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Taiwan will hold its first large-scale evacuation drill in decades this month in a sign that it is trying to harden civil defences against a potential Chinese attack.
The drill will take place across Taiwan and will cover districts that collectively are home to 3mn of its 23mn people. Police and civil defence officials will lead everyone who is on the streets at the time of the drill into bomb shelters, the defence ministry said on Tuesday. The evacuation will be practised in one district in each of Taiwan’s 22 counties and municipalities.
The plans mark a drastic change from past iterations of the annual Wan’an air raid drill, triggered by a growing Chinese military intimidation campaign.
Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to annex it if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely. Over the past year, the People’s Liberation Army has held two rounds of large-scale exercises around the island and continuously stepped up air and naval patrols in its vicinity.
In the past the Wan’an drill only required civilians to go indoors, and traffic to stop, for 30 minutes when sirens sounded. Last year authorities conducted practice evacuations for the first time, but people were led into shelters in just three villages with a total population of 32,000.
“[We will] test halting cars and evacuating people nearby and actual entry into air defence evacuation facilities,” said Chu Sen-tsun, a senior official at the defence ministry’s All-Out Defense Mobilisation Agency. He added the exercise would aim to have people “get used to evacuating immediately when the alarm sounds, so that we can build air defence awareness across society”.
Officials instructed people to download a police app to locate nearby shelters and suggested they save an offline map to locate them in an emergency if communications get cut.
International experts are likely to welcome the attempt to make the civil defence drill, and the island’s annual Han Kuang live-fire exercises, more realistic. The US, the sole de facto guarantor of Taiwan’s security, has been pushing Taipei for years to strengthen its defences.
The air raid drill plans follow an increase in defence spending. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has extended conscription from the current four months to a year and is making training for conscripts more rigorous, while Taipei also plans to make communications infrastructure more resilient.
But some observers criticise the changes as too little, too late.
“Why not practise evacuation in all administrative districts?” said Enoch Wu, a former special forces officer and founder of Forward Taiwan Alliance, a non-governmental group that works to help build civil defence capabilities. He said Taiwan needed to tap civil society to help save lives in times of disaster.
“I would have thought this is an opportunity for a public campaign where we rely on companies, churches and schools, when the siren sounds, to take their people into nearby shelters,” Wu said. “That way we would get a lot more participation across our entire territory and quickly spot problems.”