Taiwan shoots down 'civilian' drone over tiny islet off China

AFP , Thursday 1 Sep 2022

Taiwanese soldiers on a tiny islet just off China's mainland shot down an unidentified commercial drone on Thursday as a local tycoon vowed to train millions of "civilian warriors" to defend the island.

Taiwanese soldiers
Taiwan s President Tsai Ing-wen watches soldiers operate equipment during a visit to a naval station on Penghu, an archipelago of several dozen islands off Taiwan s western coast on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. AP

 

It is the first time Taiwanese forces have downed a drone, and it comes at a time when tensions between the two neighbours are at their highest in decades following a visit to Taipei last month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Taiwan's 23 million people live under constant threat of invasion by China, which claims the self-ruled democratic island as part of its territory to be taken one day -- by force if necessary.

Beijing staged unprecedented military drills last month in response to Pelosi's trip.

Taiwan has also reported a sudden spate of drone incursions by small commercially-available devices in recent weeks.

The military said on Thursday that a civilian drone had entered a "restricted zone" above Shiyu Islet, a small rock that lies between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan's Kinmen islands.

"The stationed troops followed procedures to warn off the drone but to no avail. The drone was shot down in defensive fire," the defence ministry said.

Kinmen lies just a few miles off China's coastline and Taiwan has previously reported small drones hovering over its military outposts there.

Videos have circulated on both Taiwanese and Chinese social media, with one showing Taiwanese soldiers hurling rocks at a drone to drive it away.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen warned this week that the military might be forced to resort to live fire if the drones ignored warnings to leave.

China has played down the incursions, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying Monday they were not "anything worth making a fuss about" as the drones were "flying around Chinese territory".

Tycoon's 'warrior' donation

Beijing's sabre-rattling towards Taiwan has ramped up under President Xi Jinping, China's most assertive leader in a generation.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also raised questions about whether China might follow suit in Taiwan -- and whether the island is equipped to defend itself.

On Thursday, a colourful Taiwanese tycoon came up with his own proposal to boost Taiwan's defence.

Robert Tsao, who made his fortune in Taiwan's semiconductor industry, said he would donate TW$1 billion ($33 million) of his own money to help train some three million "civilian warriors" and 300,000 sharpshooters who could work alongside the military in the event of an invasion.

Tsao -- who founded major microchip maker United Microelectronics Corp but no longer holds any position in the company -- portrayed the risk posed by China as existential.

"The Chinese Communist Party's threat to Taiwan is growing and the fight against (it) stands for freedom against slavery, democracy against authoritarianism and civilised against barbaric," the 75-year-old said.

Taiwan remains massively outgunned, with just 88,000 ground forces compared to China's one million troops, according to Pentagon estimates.

American and Taiwanese strategists have increasingly pushed Taipei to adopt a "porcupine" strategy of asymmetric warfare, which would include training civilians to fight.

Record incursions

During last month's drills China sent warships, missiles and fighter jets into the waters and skies around Taiwan, its largest and most aggressive exercises since the mid-1990s.

But it is not clear who is flying the drones that have buzzed around the island.

Given Kinmen's close proximity to the Chinese mainland, it is possible that commercial drones operated by civilians could cover the short distance.

However, China has also stepped up so-called "greyzone" tactics -- aggressive actions by a state that stop short of open warfare -- against Taiwan in recent years to raise pressure on the island.

Civilian Chinese fishing and sand dredging vessels, for example, have increasingly entered waters around Taiwan's outlying islands, including Kinmen.

China has also ramped up incursions by warplanes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone to test defences and wear out the island's own fleet of ageing fighter jets.

Taiwan saw a record 446 warplanes enter its air defence zone in August, according to a database compiled by AFP based on figures released by Taipei's defence ministry.

That monthly total alone was more than the 380 sorties carried out by Chinese planes over the whole of 2020.

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