Taiwan is watching the war in Ukraine very closely — here's why

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Five lessons Taiwan is learning from the war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elicited global outrage and pledges of support for the Ukrainian people. In Taiwan, it has also provoked an existential fear.

People in Taiwan have been riveted by the news from Ukraine, and for good reason. As tensions have risen between China and the U.S., Taiwanese officials and military analysts have warned of a growing risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. China claims the self-governed island as its own province and has vowed to reunite it with the mainland. The conversation has long been hypothetical; now, many Taiwanese have seen a version of their worst fears playing out in Europe.

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Well before the war began, Taiwan’s leadership was already watching Ukraine — a country living, as Taiwan does, in the shadow of an aggressive autocratic neighbor. “Taiwan has been facing military threats and intimidation from China for a long time,” President Tsai Ying-Wen said at a national security meeting on Jan. 28. “Therefore, we empathize with Ukraine’s situation and support the efforts of all parties involved to maintain regional security.”

Tsai created a task force to study the growing conflict and its implications for Taiwan’s future. As the war has unfolded, Taiwan has joined Western allies in sanctioning Russia and sending aid — a stark contrast to China, which has declined to condemn the invasion and blamed the U.S. and NATO for provoking Russia.


“I think the people here, they are rooting for Ukraine and it has something to do with what might happen to Taiwan,” said Lai I-Chung, a senior adviser to Taiwan Thinktank and former director of China Affairs for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “We want the Ukrainian people to be able to succeed in defeating the invading enemy. But we also hope that the international community can have a better or more progressive response to help the Ukraine people to defend against Russia, precisely due to the implication to Taiwan.”

It will be a long time before the broad lessons of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine are well understood. But experts tell Grid there are already important preliminary lessons for Taiwan and for all nations keeping a close eye on the Taiwan Strait.

A mirror for Taiwan (albeit an imperfect one)

The parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine are clear.

Historically, both have been ruled by powerful autocratic neighbors. Ukraine was a Soviet republic before the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991; Taiwan was ruled by the last Chinese imperial dynasty, the Qing, until Japan took control of the island in 1895. In recent years, both have grown closer to their Western allies, and those closer ties have been met by increasingly sharper threats. China and Russia have spun similar narratives about Western infringement and aggression: Russia used the eastern expansion of NATO as a pretext for war, and China has called Taiwan’s growing relationship with the West a provocation.

Most fundamentally for citizens of Taiwan and Ukraine alike, they have heard for years that theirs is not a real nation and that their land would one day be returned to its rightful ruler. Now that Putin has acted on his threat, Taiwanese are worried that the parallels will continue and put their sovereignty at risk.


But experts are also quick to point out important differences.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been recognized by the world as a sovereign state, whereas Taiwan exists in murkier waters. Since 1979, the U.S. has recognized the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) rather than the Republic of China (Taiwan). It’s a formula followed for geopolitical reasons by most of the world; only 14 countries recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. (Diplomatically, China does not allow countries to simultaneously have official relations with both).

Taiwan has also figured more prominently in U.S. foreign policy than Ukraine. China, not Russia, is the U.S.’s principal rival, and Taiwan sits in waters that are critical for global trade, military and even internet activity. (Important undersea cables run around Taiwan). “It occupies the most critical strategic terrain arguably on the planet today,” said Ian Easton, senior director of the Project 2049 Institute, an American think tank that advocates for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Taiwan is also an economic powerhouse. It is the U.S.’s ninth-largest trading partner, while Ukraine takes the 67th slot. Its GDP ranked 21st in the world last year; Ukraine’s was 57th. And Taiwan is the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductors — the chips that are central to modern technology worldwide.

Another significant difference involves geography. Taiwan is an island. From a tactical perspective, that makes it a far more difficult target than Ukraine; it would be much harder for China to launch an invasion across 100 miles of water than it has been for Russian troops to cross the land border with Ukraine.


“It is well known that any potential Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan would be extremely high-risk in military terms,” Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Grid.

Lessons from Ukraine

Grid spoke with military and strategic analysts and Taiwan experts about the conflict’s lessons for Taiwanese policymakers and ordinary citizens. These experts don’t always agree — and all note that the lessons may change as the war plays out. But they offer initial answers to the question: What are the main takeaways from the war in Ukraine, as seen from Taiwan?

1. Prepare for war

For many in Taiwan, Putin’s invasion has made clear the need for greater preparedness. If a war that had seemed unlikely could come to Ukraine, then the same may prove true for Taiwan, and the Taiwanese have seen the effectiveness of fierce resistance put up by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

“I think one of the consequences of the Ukraine invasion is telling people in Taiwan that the people matter and the will to resist matters,” said Lai, “and Taiwan actually enjoys better odds to defend itself in the face of invasion. If Ukraine can do it, then Taiwanese people can do it as well.”

Taiwan has been building its military power in recent years as China’s own military prowess has risen substantially. In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Tsai called for a further strengthening of the island’s defenses.

Experts also said the war underscores Taiwan’s need to ready its entire society for a potential conflict. “Taiwan should draw the lesson that it should have a strong reserve force and a territorial defense plan that includes arming civilians,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. Journalist Hilton Yip wrote in Foreign Policy that the conflict has also led to growing calls for Taiwan to improve its current four-month mandatory conscription system.

2. Time to ease tensions with China

Some ordinary Taiwanese citizens draw a different lesson: Putin’s invasion means that Taiwan must mend relations with the mainland to ensure that tensions never escalate to actual war.

While survey data shows that very few Taiwanese people want to reunite with the mainland now, the majority supports maintaining the status quo and only a small minority wants to push for immediate full independence. So that means that the island, by and large, doesn’t want to aggravate Beijing.

Among the older generation, some remember past conflict and wish to avoid it at all costs. Tu Dong-siang, a 58-year-old woman, told the New York Times she grew up on Matsu, Taiwanese islands that were frequently shelled by mainland troops in the 1970s. “We know how horrific war can be,” she said. “That’s why I think for Ukraine, and for Taiwan, being able to live is the most important.”

From this perspective, the lesson of the Ukraine war is simple: Tsai must make it her top priority to ease tensions with Beijing.


3. “Ambiguity” may not be an effective deterrent

Until December, when the U.S. stated categorically that it wouldn’t send troops to help Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, the U.S. position on troop deployment was unclear — an ambiguity seemingly intended to dissuade Russia from going to war. The U.S. has employed a similar approach of “strategic ambiguity” vis-à-vis Taiwan for decades, purposefully remaining unclear as to what the U.S. military would do in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island.

The U.S. has stuck with this “strategic ambiguity” policy as a balancing act, given its support for Taiwan’s democracy and the importance of the U.S.-China relationship. But for some in Taiwan, the Ukraine war casts doubt on the strategy.

“That actually tells us that the so-called strategic ambiguity, in terms of deterring aggressors, the value isn’t really that much,” said Lai. “If it failed to deter or dissuade the Russians from invading Ukraine, how much effectiveness will it have to dissuade or deter the possible Chinese aggression against Taiwan?”

Some prominent voices have said the lesson learned from Ukraine is that the U.S. needs a new Taiwan strategy. Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe said in a recent TV interview: “It is time to abandon this ambiguity strategy. The people of Taiwan share our universal values, so I think the U.S. should firmly abandon its ambiguity.”

Other experts warn that this would only escalate tensions with China. “For China, that could be a casus belli, you know, that could be a red line if the United States suddenly unambiguously commits to Taiwan’s defense or even goes further and tries to upgrade Taiwan’s diplomatic status,” said Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. “So I just think that would be foolish.”


4. The U.S. military may not come to the rescue

While the U.S. had no treaty or other obligation to intervene in Ukraine, the Taiwan Relations Act, signed into law in 1979, binds the U.S. to at least help Taiwan defend itself.

“Even though the United States and Taiwan aren’t allies and the United States doesn’t technically recognize Taiwan as a country, I think the defense partnership between the United States and Taiwan is much, much stronger,” said Beckley. “It has deeper historical roots than anything the United States has with Ukraine.”

Heath agreed: “There is a much higher likelihood that the U.S. military would intervene in a conflict between China and Taiwan.”

Still, when it comes to the U.S. commitment, the invasion of Ukraine worries many in Taiwan.

When President Joe Biden explained why the U.S. would not send troops to Ukraine, he said, “That’s a world war, when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.” It’s a statement that could easily apply to a U.S. conflict with China as well. Chinese nationalists on the mainland have made a similar point. “The performance of the U.S. in Ukraine should remind ‘Taiwan independence’ advocates: You cannot rely on Washington,” an article in the state paper Global Times stated.


5. Good news: The U.S. and its allies are likely to help in other ways

Despite NATO’s decision not to intervene militarily in Ukraine, Taiwanese may be heartened by the range and scope of support for Ukraine — from weapons shipments to punishing sanctions against Russia. For President Xi Jinping, that show of unity is a potential problem.

“For China, it’s very concerning, because it seems like the crisis is sort of rallying the United States and its allies and causing them to band together,” said Beckley. “It kind of lays down that DNA for a future crisis.”

At the U.N. General Assembly, only five countries voted against condemning Russia. China abstained — refusing to join the condemnation. Having tried to elevate its standing in multilateral institutions in recent years, China will see that “there’s a real danger of isolation,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. More important, the sweeping economic response has already had a significant impact on the Russian economy, as Grid’s Matthew Zeitlin explained. Chinese leaders will worry about a similar response should they attack Taiwan.

“One lesson the U.S. can take from the Russian experience is the power of global finance,” said Heath. “The United States and its rich industrialized allies retain a powerful grip on international finance, and this remains a potent weapon to punish offending countries.”

However, it’s worth noting that it would be harder for the U.S. and allies to impose punishing sanctions against China; unlike the Russian economy, Chinese trade, finance and business are deeply intertwined with the global economy. “That would have severe blowback on us too,” said Easton.


Will Ukraine change China’s plans?

Almost universally, military experts expected the Russian army to secure a swift victory against Ukraine. Russia’s failures to dominate Ukrainian airspace, adequately supply its forces or capture key cities have been early surprises in the war. So have the casualty counts; Western officials estimate that Russia has lost thousands of troops already.

No doubt China’s military and political leaders are taking note.

Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Chinese military is probably already closely studying the Ukraine war: “I’d be very surprised if there aren’t Chinese military observers, at least at the headquarters level and their attaches, observing very closely what’s happening at the tactical level with the war in Ukraine and taking their own very detailed lessons learned.”

One immediate concern in Taiwan: that the Chinese military will draw the conclusion that the time for action is now. According to a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in mid-February, more than a quarter of Taiwanese surveyed thought it was likely China would take the opportunity of the Russian invasion — and the West’s distraction — to attack.

However, several experts said it was unlikely China would make that decision. “I think China likely has concluded that the invasion was a mistake,” said Heath. “The war is already proving unaffordable to Russia, and prospects for victory look doubtful. Russia’s economy is crippled, and domestic opposition is rising. There is little in the Ukraine invasion to encourage China to attack Taiwan.”

The U.S. sent a high-level delegation of former military and security officials to Taiwan last week, bringing a message of support amid the Russian assault. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Tsai, “I do hope by being here with you, we can reassure you and your people, as well as our allies and partners in the region, that the United States stands firm behind its commitments.”

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at China’s Renmin University, said, “The Biden administration is, just in the heyday of Russia’s war in Europe, assuring Taiwan and doubtful opinion at home and beyond that it has both capability and will to intervene vigorously in two major theaters simultaneously, with the Indo-Pacific still kept as its strategic priority.” He added, “This is also intended, I believe, to send a message of deterrence to China, which certainly takes it into account.”

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.