TAIPEI — Liuqiu, a short speedboat ride from the southern Taiwanese city of Donggang, attracts day-trippers for its coral beaches, laid-back atmosphere and scenic visits. This week, some visitors headed to the southernmost end of the Sunset Pavilion hoping for a more dramatic view: Chinese battleships and fighter jets training for a war to control their homeland.
Democratic Taiwan is surrounded by the navy of communist-ruled mainland China, part of Beijing’s response to Wednesday’s visit by US President Nancy Pelosi. The four-day exercise simulates a blockade of the main island, with live fire at demarcated zones — one of which is less than 6 miles from the Liuqiu lookout, where local businessman Kevin Tseng said dozens of visitors gathered with their cameras Thursday afternoon .
“They were there to watch the fun,” Mr Cheng said, adding that the drills had had no noticeable impact on his scooter rental business, with only one group citing them when texting to cancel a booking. Otherwise, everyday life on the island continues as normal, he said.
“If we’re really attacked, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I relax and take it easy,” the 40-year-old said.
Beijing has claimed Taiwan as an integral part of its territory since the victory of Mao Zedong’s forces over the Nationalists, who retreated there in the late 1940s. Most of Taiwan’s 23 million people disagree: the island has been a bastion of democracy and liberal values in the region for decades, a link in the global semiconductor supply chain and, for the Chinese Communist Party, an uncomfortable alternative model for the 1.3 billion people living under its authoritarian rule.
After Ms. Pelosi ignored Beijing’s repeated warnings not to visit, Chinese social media was flooded with calls for a forceful response. Extensive coverage of the battleships, fighter jets and flying rockets in the state media – backed by scathing commentary from military analysts linked to the People’s Liberation Army – offered the most visible evidence of this.
But while television newscasts in Taiwan were also dominated by the drills, there were few signs of growing panic among the public or businesses. The main stock index gained more than 2% on Friday, erasing losses from earlier in the week, as tensions over Ms Pelosi’s visit rose.
Taiwan’s night markets were bustling on Friday night with crowds craving their favorite street food or queuing for bubble tea. Markets and grocery stores were also well stocked. Cultural activities such as live music performances in the capital city of Taipei – dubbed Asia’s answer to Portland, Ore. – continue as usual.
Chinese exercises were largely absent from the daily conversations of more than 20 people contacted by the Wall Street Journal.
Much of the discussion on Taiwan’s social media focused on a Japanese military report that revealed four Chinese missiles had flown over the island, with many users directing criticism at Taiwan’s military for not disclosing the information. The Ministry of Defense said it had not released the information because of the need to protect “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities”. He added that the missiles mostly traveled outside the atmosphere and thus did not pose a threat to any humans on the ground.
Some also scoffed at Thursday’s announcement by the PLA that it had already completed its missile tests. Meanwhile, on PTT, a Reddit-like bulletin board system popular among middle-aged Taiwanese netizens, a number of topics related to exercises and military issues were trending alongside posts about local politics, dating and parenting advice.
“I don’t think people are ignorant, nor are they numb,” said Lin Ying-yu, a defense expert who teaches PLA studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Threats from Chinese forces have existed for decades and the world has always known that.”
In addition, Taiwan’s government, including President Tsai Ing-wen, has warned of potential threats from psychological warfare, with a number of government offices debunking what they call fake news. One such case involved an allegation that China had decided to evacuate its nationals in Taiwan by August 8.
The impact of China’s military build-up was felt most offshore, with shipowners reporting some disruption as their vessels tried to bypass the affected area. About half of the world’s container fleet and 90% of the world’s largest ships by tonnage passed through the Taiwan Strait last year.
Some seafood lovers the Journal spoke to had noticed a slight shortage of certain products in the markets.
Local fishermen fear they will be accidentally hit during live shooting, said Tseng Yu-tsung, a spokesman for the Liuqiu District Fishermen’s Association.
“They don’t dare go out to sea,” he said, adding that August is usually a busy month for hunting mahi-mahi, or common dolphin, an excellent fish. His team estimates the cost of keeping more than 30 vessels at the dock during the exercises will be more than $600,000.
But for most, China’s latest round of saber-rattling has left them unmoved after years of Beijing’s rhetoric.
Chen Hui-cheng, a 43-year-old shop owner selling frozen fruit in Liuqiu, said he barely noticed the increase in chatter on Facebook on Thursday, learning of the drills only later. The main source of concern seemed to come from the news, he said.
“This might sound funny, but, actually, I didn’t know what happened yesterday,” he said. “I do not feel anything.”
Write to Joyu Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org
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