said she remembered the last time this happened.
In 1995, China began test-firing missiles in the waters around Taiwan, to protest a visit by then president Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater university in the United States.
Further missile tests were carried out a year later as Taiwan held its first direct presidential election.
But China’s latest drills — a protest against this week’s visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — were much closer to the shoreline.
“The tension during the previous 1995-96 crisis was high too, but this time it is happening in Taiwan’s surrounding waters,” Huang said.
– ‘Not much we can do’ –
China’s Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, but it regards the island as part of its territory and has vowed to one day take it.
Beijing has ramped up its sabre-rattling ever since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, as she views the island as a sovereign nation and not a part of China.
Taiwan’s people have long had to get used to threats and spikes in tension that are far outside their control, exemplified by China’s latest drills which have encircled the island.
Chen Wen-ching, executive secretary of the Keelung Fishermen’s Association, said many members were unhappy about being unable to work during what is peak season.
“But there’s not much we can do. They (China) do what they want,” he told AFP.
“Life is more important. You can make money later. Leave the area is what’s most important.”
Chou Ting-tai, 68, returned from fishing for squid in Taiwan’s northern waters shortly before the Chinese drills started around noon.
“We can avoid the areas but psychologically there’s still some stress, right? What if something went wrong with their aim and it went astray?” he said.
In nearby Taipei, many residents said they needed to get on with their daily lives unfazed by China’s fresh show of force.
“I think China is bluffing and it is trying to shift the attention on its domestic and economic woes by staging the military exercises around Taiwan,” said 22-year-old Leo Chung, after serving a string of lunchtime customers at his family’s small restaurant.
Shopkeeper Wang Yi-ting, 40, said she was hopeful that Taiwan’s allies, such as the United States and Japan, would ultimately intervene if China ever attacked for real.
“Although Taiwan is very small we have a place on the world stage,” Wang said.
But Karen Hsueh, 60, fretted that Taiwan was just a helpless pawn in a struggle between two far stronger powers.
“I think China cannot afford to look weak and it has to take actions to show it is not afraid of the United States,” the shopkeeper told AFP.
“Frankly I am more worried about China punishing Taiwan with economic means. I think Taiwan is the victim in the confrontation between China and the United States.”