Taiwan Is Rethinking Defense in Wake of Ukraine Invasion

Western support for endangered democracies can only go so far.

By , a journalist in Taiwan.
Protesters against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Taipei, Taiwan.
Protesters against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Taipei, Taiwan.
Protesters gather in front of the Representative Office of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission to demonstrate against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb. 25. Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Putin’s War

After months of military buildup, tensions, and failed talks, Russia abruptly invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, delivering a shock across Europe and much of the world. One of the places most jolted is halfway around the world. Taiwan is in a similar situation to Ukraine, and it is anxiously watching how Russia’s invasion unfolds.

Taiwan has seen its geopolitical situation become more precarious over the past few years as China has built up its military, conducted more flight and naval exercises around Taiwan, and its President Xi Jinping has announced an outright desire for “unification” with Taiwan. But while China’s military is much larger than Taiwan’s, the actual success of an invasion attempt has been hotly debated due to significant military, political, and economic costs.

Unlike Ukraine and Russia, which share a land border, Taiwan is separated from China by a body of water, the Taiwan Strait, that at its narrowest is 81 miles wide. An invasion attempt by China would involve a naval crossing and amphibious assault, control of the skies, and an occupation maintained by a large number of soldiers. This would also have to succeed in the face of potential military intervention by the United States, which is considered Taiwan’s unofficial ally and protector, and perhaps U.S. allies like Japan and Australia. In addition, there could also be U.S.-led sanctions, condemnation, and even a naval blockade of goods to China.

After months of military buildup, tensions, and failed talks, Russia abruptly invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, delivering a shock across Europe and much of the world. One of the places most jolted is halfway around the world. Taiwan is in a similar situation to Ukraine, and it is anxiously watching how Russia’s invasion unfolds.

Taiwan has seen its geopolitical situation become more precarious over the past few years as China has built up its military, conducted more flight and naval exercises around Taiwan, and its President Xi Jinping has announced an outright desire for “unification” with Taiwan. But while China’s military is much larger than Taiwan’s, the actual success of an invasion attempt has been hotly debated due to significant military, political, and economic costs.

Unlike Ukraine and Russia, which share a land border, Taiwan is separated from China by a body of water, the Taiwan Strait, that at its narrowest is 81 miles wide. An invasion attempt by China would involve a naval crossing and amphibious assault, control of the skies, and an occupation maintained by a large number of soldiers. This would also have to succeed in the face of potential military intervention by the United States, which is considered Taiwan’s unofficial ally and protector, and perhaps U.S. allies like Japan and Australia. In addition, there could also be U.S.-led sanctions, condemnation, and even a naval blockade of goods to China.

Taiwan’s government has shown serious concern over the crisis in Ukraine, setting up a team in early February to monitor the conflict and making uncharacteristically blunt condemnations of Russia while urging the military to be cautious and the public to be alert for misinformation from China. Taiwan has also joined the United States and other countries in imposing sanctions on Russia. Coverage and discussion of Ukraine has dominated Taiwanese TV, print, and online news, which is normally averse to international affairs.

Ukraine’s situation not only shows that a full-scale invasion of a state by a neighbor is possible even in 2022 but also provides lessons for both China and Taiwan to learn, including about military buildup and combat, cyberwarfare and propaganda, and reactions from the United States and the West overall. Given its lack of international recognition, Taiwan’s diplomatic position is far trickier—even as its geography renders an invasion inherently more difficult.

Taiwan will first need to take a hard look at the state of its national defense. Despite the threat posed by China and worsening relations since Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen came into power in 2016, there are serious problems with the military’s logistics, manpower, maintenance, and operations, with the latter exemplified by a number of fatal air force accidents, the most recent being the death of a fighter pilot and loss of the newly upgraded F-16 fighter he was flying in January. Taiwan’s mandatory conscription for men is a national joke due to being just four months long, which has seen it likened to summer camp and disparaged as a waste of time.

In comparison, Singapore and South Korea also have male conscription, with mandatory service in both countries lasting at least 18 months, while Israel’s is a minimum of two years and applies to most citizens regardless of gender. There have been calls to extend the conscription period in Taiwan and to include women, but the government has staunchly resisted.

There were already calls within the past year for the government to do much more to improve national defense, but these are now being amplified after Russia’s invasion, with urgent discussions in media and political circles.

The authorities have responded by emphasizing reservist training reform, as well as putting out messages and a video underlining the military’s readiness. However, it will take much more than slick public relations to reassure the public and address Taiwan’s military shortcomings, which have long been highlighted.

The scenes in Ukraine of civilians being given weapons and fighting alongside soldiers to defend their cities, people sheltering in underground subway stations, as well as prior steps such as ordering women to register with the military in December 2021 are vivid proof that fighting off an invading enemy in a country like Taiwan would involve the general population.

It also emphasizes the need for trained reservists who can reinforce the military and actively contribute on short notice if war breaks out, which cannot be said when it comes to Taiwan. The reservist system is being revamped, but only on a trial basis that just began in February, and thus will not apply to all reservists this year. Civil defense training that teaches civilians first aid and how to react during emergencies would be useful and has been carried out on a small scale by private organizations but without the support of the authorities. However, a few months ago, Taiwan’s military conducted an urban military drill, while its defense minister acknowledged last year that an attack from China would make all of Taiwan a battlefield.

While the Taiwan Strait remains peaceful, Tsai and her government have done little to prepare the public for potential conflict and are not willing to take steps such as expanding conscription. Part of this might be an attempt to avoid panicking Taiwanese, but bigger factors are likely political expediency in avoiding taking a hit in local elections, as well as complacency.

It is almost an open secret that Taiwan’s main hope of overcoming a Chinese attack rests on U.S. military intervention. A recent poll conducted in Taiwan reflected public confidence in its security and in U.S. protection, with almost 60 percent responding that China would not attack Taiwan—and, if it did, almost 60 percent believed that the United States could intervene.

This feeling of security has been boosted by a rising global profile, which has resulted in growing exchanges with several foreign countries, especially in Europe. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu led a government delegation to Eastern Europe last October, and parliamentary delegations from the Baltic nations and France have also visited Taiwan. Several U.S. congressional delegations have visited Taiwan over the past year, as did former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Taiwan has also been mentioned, whether directly or indirectly, as an area of concern by the United States, Japan, and the European Union.

Taiwan has also reveled in an ongoing monthslong spat between Lithuania and China over Taiwan’s opening a de facto embassy in Vilnius with “Taiwanese” in its official name. A Taiwanese state-owned firm even bought 20,000 bottles of Lithuanian alcohol in recent months, which it heartily promoted as “democracy rum.” Meanwhile, Taiwan’s foreign minister enjoys sparring with Beijing on social media and making bold proclamations to foreign media such as that Taiwan would fight “to the very last day” if an invasion occurred. Tsai even called Taiwan “vibrantly democratic and Western” in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, seemingly placing Taiwan, a majority ethnic Han island in East Asia, in the same orbit as the United States, Canada, and Europe.

However, all of this is contingent on a U.S.-led, Western-dominated global order that has characterized the post-Cold War era. This order is now being shaken by its inability to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, as reflected by the sheer shock among leaders and governments across Europe that it actually happened.

The United States was actually the first to warn of Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders last November. Since then, the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and the EU, resorted to warning Russia by threatening sanctions while steadfastly denying they would send troops to help Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden even spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while the U.S. secretary of state and Russia’s foreign minister held several talks. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Moscow to meet directly with Putin, as did German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Throughout these fruitless negotiations, Putin not only refused to budge but also continued to visibly escalate and widen his military buildup.

But after the fall of Kabul, the invasion of Ukraine is the second major geopolitical crisis in less than a year that has tested the United States’ diplomatic, intelligence, and military capabilities. America’s refusal to provide direct military support to Ukraine in the form of troops or enforcing an aerial no-fly zone also raises concerns about whether it can be counted on by Taiwan to do so if China attacks. This has prompted much debate in Taiwan, with former President Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang saying the possibility of U.S. troops being sent was low. This is a touchy issue for Taiwan’s government, which has warned the public about “cognitive warfare” efforts that would seek to spread doubts about U.S. intervention.

Taiwan’s situation is substantially different from Ukraine’s, as it has an agreement with the United States regarding military arms and defense assistance, occupies a strategic location, and produces the world’s most advanced semiconductors. Taiwan is counting on all this to ensure the United States will intervene militarily to protect it from China, but this is not guaranteed—and even if it does enter the fray, the United States might not emerge victorious.

Washington has attempted to build up alliances in Asia to implicitly counter Beijing, such as strengthening the so-called Quad with Japan, India, and Australia, and setting up AUKUS, a strategic arrangement to build nuclear submarines, with Australia and the U.K. However, neither is at the same level or scope as NATO.

China has responded to these efforts by strengthening its relations with Russia. The two have held joint naval and land military exercises, and put out a joint statement denouncing the West and announcing closer cooperation after a meeting between Xi and Putin in Beijing in early February that was seen as signifying a closer partnership, if not an actual alliance. That China has steadfastly refused to criticize Russia or even dissuade it from invading despite repeated calls from the United States over the past several months reflects this. There is a feeling that China may be second-guessing its partnership with Russia and might even side with the West, but this seems more like wishful thinking and unrealistic.

Things are not going Russia’s way in Ukraine for now, and Moscow may not succeed in its military or political objectives. The United States and EU have been able to come together and react quickly on implementing sanctions and supplying weapons. However, the conflict is still far from over and may continue for some time, especially if Russia decides to bring more forces into Ukraine or retaliate against the United States and EU for their sanctions. Washington is likely to have its hands full as long as the war in Ukraine continues, which will only make the climate in the Taiwan Strait more tense. In Taiwan, the debates are set to become more heated, and while drastic steps like expanding conscription to women might not occur, the authorities will be under more pressure to take greater action beyond its current approach.

Whatever the final outcome in Ukraine, the sobering reality for Taiwan’s government is that it needs to prepare for a more uncertain future.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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