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Taiwan takes security lessons from Hamas, Ukraine surprise attacks

Taichung, Taiwan – On October 7, the Palestinian armed group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, firing thousands of rockets that quickly overwhelmed Israel’s state-of-the-art Iron Dome air defence system while thousands of fighters infiltrated southern Israel by air, sea and land.

The significance of Hamas’s surprise attack was not lost on Taiwan’s military, which lives with a promise by Beijing’s political leaders to unify self-ruled Taiwan with China, by force if necessary.

In the week after Hamas’s raid on Israel, the Taiwanese defence ministry announced the establishment of a task force to draw lessons from the Israel-Gaza war.

Taiwan’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has said that an initial lesson is that intelligence gathering will be key to counter China’s threats.

Taiwan also has the sea, said 42-year-old Tony Wei, who is a member of the Taiwanese reserves and a dentist by profession.

Taiwan is separated from China’s east coast by a 130-kilometre (81-mile) stretch of ocean known as the Taiwan Strait which acts as a natural barrier and early warning system should Beijing try to overwhelm Taiwan in a surprise attack.

“To invade Taiwan, they (the Chinese military) have to gather a very large fleet,” Wei told Al Jazeera.

China’s mobilisation of such a naval force would probably be detected by Taiwan, giving the self-ruled island time to ready for an invasion or even launch a preemptive attack, Wei said.

Still, the Hamas raid – largely considered unimaginable by military analysts before it happened – has made Wei question whether Taiwan truly possesses the capabilities necessary to counter a potentially determined Chinese military.

“The Israelis have a very powerful military, an effective intelligence service and a lot of American support,” Wei said. “If even Israel can be surprised and overwhelmed, then what about Taiwan?”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen officiates the launch of the territory's first domestically produced submarine. She is standing at a lectern next to the submarine
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has sought to modernise Taiwan’s military with new weapons and strategies [File: Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo]

The Israel-Gaza war is the second time the world has recently been taken aback by a military operation considered improbable until it was carried out.

“They said that President Putin wouldn’t attack Ukraine, but he did, and they said that Hamas couldn’t attack Israel, but they did,” Wei said, referring to the Russian invasion of February 2022.

“Taiwan needs to learn from these attacks in case our island becomes the next place where the unthinkable happens.”

Surprise attacks: Knowing before, responding after

“Hamas’s attack achieved strategic, operational, and tactical surprise against the Israelis,” Eric Chan, a non-resident research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“Taiwan has a vested interest in avoiding this type of surprise, especially because their adversary has greater powers than Hamas,” Chan said.

“The Russian invasion, as well as the surprise attack by Hamas, was an object demonstration that while you may think that the adversary is deterred by high costs, the adversary may actually not care,” he added.

Fang-Yu Chen, an assistant professor at Soochow University in Taipei who researches political relations between Taiwan, China and the US, said that Taiwan’s announced establishment of a task force in the aftermath of the Hamas attack was an attempt to learn lessons in order to prevent a Taiwanese intelligence failure with regards to China.

“Taiwan is constantly picking up a lot of information about China’s activities, but such information has to be verified, analysed and passed on to the right people,” Chen told Al Jazeera.

According to Chen, Taiwan might look to strengthening its intelligence gathering in order to ensure that credible threats from China are clearly identified before a potential disaster strikes.

“The next major consideration is what to do after an attack has already taken place,” he said.

Taiwan’s government has taken steps in that direction, too.

More money is being allocated to the military; compulsory military service for Taiwanese citizens is being extended from four months to one year; the purchase of new missile systems was announced, and the island’s first domestically built submarine was also unveiled earlier this month.

In its preparations, Taiwan has also looked to and learned from the war in Ukraine, according to Chen.

A major lesson of Russia’s invasion is the importance of not only strengthening the island’s conventional military and intelligence but also its capabilities within the field of information warfare in order to win the battle of the narrative, he said.

War of narratives

Chen has observed that China’s information operations directed at Taiwan have adjusted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Before the Ukraine war, the propaganda was often about how the US will abandon Taiwan, but after the war, it has been about how the US is pushing China towards war,” he said.

At the same time, Chen has detected a polarisation of public opinion in Taiwan with people who were already willing to fight against Chinese aggression becoming more willing to confront Beijing while those who were unwilling to fight have become even less willing.

Amid this battle for public opinion and efforts to influence personal resolve among the Taiwanese, Taiwan’s government last year launched a ministry of digital affairs which has since introduced a range of measures to combat disinformation directed at the island and its population.

In the battle of narratives it is not just a matter of countering disinformation that reaches Taiwan, said Wei, the military reservist, but also about how Taiwan obtains the backing of other countries.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has also taken certain preliminary steps to accomplish this by encouraging the island to tell its own story to the world. Through the “Give Taiwan a Voice” campaign, her administration has protested against Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations and sought to highlight the island’s contributions to the international community.

At the same time, Tsai has sought to reach out to and integrate Taiwan more extensively with countries in South and Southeast Asia through a so-called “southbound policy” under the slogan of “Taiwan helps Asia, Asia helps Taiwan”.

Wei believes such initiatives are important if Taiwan is to win over world opinion in the face of increasing pressure from China.

A tank moving through a cloud of dust
Taiwan’s military took part in drills last month to simulate integrated ground and air combat [File: Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo]

For Wei, the importance of winning the narrative was highlighted in the information battle that broke out between Israel and Hamas over responsibility for the deadly explosion at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza.

The fight to convince the world of the magnitude and responsibility for the hospital atrocity had far-reaching consequences as meetings between US President Joe Biden – Israel’s staunchest ally – and several Arab leaders were cancelled amid a global outcry over the attack.

As Wei said, no one supports someone who bombs hospitals, and no one can win a war without assistance from the outside.

Winning the information war, he said, will be crucial for Taiwan in any potential confrontation with China.

“So, we must win the war of words so that we can count on international support if Chinese bombs strike Taiwan.”

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