Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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HomeOpinionCommentaryTaiwanese perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications

Taiwanese perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications

By Alan H. Yang and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao

In the spring of 2022, Russia re-invaded Ukraine, commencing a war that has raged on for more than a year. This once-unthinkable war has had three key implications for global geopolitics from the Taiwanese perspectives.

First, the long-term peace and stability of Europe was effectively destroyed. Second, the international response to, and sanctions against, Russia’s military aggression have had limited effects. In turn, this has contributed to declining patience and trust in the ability of international organizations and norms to mediate conflicts, potentially leading to the decline of liberalism and the rise of more cynical realpolitik, as exhibited by China’s approach to the war in Ukraine. Third, the European people—and particularly the Ukrainian people—have once more been forced to confront insecurity and humanitarian crises. Ukraine has recently launched a counteroffensive, but the final result remains to be seen.

Taiwanese public opinion on the Russian invasion since 2022

Taiwanese society has expressed serious concerns about the crisis in Ukraine. The Taiwan government and its people have provided abundant assistance and support to Ukraine, hoping to strengthen its economic and social resilience in navigating through the crisis and to facilitate its recovery accordingly. One month after the outbreak of the invasion, the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF, 台灣民意基金會) conducted an opinion poll relevant to some of these matters. TPOF is one of the few organizations that have continuously conducted opinion polls on the impact of the Ukraine crisis on public opinion in Taiwan.

Although the relevant survey did not directly address many issues related to the war in Ukraine, they did show Taiwanese society’s concern for the Ukraine crisis, while also demonstrating the attitude of the general public in Taiwan toward China’s behavior.

According to the poll among Taiwanese adults aged 20 years and older, roughly 73 percent of the respondents believed that Russia sent troops to Ukraine is unjustified, with 38.9 percent strongly believing that Russian actions carried no legitimacy at all. However, 10.4 percent of respondents think that the Russian invasion is justified. Nevertheless, 87.2 percent of Taiwanese people expressed sympathy for Ukraine’s experience of fighting alone.

Ukraine’s solitary struggle in its fight against Russia without any direct foreign military intervention has reminded some Taiwanese people of the possible predicament facing Taiwan, which has long endured China’s unilateral campaign of international marginalization and oppression, as well as the ever-existing and increasingly intensified military threat. Taiwanese society is also paying attention to how Ukraine defends its sovereignty and how its people protect their own safety and national security, as they may have to do so themselves one day.

After the war broke out, Taiwan’s government announced economic sanctions against Russia, following in the footsteps of like-minded democratic countries such as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. According to the TPOF survey, 64.4 percent of Taiwanese people agreed with these sanctions, while only 23.6 percent disapproved. For many, the sanctions had showcased the courage to voice Taiwan’s position on critical international issues.

Nevertheless, the phrase “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” has also been circulating within Taiwanese society and beyond. According to the TPOF survey, 59.7 percent of Taiwanese people are worried that Taiwan may one day follow in Ukraine’s footsteps, potentially being forced to face a Chinese military invasion alone. This also reflects two worries in Taiwanese society. The first of these is that China has never given up on using force to invade Taiwan, and that Beijing’s military pressure and threats against the island have been increasing in recent years. The other is that Taiwan needs more explicit support from the international community to ensure its security.

After half a year, another TPOF poll conducted in September 2022 showed that 47.4 percent of Taiwanese people believed that Ukraine would win the Russia-Ukraine war, while 25.1 percent of the respondents believed that the winner would be Russia. However, when queried about the results of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, 51.2 percent of the respondents believed that the PRC would win, while only 29.6 percent believed that Taiwan could win. Meanwhile, 43.6 percent of the respondents expressed the belief that Taiwan’s military response to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military intimidation has been too weak, while another 42.4 percent disagreed. Moreover, a meager 41.2 percent of the respondents expressed confidence in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) government to defend Taiwan, while 51.5 percent were not confident.

Yet, it is important to point out that concerns within Taiwan about fighting alone like Ukraine do not mean that Taiwanese people are pessimistic or defeatist about defending Taiwan’s sovereignty. In fact, according to the results of various polls conducted by different survey agencies in recent years, 60-70 percent of Taiwanese people are willing to fight to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and national security. Taiwanese people, like the Ukrainian people, are not afraid of fighting against an invasion and defending their country and families.

Drawing lessons from Ukraine, however, the international community and like-minded countries need to demonstrate more substantial military and political support for Taiwan. Such concrete actions and commitments will directly strengthen the confidence and will of the Taiwanese people.

Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan?

We do not believe that the situation that Ukraine faces today is guaranteed to happen to Taiwan tomorrow. As Taiwan is not Ukraine, it is difficult to make an analogy. However, Ukraine can still provide invaluable lessons for Taiwan. The challenges facing Taiwan and Ukraine are similar, particularly in three key aspects:

First, both countries are subject to asymmetrical power structures, with both facing the aggression of neighboring major powers led by political strongmen. The nature of the regimes and the power held by these leaders mean that there are less constraints on their actions.

Second, both Russia and China have strongly expressed their intentions to seize Ukrainian and Taiwanese territory, respectively, and both wield the coercive means to do so. Russia is very close to Ukraine, which allowed its troops to quickly enter Ukrainian territory by land. However, the situation in the Taiwan Strait is quite different. Although Taiwan and China are close to each other, the Taiwan Strait will likely make it very difficult for the PLA to invade easily.

However, Taiwan is still under severe military pressure. For example, when former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, the PLA launched more than 10 missiles and conducted military exercises simulating a blockade around Taiwan. Recently, China conducted military exercises around Taiwan in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States. While the expressed intention of these exercises was to improve law enforcement capabilities and protect maritime jurisdictions, they were primarily designed to normalize such behavior, and to intimidate and coerce Taiwan.

Third, international attention and support are extremely important. NATO and the United States are deeply influential on the Ukraine issue, while on the Taiwan issue, Japan also plays a critical role. Moreover, while NATO and the European Union have developed their own Indo-Pacific strategies, the stability and peace of the Taiwan Strait are also in their interests. China often uses the term “new normal” to describe its coercive and aggressive behavior in the strait. If international actors accede to the “new normal” pushed by Beijing, it will only bolster China’s efforts to rewrite the rules of international conduct in its favor. The international community—especially democratic countries—should have the courage to defend the rules-based international order and to directly reject China’s unjust “new normal.”

Compared with Ukraine, the situation in the Taiwan Strait is also dangerous. Taiwan faces an even more authoritarian and dictatorial China, which also wields significant influence throughout the international economy and global supply chain. Countries around the world are overly reliant on China’s economy, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses its market strength to coerce and constrain its partners. Although Taiwan has never been ruled by the CCP, the two sides are economically linked to a high degree. Cross-Strait economic and trade exchanges are frequent, including over a million Taiwanese residents living and working in China.

China is keen to actively and deliberately weaponize this economic interdependence to pressure Taiwan, disrupt Taiwan’s social stability, and even infiltrate the island with “sharp power.” In addition, Beijing is good at using nationalism to win over its supporters in Taiwan, using disinformation to promote a common vision and a united front to promote “unification.”

For example, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited China in April. His nationalist remarks and failure to condemn China’s military aggression against Taiwan may have contributed to misconceptions that China and Taiwan have entered into a period of reconciliation, but this is not the case. Ma’s visit demonstrated that Taiwan’s democratic society is both diverse and divided. While this is a strength in many regards, it also makes it easier for cynical authoritarian influence to divide and conquer Taiwanese society.

Furthermore, Beijing also continues to use “gray zone” tactics to place pressure on Taiwan. In 2020, Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) was breached a total of 380 times by PLA fighter jets, rising to 960 in 2021 and exceeding 1,700 in 2022. The purpose of these incursions is to exhaust Taiwan’s air force and wear out Taiwan’s defense capability, while simultaneously making these operations normalized. If Taiwan’s military does not respond effectively and does not drive them away immediately, Beijing will ultimately push further into Taiwan’s ADIZ and continue to squeeze Taiwan’s airspace. This poses a threat not only to Taiwan, but to the peace and stability of the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Conclusion: The imperatives for defending Taiwan

Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, defending Taiwan should become even more critical for the international community. Three important lessons stand out:

First, Taiwan currently produces more than 90 percent of the world’s high-end semiconductor chips. As such, if Taiwan were to be annexed by China, China would be able to dominate chip production, with attendant control over global supply chains. Therefore, more like-minded countries—including the United States, India, Australia, and European countries—must jointly defend free access to the semiconductor supply chain by lending their support to Taiwan.

Second, Taiwan stands at the forefront of the confrontation between democracy and autocracy. In 2021, TAEF organized an Open Congress Forum and invited parliamentarians from democratic countries in Central and Eastern Europe to discuss democratic unity and collective action against the export of authoritarianism. Like-minded democracies must stand firm to help each other. Taiwan, India, and the United States should be strong and resilient democratic partners. To quote President Tsai’s remarks during her meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, “If justice is brave enough, then evil will lose strength!” (若正義足夠勇敢 邪惡就會失去力量).

Third, regardless of whether or not the situation facing Ukraine today will unfold in Taiwan tomorrow, Taiwanese people and their democratic supporters must prepare well to confront the continuous, purposeful threats posed by powerful authoritarian states. Preparedness is not just about preparing for going to war at all times, but also building resilience through unity—thereby making authoritarians and dictators think twice about the possibility of using force, increasing the cost of unilateral action, and demonstrating the will and commitment of democratic partners to safeguard global peace and prosperity together.

The main point: While the situations facing Ukraine and Taiwan are very different, Taiwan can nevertheless glean invaluable lessons from Ukraine’s experiences. In order to prevent a similar invasion from China, Taiwan and its partners must do more to strengthen their deterrence and project unity.

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