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Missile Alert: The Taiwan Election Heats Up

13 Jan 2024
By Oliver Lees
The Taiwan presidential alert was issued on January 9. Source: author / Oliver Lees.

On Tuesday afternoon an air raid alert text message was sent to every phone in Taiwan. The political response from the three major parties on how they would handle national security if elected was perhaps expected, but perhaps even more telling was the reaction from the public.  

Just four days before Taiwan’s presidential election, citizens opened their phones to see a presidential alert with a yellow warning triangle in the left hand corner. The text was mostly in traditional Mandarin characters except for a few words in English, which read: “[Air raid Alert] Missile flyover Taiwan airspace, be aware.”

For residents of the island, the unprecedented warning was an ominous sign. Such services have only even been used for natural disasters. This brokered questions about what to do and where to go. Were residents to seek out one of the city’s many air shelters?

The moment of collective shock, however, was surprisingly brief. There were no signs of hysterical pushing or rushes for the exit. Before long, confirmation came that an error had been made and that the projectile launched was in fact a satellite, not a missile. As the event indicates, the Taiwanese are no stranger to acts of aggression from the Chinese Communist Party.

The Republic of China operates under a system of de facto independence, which since the 1990s has allowed it to hold democratic elections, considered to be among the most free and fair in the world. Even still, Taiwan remains in a constant battle to prove itself in a world where it is not recognised by the highest international institutions like the United Nations. Indeed since the Dutch East India Company established a colony on the island in the17th century, Taiwan’s history has been trademarked by instances of foreign powers attempting to interfere with its internal affairs.

There is no question of how China perceives Taiwan’s freedom; the threat of military engagement is real. In his New Year’s address, President Xi Jinping reasserted his intention to one day “reunify” Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China and has refused to rule out the use of military force. To reinforce this idea, the Chinese Communist Party has made a habit of staging regular and increasingly provocative military operations around the island. This harassment is constant, but until this week it had never reached the stage of triggering individual alerts.

Although Tuesday’s alert proved to be a false alarm in the truest sense, it provided each of the major parties an opportunity to showcase to voters how they plan to manage the unavoidable issue of national security if elected.

In this context, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is seeking re-election under the new leadership of Lai Ching-te, defended the release of the message. President Tsai Ing-wen took to social media to reinforce the narrative that Taiwan must remain resilient in the face of Chinese aggression. This took place while the Ministry of National Defense conceded an error had been made in the message’s English translation.

The two other major parties saw the matter differently. The Kuomintang (KMT) seized on the opportunity to suggest that the release of the message was politically motivated, and that the mistranslation was deliberate. Allegations were made that this was just another example of unnecessary provocation toward China. Ko Wen-je, the popular leader of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), also shared his frustration at the government’s handling of the incident. He argued that the DPP’s actions probed the most central question for Taiwanese foreign policy: what is the best way to manage the constant agitation brought by foreign powers?

But Taiwanese voters, much like voters around the world, have many pressing domestic concerns that are likely to influence their vote. At a conference held for the foreign press on Tuesday, Lai conceded that management of the economy, housing affordability, and education were major issues which would need to be addressed if he were elected.

Outside forces have attempted to dictate Taiwan’s affairs to suit their own needs for centuries. It is only in the last three decades that Taiwanese people have been able to wrestle back some control of their fate through the forces of democracy. With tens of thousands of people pouring onto the streets to show support for their chosen party, there is a clear willingness to engage in the question of how the island should be managed. Saturday’s result will demonstrate exactly what they intend to do with that weighty responsibility.

Oliver Lees is a freelance journalist and a casual employee at the ABC in Melbourne with several years experience in print and digital media. He has written for a number of publications including Al-Jazeera, Renew Magazine and the Star Weekly newspaper. You can find his full body of work at

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.