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The persistent threat of China invading Taiwan

Life in Taiwan with China bearing down
Life in Taiwan with China flexing its military might | 60 Minutes 13:33

"This is not a matter of if they will invade, it's a matter of when they will invade."

That's what Admiral Lee Hsi-min, who used to head Taiwan's armed forces, told correspondent Lesley Stahl about China this week on 60 Minutes. Tensions between Taiwan and China have been ratcheting up recently. In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China responded by carrying out its largest military drill ever.

For three days China subjected Taiwan to continuous sorties with over 100 warplanes, a barrage of ballistic missiles, and warships that encircled the island. The purpose was to deliver a loud and clear message: China could choke off Taiwan any time it wanted to.

But even with that show of force, Stahl found many in Taiwan do not share Admiral Lee's sense of urgency.

People Stahl talked to told her over and over the military drill was "no big deal." China has been doing it since 1949, when Mao Tse Tung won China's civil war and the losing anti-communist side fled to the small, nearby island that is now Taiwan.

And while much of the world thought an invasion might be imminent, polls showed that a majority of Taiwanese think that is unlikely any time soon, if ever.

A big reason for that line of thinking comes from Taiwan's manufacturing sector. The country is a tech giant, particularly in semiconductors. Taiwan is practically the world's only source of the thinnest microchips, manufactured almost exclusively by one company: TSMC.

China relies on those chips, as does the rest of the world, for things like iPhones, advanced computers, and car components.

Morris Chang, TSMC's 91-year-old founder, explained why some Taiwanese think the chips protect them from Xi Jinping's attacking.

"Perhaps because our company provides a lot of chips to the world, maybe somebody will refrain from attacking it," Chang told Stahl. "If that person's priority is for economic well-being, I think they will refrain from attacking."

"What if the priority is to come here and nationalize your company within'One China'?" Stahl asked.

"If there's a war, I mean, it would be destroyed. Everything will be destroyed," Chang said.

Wang Ting-yu, a parliamentarian from southern Taiwan, shared Chang's view.

"Some of their Chinese Communists say, 'Let's invade Taiwan and occupy TSMC, make it become [a] party-owned company. Then we will be [a] superpower. United States and Japan and Europe: We don't supply them chips, they will follow Chinese orders.' But that's naïve," Ting-yu told Stahl. "Not only chip company, even a sausage company: You need a recipe. You need human capital. You need to know how to manufacturer-- manufacturing that kind of products."

"If there is reunification," Stahl asked, "what would happen to you?"

"Die," Ting-yu said. "If they annex Taiwan, people like me, a lot, will be perished."

In Taiwan, outnumbered and outgunned but preparing with resilience training | 60 Minutes 02:24

Even without invading, China is squeezing Taiwan.

Ting-yu said China hits Taiwan with 20 million cyberattacks per day. 

On top of cyber warfare, Ting-yu alleged that China is trying to sabotage Taiwan's thriving economy and intimidate politically-powerful groups, like the farmers and fishermen in Ting-yu's home district of Tainan, who have been hit hard with a series of export bans.

The Taiwanese believe if China ever invaded, the U.S. would protect them, and three weeks ago on 60 Minutes, President Biden vowed that the Americans would. The White House later clarified to 60 Minutes that is not the official U.S. position. Officially, the U.S. maintains what it calls "strategic ambiguity" on whether American forces would defend Taiwan.

Beijing has promised that if there were re-unification, Taiwan could maintain many of its freedoms. But, in 2019, China broke a similar promise to Hong Kong. Protests led to beatings, arrests, and the stripping of democratic rights Hong Kong residents previously enjoyed. The democratic roll-back in Hong Kong, now a "Special Administrative Region" of China, hit home in Taiwan and led to President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the aggressively anti-reunification party, winning re-election in a landslide.

Given what happened in Hong Kong and the recent military escalation, the 60 Minutes team was curious as to why the Taiwanese were so stoic.  

Asked if they're in denial, or apathetic, a Taiwanese writer said it's kind of like global warming: "you know it's there's and it's going to get worse… but mostly though people go about their lives. What can one individual really do?"

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