Updated Aug 7, 2022 - World

Taiwanese shrug off China drills: "Everyone becomes numb to it"

Three tourists pose for a photo on the beach near Kaohsiung Harbor, with oceanliners on the horizon.
Tourists pose for a photo on the beach near Kaohsiung Harbor, as cargo ships anchor outside the Taiwanese port on August 5, 2022. Photo credit: Sebastian Kjeldtoft.

LIUQIU ISLAND, Taiwan — Families collected shells on the beach and tourists took selfies at sunset on the tiny resort island of Liuqiu, less than six miles away from one of the "danger zones" where China is conducting live-fire military drills.

The big picture: While international attention focuses on an emerging cross-strait crisis, Taiwanese have been living with Chinese government threats for decades. Few people appeared seriously concerned about a possible military conflict — even on this islet, closer to the drills than any other part of Taiwan.

Driving the news: China launched a series of military exercises in six zones encircling Taiwan after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last week, and ballistic missiles launched from China landed in waters east of Taiwan.

  • The drills, which are due to end on Sunday, are the largest China has ever held in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan's Ministry of Defense said the exercises amount to an "air and sea blockade," as some commercial flights and cargo ships in the region have had to adjust or cancel their routes.

What's happening: Tourists were still flocking to the island about eight miles off the southwest coast of Taiwan, even as the drills were underway.

  • Divers swam with turtles close to the shore, and fishing boats traversed the nearby waters as usual. In the evenings, seaside restaurants and bars were filled to capacity.

What they're saying: In interviews with more than 20 tourists and local residents, nonchalance seemed to be the most common attitude toward the live-fire drills happening just a few miles away.

  • When asked if they were nervous about the close proximity of Chinese ships warships and planes, numerous people laughed and shook their heads. Others said the drills were only intended as a show of intimidation rather than a serious military threat.
  • "They are putting political pressure on us, but me personally, I don’t think anything bad’s gonna happen," said Chi Tsao, who came to Liuqiu with a group of friends. "If they wanted to do something militarily, they would have done that a long time ago."
A cargo ship enter Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan, on August 5, 2022.
A cargo ship enter Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan, on August 5, 2022. Photo: Sebastian Kjeldtoft

The military drills haven't affected business, Jen Yu, a woman who works at a diving school on Liuqiu, told Axios.

  • The number of customers has declined slightly in the past week, Yu said, but that's because it is "ghost month," the seventh month of the lunar calendar when ghosts are believed to come out of the water and curse those unlucky enough to run into them.
  • Some divers were afraid of the ghosts, but they weren't afraid of China's military exercises, Yu said.
  • "People who don’t live here keep telling me, watch for the military! But I don’t see anything, so I don’t know why people keep telling me that," she said.
Jen Yu works at a computer at Bear Diving on Liuqiu Island, Taiwan, on August 5, 2022.
Jen Yu works at a computer at Bear Diving on Liuqiu Island, Taiwan, on August 5, 2022. Photo credit: Sebastian Kjeldtoft.

Yes, but: A few people did express anxiety about the drills and the rise in tensions between China and Taiwan.

  • "I feel a little nervous. It’s a feeling of being squeezed," said Xie Hui-ju, a school teacher who had come to the beach with her husband and three daughters. "A lot of things can’t be exported anymore, so that influences our economy."
  • Even so, Xie said she wasn't worried about an actual military conflict. Taiwanese people have heard threats from China all their lives, she explained. "After a long time of this, everyone becomes numb to it. People think it’s just words, that they won’t take real action."
Two tourists pose at Sunset Pavilion, the southernmost portion of Liuqiu Island which directly faces the Chinese military drills
Emily and Jolene pose at Sunset Pavilion, the southernmost portion of Liuqiu Island which directly faces the waters where Chinese military drills are being conducted four miles away. Photo credit: Sebastian Kjeldtoft.

Zoom out: The attitudes in Liuqiu reflect those in other parts of Taiwan, though there has been growing interest in civil defense training since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which jolted many Taiwanese into thinking seriously about their response if China really were to invade.

  • Two young women standing on Sunset Pavilion, which looks out on the waters where China's nearest drill zone is located, said they had gone out on a boat earlier and the captain had pointed out a ship in the distance and told the passengers half-jokingly that "we might get bombed."
  • One of the women, Jolene, said that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being highest, her level of concern was a 3. The other, Emily, said hers was a 6 or 7.
  • "This is kind of a dangerous situation," Emily said. "We’re already living in this kind of situation everyday, so we have to get used to it to keep our life and peace of mind."

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