The Russian Invasion Sparks a Strategic Reassessment

Taiwan Learns From Ukraine

March 14, 2023
“Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow.” The slogan spread through Taiwanese social media immediately after last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Taiwan is distant from the war, its international shock waves quickly reached the island.

Still, Ukraine and Taiwan are similar in some respects. Both have an authoritarian neighbor. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a beef with history and speaks of Ukraine as if it were not an independent nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping has a similar view of Taiwan, seeing it as an inalienable part of China. Putin has deployed his military in Ukraine on several occasions; China reserves the right to use force to ensure reunification with Taiwan.

I recently spent eight weeks in Taiwan as a visiting scholar with the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and had the opportunity to discuss Taiwanese perceptions of the war in Ukraine and the conflict’s implications for the island. Below are some takeaways from the conversations.

There is a will to fight and to defend Taiwan. That’s the first lesson learned from every level of Taiwanese society.

After China created a “new normal” by erasing the Taiwan Strait centerline and conducting aerial military and naval incursions in late 2022, the threat the country poses to Taiwan is more deeply felt. In a December 27, 2022 speech on military reform and national security, President Tsai Ing-wen lauded the “determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland”, which inspired “freedom-loving people around the world”. She emphasized that “no one wants war” but added that “only by preparing for war can we avoid war and only by being capable of fighting a war can we prevent one.” That was her lesson learned from the invasion and Ukrainians’ will to fight.

Tsai announced in her speech an extension of military conscription from four to 12 months beginning in 2024. She called the change “an incomparably difficult decision” and knew that it would be unpopular among many young voters who already view the current, shorter mandatory service as a waste of time. This struck me as unsurprising given my encounter on the frontline island of Kinmen with a group of conscripts sweeping the streets instead of training for battle. Former conscripts with whom I spoke complained of similar drudgery that keeps them from studying and of low pay. Tsai has sought to address these concerns. Her proposed reform raises conscript salaries and modernizes military training from bayonets to Javelins and drones.

Enacting such changes demands that the military act swiftly to revamp conscription service and convince young and progressive Taiwanese of its value, says Enoch Wu, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party who ran for Parliament in January.

Tsai, for her part, is trying to project the right image. She maintains a cat-lover Instagram profile but is increasingly seen donning military outfits as her Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, does. Other Taiwanese, who are actually volunteering in Ukraine, are doing the same.

There are Taiwanese defending and dying in Ukraine. Several Taiwanese young men have traveled to Ukraine to fight. Tony Lu (呂子豪)is one of them. He used to work as a butcher and volunteered in Ukraine between March and June 2022. He fought near Izium.

At a dinner in Taipei’s Ximen district, Tony let me scroll through the photos and videos on his phone while he detailed his journey through Poland to Lviv in western Ukraine, his enrollment in the Ukrainian army, and his meetings with Ukrainian and foreign fighters, including two others from Taiwan. He interrupted my scrolling several times to look at one soldier after another. “He died,” Tony said repeatedly. An Australian. A Colombian. A Ukrainian.

When asked why he went to Ukraine, Tony replied that he “wanted to help other people”. He didn’t like to see a big country bully a small one. When asked if his brothers in arms would return the favor and fight for Taiwan if China attacked it, he feels certain that they would. To reinforce his point, Tony showed me a Facebook photo of a female soldier standing next to him. Her text states that she would come to Taiwan’s defense if necessary.

Tony also related a close call at the front near Izium. A video on his phone vividly shows a strike next to his trench. Luckily, the soil was soft, and the Russian grenade didn’t explode. Many share at little personal cost #UkraineWillWin hashtags on social media, but Tony showed that he has the will to actually fight.

Another Taiwanese veteran of the Ukraine war, Jonathan Tseng (曾聖光), paid the ultimate price last November. He died on the front near Donetsk. His distant, violent death was unimaginable when he was born in 1997 in Hualien, a small city on Taiwan’s east coast. I salute his courage and willingness to give his life for the freedom of others.

Supply lines are key but a significant challenge. Among the military experts I met was Richard Chen, a retired admiral and former vice minister of defense. Over lunch in central Taipei, Chen showed me contrasting maps of Ukraine and Taiwan with their respective supply line connections. “What’s the big difference?”, he asked rhetorically while pointing to the blue representing the waters around Taiwan and noting that, unlike Ukraine, supply lines to the island are naval deliveries. Russia’s war has compelled a long-overdue reexamination of Taiwan’s supply line resilience, a critical factor also for Ukraine.

Kyiv, however, benefits from land connections with friendly neighbors. The logistics of weapons resupplies are relatively easy, as is training soldiers abroad. Refugees can also swiftly flee the country. That’s all different for Taiwan. A Chinese military attack or a blockade would make resupplying difficult, if not impossible, one reason for Taiwan to ensure sufficient stockpiles of ammunition. The war in Ukraine exacerbates this challenge since US arms deliveries to Taiwan were already years behind schedule before Russia’s invasion. Now some weapon systems deliveries, such as those for Stingers or HIMARS, face further delays due to the difficulty of ramping up production to meet demand.

Also, Taiwan has nowhere to send refugees if China attacks. There is no neighboring country to which to flee. Instead, the island’s population will be internally displaced. Taiwan is beginning to think through this challenge and train for contingencies.

Taiwan is also vulnerable to any Chinese government move to cut off energy and food supplies. As Chen told me, a starved porcupine—referring to a hungry but well-armed Taiwan—cannot long fight. That leaves me worried about the potential of a Chinese naval blockade. A full-blown blockade would be a clear act of war, but a selective energy blockade on its own could be effective by wearing down Taiwanese resilience.

Civil defense forces play an integral role, in part by boosting confidence. I participated in a basic workshop for civil defenders run by Kuma Academy, a nonprofit civil defense organization that has the Taiwanese black bear on its logo. The mid-week course was packed, even though ordinary Taiwanese must take a day off work to attend. The class included selecting items for a “go bag” in case of an emergency or war and regrouping with family members. The training also included basic knowledge about the Chinese military and ways to spot Chinese disinformation.

At the session, I spoke with Marco Ho, Kuma’s CEO, about his ambition to train 3 million “black bear” defenders over the next three years. A generous TWD 600 million grant from semiconductor tycoon Robert Tsao, with whom I also met, puts that target within reach.

During a course break, I talked to a female participant. Before joining the class, she had often heard that Taiwan was small and weak compared to China. She felt differently after the training. The Taiwanese people can be strong together, like the Ukrainians, she said. That’s personal testimony on Taiwan’s growing civilian resilience.

Digital resilience is a priority. I also met Taiwanese Minister for Digital Affairs Audrey Tang and asked her about lessons she has drawn from the war in Ukraine. Tang stressed the importance of independent journalism, noting the “pivotal role of Kyiv Independent [Ukraine’s English-language media outlet] in the very beginning of the assault on Kyiv”. The paper gave international readers, such as Tang, the ability to follow events in real time, and full digital connectivity was needed for that unhindered flow of information. “Imagine if they didn’t have a proper internet connection. Then, disinformation would win the day,” Tang noted. Instead, the international community was aware of the Ukrainians’ will to resist from moment one.

Turning to Taiwan, Tang maintained that “our connection to the world is brittle. It relies on undersea cables, which is why we also learned from Ukraine to work with non-geostationary satellite providers to make sure [they] can provide emergency response.” The worry is that China could sever underwater cables and impair internet connectivity. In 2014, the Kremlin imposed an information blackout on Crimea, giving it control of the narrative. Last month, internet cables to Matsu, an outlying island belonging to Taiwan, were cut, providing a clear demonstration of the danger at hand (It now takes ten minutes to send a text message!) and the importance of well-functioning networks. The Taiwanese authorities, however, are not publicly crying foul since an investigation revealed that Chinese civilian vessels accidentally cut Matsu’s two internet cables.

To reduce such vulnerabilities, Tang’s digital ministry is working with satellite providers to place their products in low and middle Earth orbits and establish auxiliary communication links. The more, the better. China can shoot down satellites, too. Additionally, Taiwanese companies such as Pegatron and HTC have developed miniature 5G communication kits that, as Tang puts it, “fit into a suitcase”. Such kits are already in use in Hsinchu, Taiwan’s Silicon Valley, where the semiconductor chips that are in high demand worldwide are produced. Any disruption to production would have great implications for technology supply chains well beyond Taiwan.

“Never say never.” That’s one Taiwanese military expert’s takeaway from the war in Ukraine. A Chinese invasion would be economically stupid, militarily devastating, and might fail, as a recent war-gaming exercise by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows. But its occurrence cannot be ruled out. That’s the chilling lesson Putin has taught. Xi, who just got an unprecedented third mandate to remain in power, and could stay there for life, may offer the same. Autocratic leaders are ultimate decision-makers, and their decisions are sometimes stupid and reckless.

The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.