Taiwan keeping close eye on Ukraine

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Growing up in Taiwan, Huang Yu-lin has become accustomed to chatter about potential military conflict with mainland China. But it wasn’t until Russia invaded Ukraine that she started to seriously consider what she would do in such a scenario.

“Hearing it so often, it was a bit like crying wolf,” the 32-year-old energy policy researcher said. Now, with a war raging in Europe and deteriorating cross-strait relations, she’s begun looking into medical training and browsing war survival manuals. “I’ve become more and more worried. This is something that needs to be taken seriously,” she said.

The world has been captivated by the invasion of Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought control of the former Soviet republic’s capital, Kyiv, and ordinary citizens have taken up arms to defend their country. In Taiwan, the apprehension comes with added anxiety over its own precarious geopolitical standing, under the shadow of an aggressive neighbor pushing a territorial claim.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to eventually bring the democratically ruled island back into the Communist Party’s fold. While Beijing has called for peaceful reunification, record incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone are a regular reminder that Xi hasn’t ruled out the use of force.

“We feel totally related because of the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to Taiwan every day,” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically aligned with the governing Democratic Progressive Party. “We need to invest more in our own national defense, and that is the only way to deter aggression.”

Officials and defense specialists in Taiwan have pointed to Ukraine as a potent warning to step up military training and preparation at home. At the same time, leaders have sought to allay concerns about any imminent threats from China, as well as the island’s defense capabilities.

“Our military is committed to defending our homeland and continues to improve its ability to do so, and our global partners are contributing to the security of our region, giving us strong confidence in Taiwan’s security,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Experts point to several differences that diminish the likelihood of an imminent attack on Taiwan, an island of about 23 million people. One key factor is the Taiwan Strait, which acts as a natural geographical buffer against mainland forces. Strong diplomatic ties with other democratic governments such as Japan and the U.S., along with Taiwan’s vital role in the global economy and supply chain in semiconductor production, could also help deter aggression.

To help preserve the status quo, the U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent nation and has been intentionally ambiguous about how much military support it might provide if China attacked the island. As younger generations of Taiwanese develop a stronger sense of identity that sets the island apart from China, some worry that a more defiant stance against unification or an explicit declaration of support from the U.S. could provoke Beijing into action.

Beijing has also stressed the differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, in particular arguing that the latter has always been a part of China.

“It is unwise of certain people of the Taiwan authorities to latch on to and exploit the Ukraine issue to their advantage,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a briefing transcript. “‘Taiwan independence’ only leads to a dead end.”

While many have brushed off fears of confrontation, to others the visceral violence in Ukraine has suddenly made China’s threats  more tangible.

“A lot of scenarios now happening in Ukraine, those were not imaginable for a lot of people,” said T.H. Schee, 44, a tech and policy worker who hosts lectures in Taiwan on civil defense.

Schee’s events have traditionally focused on natural disaster response, but many recent participants have been drawn to the seminars because of Ukraine. Among the questions he’s received from concerned Taiwanese are whether they can learn to hack computers or shoot rifles, Schee said, despite Taiwan’s strict laws on gun ownership.

“It’s like the Wild West. People have just got no idea what will happen, or what other resources you need,” he said.

Chiang Chia-hung, a master’s student in international relations at National Taiwan University, was pleasantly surprised to find less politically minded friends and family also closely following the news in Ukraine. Even the local shopkeeper raised the issue with him while he was out buying tofu and sausages, during a weekend trip home to the central city of Taichung.

Chiang, who spent two out of his four months of conscription in the Matsu Islands about 10 miles from China’s coast, said he hopes this kind of attention will lead Taiwanese people to take the possibility of outside aggression more seriously.

“There, the risk of China was always present,” he said of his time in Matsu. “Add on these developments, and I feel like it’s made me more aware that you really can’t underestimate the danger of China.”