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Taiwan troops try Ukraine's tactics during invasion drills

Yuchen Li in Taipei
July 28, 2023

To prepare for a potential invasion from mainland China, Taiwan updated its annual war games with strategies used by Ukrainians against the Russian military.

Armed soldiers simulate battle at the Taiwan airport
Drills at Taiwan's International Airport were meant to simulate Russia's failed assault on an airport near KyivImage: SAM YEH/AFP

This week, Taiwan's forces held five-day annual military drills, the Han Kuang Exercise, to ramp up the island's combat readiness. The drills include multiple simulated scenarios of China's military attacking the self-ruled island. 

The ever-present fears of a mainland Chinese invasion in Taiwan were exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. China sees the island as part of its own territory.

On Thursday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen attended an anti-landing drill at the Port of Taipei for inspection, telling local media that the exercises reaffirm the island's "resolute commitment" to defending itself.

For the past three years, China has been carrying out live-fire military exercises around Taiwan more frequently than before. Just days before Taiwan's war games, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) sent 34 warships and warplanes around the island for a duration of two days, Taiwan's Defence Ministry reported.

Learning from Ukraine

Taiwanese military experts told DW that the government was taking the drills more seriously this year, as the threat from Beijing had grown.

Taiwan holds military exercises: DW'S Yuchen Li reports

"This year's drills are more realistic, unlike previous exercises that were merely running through routines," Chou Yu-Ping, a retired air force colonel in Taiwan, told DW. "The way they execute the operations addresses possible challenges in real combat situations," he added.

Taiwan's military has also looked at the tactics used by Ukrainian forces to repel the Russian army from Kyiv in the early days of the invasion in February and March 2022.

On Wednesday, Taiwan carried out for the first time an anti-takeover drill at its largest and busiest civilian airport in Taoyuan City.

With helicopters in the sky and troops on the ground, the Taiwanese military staged a mission to fend off a simulated airborne invasion by the PLA.

Su Tzu-yun, a researcher at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told DW that the military took lessons from Ukraine's battles with Russian forces.

"The protection of airports is crucial, as demonstrated in last year's significant battle of Antonov Airport in Kyiv," Su said, referring to Ukrainian forces successfully thwarting an attempt by Russian paratroopers to seize a key airport.

According to former air force colonel Chou, the drills were necessary as Taoyuan Airport is a potential "weak point during a real war," as the terrain is open and spacious.

Other lessons from the Ukraine-Russia conflict include the protection of critical infrastructure and strategic defense using drones.

Su said that during an anti-amphibious landing drill on Bali beach in northern Taiwan, the military improved the design of trenches to reduce "the chances of being detected or attacked by drones."

China dismisses Taiwan drills

Officials in Beijing have not commented much in response to Taiwan's military drills, which concluded Friday.

China's state-run tabloid, Global Times, quoted mainland experts on Tuesday, describing the Han Kuang Exercise as "nothing more than a show that does not change the cross-Straits military balance but only raises tensions."

Researcher Su Tzu-yun said that Beijing typically tries to portray Taiwan as an aggressor.

"Taiwan is merely displaying its willingness and capability to protect itself," he said.

He added that the drills are "purely defensive" and most of them focus on anti-landing operations and not offensive simulations or attacks on mainland China.

Why are some Taiwanese heading to Ukraine to fight?

The Chinese media has also attempted to cast doubt on Taiwan's military capabilities.

On the first day of the war games, a sudden explosion injured nine at a military base near the capital Taipei.

Following the incident, Global Times cited another Chinese expert, suggesting that the overall lower training level of Taiwan's military has reached a point "where it would be surprising if there were no unexpected incidents."

Former air force colonel Chou said, "of course Beijing would look down on [Taiwan's military drills]," while acknowledging that there exists "a disparity in military capabilities" between the two sides.

Nevertheless, he stressed that "military confrontation is the last resort" and Taiwan's authorities should focus on deterring Beijing from contemplating an invasion since "the real winner is the one who can achieve their goals without resorting to war."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn