Taiwan Watches the Ukraine Invasion and Asks: Are We Ready?

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Taiwan Watches the Ukraine Invasion and Asks: Are We Ready?

The invasion of Ukraine has sparked a conversation about how well Taiwan’s armed forces and civilian population are prepared to fend off a Chinese invasion.

Taiwan Watches the Ukraine Invasion and Asks: Are We Ready?

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (right) observes a training exercises for reservists at the Nanshipu firing range, Mar. 12, 2022.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

There have been few events in recent memory as politically engrossing for Taiwanese society as the Ukraine invasion, perhaps apart from the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

This should not be surprising, seeing as both events touch upon strongly rooted domestic fears in Taiwan. The invasion of Ukraine has been seen by many sectors of society as offering a strong parallel to how a potential invasion of Taiwan by China would play out.

Most notably, the invasion of Ukraine has sparked a conversation about Taiwan’s military readiness, and to what extent Taiwan’s armed forces and civilian population are ready to fend off a Chinese invasion. This was not the case with Hong Kong, which did not prompt concerns about Taiwan’s military readiness, per se. Instead, discourse in Taiwan focused on what measures that Taiwan could or should take for Hong Kong asylum seekers. Likewise, the Tsai administration sought to leverage on fears about Hong Kong’s future under Chinese control to secure votes in the 2020 elections.

There has been much praise of the bravery of Ukrainians from Taiwanese, including comparisons drawn to Taiwan’s own history. Legislative Yuan president Yu Shyi-kun of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for example, commented that Ukrainians have demonstrated the same spirit as historic Taiwanese patriots that resisted invasion. Notably, Yu was speaking at a screening of Hong Kong protest documentary “Revolution of Our Times.” Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu also praised the bravery of a Russian protester who ran onto national television with a sign opposing the war. Otherwise, Tsai and other pan-Green politicians have emphasized how Taiwan stands with Ukraine as a fellow democracy.

But there has been some political contention about whether comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan are valid. When questioned by Hualien legislator Fu Kun-chi of the KMT in the legislature earlier in the month, Premier Su Tseng-chang rejected comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan as absurd, citing the differences in the two contexts. This has broadly been an undercurrent of commentary by experts, who cite the stronger historical relationship between the United States and Taiwan, Taiwan’s greater centrality to the global economy in terms of semiconductor manufacturing, and the difficulties of a beachhead invasion in order to point to differences between the two contexts.

Nevertheless, more significant may be the fact that the Taiwanese public has drawn comparisons between the two contexts, and the comparison is also made implicitly by political leaders.

To this extent, Taiwan has positioned itself as needing to join global sanctions against Russia, such as cutting Russia out of SWIFT, or tech companies such as ASUS or semiconductor manufacturing giant TSMC suspending shipments to Russia. Vice President William Lai has argued that such moves are necessary to show the international world the commitment of Taiwanese to defend their own democracy.

More broadly, one can see Taiwan as hoping to strengthen political alignments with the United States and other regional powers by jumping onboard with the wave of sanctions against Russia. Taiwanese tech companies sanctioned Russia after reports that the Biden administration had approached Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore about pressuring tech-starved Russia.

Solidarity rallies for Ukraine have taken place on a near-daily basis in Taipei or other parts of Taiwan, such as the southern port city of Kaohsiung, since the start of the invasion. Solidarity rallies for events outside of Taiwan were last held with such frequency for Hong Kong in 2019. It may not be surprising, then, that some pan-Blue politicians have made appearances at these rallies, such as Lai Hsing-lin of the Taiwan People’s Party or Thomas Liu, the head of the KMT Youth League.

Still, the presence of pan-Blue politicians has been relatively limited compared to the pan-Green camp. Major pan-Green politicians ranging from DPP secretary-general Lin Fei-fan to legislators such as Wang Ting-yu and Fan Yun of the DPP and independent Freddy Lim have made repeated appearances at Ukraine solidarity rallies. For them, Ukraine is not the only issue at hand, but also becomes a proxy issue for concern about China.

Taiwan is not the only country in the Asia-Pacific to signal wariness of China through its condemnations of Russia and support for Ukraine. This, too, is the case with Japan, with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo having called on the United States to make an explicit commitment to defending Taiwan and suggesting that the U.S. should host nuclear arms on Japanese soil, an idea rejected by current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.

The Ukraine war also is taking place in a time of strengthening relations between Taiwan and Lithuania, Czechia, and Poland, and questions about whether China and Russia will align militarily or politically against the U.S. and the European Union. Like Taiwan vis-a-vis China, these Eastern and Central European countries bank on security ties with the United States to counterbalance the geopolitical threat of Russia and may have been hoping to signal alliance with the U.S. through ties with Taiwan. In this sense, Taiwan’s stance on Ukraine and Russia can be situated in the context of a broader global realignment.

For its part, the Tsai administration has reassured Taiwanese there will be limited economic impact from the Ukraine invasion. Taiwan conducts less than 1 percent of its foreign trade with Russia, though Russia is the ninth largest market for machine tool exports. As with other parts of the world, Taiwan stands to be affected by global inflation from sanctions on Russia, but only 10 percent of Taiwan’s natural gas supply is from Russia.

The impact on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is also of note, given that most of the global supply of neon is sourced from Ukraine, as is 40 percent of krypton, which is needed for semiconductors. Maintaining Taiwan’s advantage in semiconductor manufacturing is of vital importance to Taiwan’s security, increasing the incentive for the United States to defend Taiwan from invasion but also warding off the threat directly, because China also needs Taiwanese semiconductors. Yet the effects on the semiconductor industry, too, will be global and not specific to Taiwan.

In terms of future military readiness, most discussion to date has touched upon lengthening the amount of time that military reserves serve, with Ukraine seen as an example of how military reserves have been successful. There have also been suggestions that women should be allowed to serve in the reserves. The Tsai administration is currently using reserve training to highlight Taiwan’s defense readiness, particularly hoping to demonstrate this to international media.

To date, most political parties have been reluctant to take the step of calling for increasing the military draft back to one year. The Tsai administration probably has more leverage to do so at present compared to the past, but this would risk support, given the well-known reluctance of young people to serve in the military. So far only the pan-Green New Power Party (NPP) has come out in support of increasing the draft from the current four months to a year. While some pan-Blue politicians have called on the DPP to do this, it is a minority position within the opposition – particularly given the KMT’s lurch toward the deep Blue spectrum in past years – and the DPP still asserts that this is not necessary.

Either way, the DPP may now have more leverage to increase the military budget, in line with longstanding demands from the United States for Taiwan to spend more on defense.

The invasion of Ukraine may accelerate trends toward self-reliance, with the awareness that Taiwan might have to fend off China for weeks before foreign intervention, if this comes at all. Groups such as the Forward Alliance – run by former special forces soldier and DPP Taipei chapter head Enoch Wu – or the Kuma Academy – which takes its name from the Formosan Black Bear, a symbol of Taiwanese identity – have called for Taiwanese to receive resilience training about what to do in the event of a war. This is still far from a widespread social phenomenon, but is an idea that seems to be gaining traction among pan-Green circles.

Otherwise, one expects a new emphasis on asymmetric warfare, with Ukraine seen as an example of asymmetric warfare tactics being successful in fending off a much larger military force. This is likely to become mired in contention between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps, however, with questions about whether arms purchases are “big ticket” items primarily for show or less flashy materiel that could genuinely play a role in Taiwan’s defense. Notably, the United States’ say in what weapons Taiwan can purchase means this question is not solely in the hands of the Tsai administration. As a takeaway from the Ukraine invasion, China is likely to place greater focus on decapitation strikes and trying to quickly end a war. For its part, then, Taiwan will probably also take stronger interest in acquiring defensive measures to stave off a swift decapitation of its political leadership in wartime.

In past years, the pan-Blue camp has sought to cast doubt about the United States’ interest in Taiwan apart from selling arms to it. Pan-Blue politicians have also attacked arms purchases from the U.S. as outdated, useless hardware that the United States intends to foist on Taiwan. There are also questions about the broader distribution of U.S.-manufactured arms, in the backdrop of contention between the United States and Poland about whether Poland would provide its fleet of MiGs to Ukraine. Poland had asked to receive F-16s in return, but the United States’ limited supply of F-16s is currently slated for Taiwan.

Yet, broadly speaking, changing perceptions of Taiwan’s military readiness or the effectiveness of arms purchases may prove difficult. Monday saw a crash by a Mirage 2000 fighter, the seventh fighter crash since 2020, though unlike previous fatal crashes, the Mirage 2000 pilot was quickly recovered. With Taiwan’s air fleet stressed by frequent Chinese air incursions, this is thought to have increased the odds for such accidents, but such incidents are hardly inspiring faith in the armed forces or Taiwan’s military hardware. A widespread power outage earlier this month that began at the Hsinta Power Plant also prompted concerns about a cyberattack, though this was due to an accident.

China has kept up threats directed at Taiwan during the Ukraine crisis, including continued air incursions and an instance of three naval vessels spotted southeast of Orchid Island on March 2. This is the closest that Chinese naval vessels have been observed around Taiwan or its outlying islands in recent memory.