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Five lessons Taiwan is learning from the war in Ukraine

Ukraine and Taiwan both have autocratic neighbors with an appetite for their land; people in Taiwan are hoping the similarities end there.

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.

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“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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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

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?”

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.”

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.”

“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.”

Will Ukraine change China’s plans?

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.”

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.”

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.”

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