Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan?

By – Shivangi Dikshit;

Taiwan is surrounded by authoritarian neighbours, as is Ukraine. Taiwan is also militarily threatened by China, its larger neighbour. Hence, Taiwan is apprehensive about falling into the same trap as Ukraine. China has publicly supported Russia’s war on Ukraine. Beijing considers Taiwan to be an integral part of China and views the matter as wholly domestic. The Chinese repeatedly warn that if anybody meddles in their domestic affairs, they will not accept any compromise or submission. The issue of whether Beijing will strike Taipei remains unanswered. There are advantages Taiwan can use to prevent itself from slipping into a situation similar to Ukraine.

Crisis in Ukraine

The start of Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, began with air and missile attacks on Ukrainian military targets before sending troops and tanks across the country’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. The military of Ukraine fought back on many fronts as Russia seemed prepared to take all action necessary to halt NATO’s eastward expansion, which would bring the security organisation very near to its borders. Some believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long sought a cause to go to war with Ukraine in order to restore the old Russian empire, but the Russian President dismissed such accusations before attacking Ukraine. When Putin declared war on Ukraine on February 24, he pledged “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of the country, as well as an end to a supposed “genocide” against ethnic Russians in the Donbas area. Despite hardly any evidence to support such claims, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began leading to mounting international pressure and sanctions on Moscow.

The dispute between Russia and Ukraine has been ongoing for some time, but the situation started to escalate when Ukraine said that the US would allow them to join NATO’s military. This angered Russia, and it began conducting “training exercises” near the Ukrainian border in the spring of last year, followed by an increase in the number of its forces in the fall. Russia does not want Ukraine to join NATO, an alliance formed at the outset of the Cold War to safeguard Europe from the Soviet Union. In recent years, the alliance has grown farther east to include former Soviet bloc nations, which has enraged Russia. Moscow views NATO expansion, as well as the military posture of these Western allies on its doorstep, as a danger. The European Union is being affected by the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine. As a result, the European Union has joined the United States in sanctioning Russian firms and assets. India too advocates a diplomatic solution to the continuing deadly conflict between Russia and Ukraine through negotiations.

Ukraine Crisis: A Wake-Up Call

Taiwan has given Ukraine its complete support, placed sanctions on Russia, and targeted the shipment of 57 high-tech exports. Telecommunications equipment, integrated circuit components, and variable-frequency motors will be among the goods. Tighter regulations on the export of high-tech commodities utilised in both civil and military weapon manufacture were promptly enforced. Taiwanese President Tsai’s pledge to increase the defence budget and acquisition may suddenly make sense, considering that the Chinese may attack at any time. Taiwan’s military announced preparations for its annual military exercise that simulates protecting the island against Chinese invasions in April 2022, saying it was learning lessons from Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

China regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and sees the issue as a purely internal matter. This fear of Chinese assaults becomes true as the Chinese repeatedly warn that they will not accommodate any compromise or concession if anybody interferes with their internal affairs. China frequently issues verbal threats during multilateral gatherings such as the QUAD members’ meetings or military drills that are meant to mitigate Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. The attack on Ukraine has served as a wake-up call for the United States and its allies to devise a strategy to counter a Chinese strike on Taiwan. During the QUAD Summit, President Joe Biden stated that the US has not changed its strategic position toward Taiwan and that the US is ready to get engaged militarily to defend Taiwan.  The words were a surprising change from decades of US policy, which has preferred to stay unclear about the extent to which Washington would protect the island. However, defending Taiwan will need a superior military force. Defending Taiwan will be difficult since it is separated from US military bases by Pacific waterways, and the nearest supply lines are across the Philippine Sea, south through the Ryukyus, or north of Luzon. All of these regions are located outside of Taiwan’s Exclusive Economic Zones.

Taiwan Holds an Edge

The question of whether Ukraine and Taiwan will have the support they need to maintain their sovereignty is a geopolitical dilemma, transcending regional political dynamics. Western and Asian countries appear to recognize this today, as evidenced by the speed with which the Biden administration engaged Asian allies like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and even Singapore to condemn Russia. The fact that they are willing to express concerns over distant Ukraine shows their belief that Europe will need to provide equal assistance if China confronts one of them. China, on the other hand, has denied any parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, stating that Taiwan is a part of China rather than an independent entity.

Taiwan has an advantage that Ukraine does not have: supremacy in semiconductor manufacturing. Because of Taiwan’s position in the technological value chain, an invasion will cause worldwide economic ramifications. Taiwan’s supremacy may be ascribed to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, or TSMC, the world’s largest foundry with clients including Apple, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. According to TrendForce statistics, TSMC accounted for 54% of overall foundry revenue globally last year. Semiconductors are essential components that power electronics ranging from computers and cell phones to brake sensors in automobiles. Chip production requires a complicated network of organisations that develop or manufacture them, as well as those who supply the necessary technology, materials, and apparatus. China relies on Taiwan for high-performance computer chips. Concerning the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, China will have to choose between continued economic progress and the national goal of reunification. China is aiming to become self-sufficient in the manufacture of semi-conductors, but there is still a long way to go.

Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is surrounded by water on all sides and separated from China by the 180-kilometre Taiwan Strait. This makes naval and air power superiority important. Here, air superiority will be essential to ensure a constant flow of resources needed to fight and live. Chinese navies and air force invading fleet would be severely exposed before it could even begin its attack on Taiwan’s coastline. These attacks would have to be planned to hit the island’s beaches and ports at the same time in order to overwhelm the opposing troops. China will need to seize control of the ports and attack Taiwan to unload all of the soldiers, weapons, vehicles, and supplies.

Taiwan’s air defence system and air force would have to be subdued, if not eliminated, during the initial phase of the invasion. Although smaller in size than the PLA, Taiwan’s military has become better prepared for a mainland Chinese invasion. The Taiwanese military has developed its own offensive systems, including precision-strike weapons, hardened aircraft shelters, and advanced underwater mines. China’s cyber security is highly vulnerable to Taiwan’s cyber system, which can easily undermine and disrupt it. The PLA would struggle to take the island in any meaningful way, despite overwhelming numbers of troops and equipment.

Although it is difficult to foresee if China would ever invade Taiwan in the same manner that Russia invaded Ukraine, it is a good idea to learn what to look out for if Taiwan is ever attacked by China and prepare for the future.

Not only that, the geographical distance between Taiwan and its key allies, like the US itself, makes it difficult to defend and provide regular military assistance. It is conceivable that the US, Japan, and Australia would engage directly or indirectly to defend Taiwan, but it is probable that other nations would find it difficult to do so. These countries might, however, be part of a concerted international reaction to punish Beijing. It will always be possible for China to intercept and disrupt aid to Taiwan; similarly, Taiwan’s allies can play a key role in disrupting China’s supply, should China attack Taipei.

 While it is believed that the world will support Taiwan in times of crisis, the reality is that all nations of the world recognize China’s one-China policy. Taiwan becomes more fragile than Ukraine here since it is not recognised as a sovereign nation by the majority of countries. So how many would actually support Taiwan in its struggle for sovereignty?

Because the Chinese Communist Party is the most powerful body in China and its resources are substantially engaged in the economy, sanctions targeting Chinese enterprises and assets abroad might have a significant impact on the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, China’s highest decision-making body’s interests would be jeopardised. Chinese economy influences global growth because it continuously demands commodities produced by other countries. This includes everything from wheat to energy to metals. China relies on worldwide demand to consume its finished products including furniture, equipment, and appliances, so the global economy can affect the growth rate of the country. China is one of the world’s greatest economies. In 2020, it contributed $23.01 trillion, or 18.3 per cent, of the world’s $125.65 trillion in GDP. Because Chinese economic growth is so large and global in scope, every slowdown has an impact on the world.  Hence, the global economic ramifications could be enormous – far greater than what we saw with Russia. Nevertheless, the West should be prepared to repeat many of its actions against Russia.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, 44 million people have fled the nation and sought refuge in neighbouring countries; nevertheless, Ukraine is connected to the land, making it easy for refugees to flee. In Taiwan, however, this is not the case. Therefore, delivering humanitarian aid will also be dangerous and difficult. After the Ukraine attack the geopolitical scenario in Europe is changing, Germany has increased its defence budget, and Finland and Sweden have shown their willingness to join NATO. Comparable shifts are possible in the Indo-Pacific, with stronger alliances and increasing military spending in countries such as Vietnam, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, and the Philippines.

Like in Ukraine, the willingness of its people to protect its hard-won democracy is crucial to Taiwan’s existence. The US refusal to send soldiers to Ukraine has led many to believe that its words are often empty and that Taiwan must prepare for self-defence. This has also strengthened Taiwanese interest in military training.  The Han Kuang annual exercises, which began in 1984, are Taiwan’s largest military exercises and are aimed to assess the country’s combat readiness in the event of a Chinese invasion. According to Taipei Times, this year the exercise started on 16th May 2022, and lessons from the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war were incorporated into the drills. Unlike previous models, this year’s war games were based on real maps rather than computer simulations. Since physical maps allow generals to meet face-to-face to debate strategy and generate ideas, the computerised format was abandoned. This was probably done to educate them on how to deal with real-life attacks that cannot be experienced or learnt through computer simulation exercises. Major-General Lin Wen-huang  has mentioned that “The defence ministry is closely monitoring, researching and analysing regarding the war between Russia and Ukraine as well as the Communist military’s movements.” Taiwan is considering expanding compulsory military service beyond the existing four-month period, as the conflict in Ukraine has reignited debate over how to effectively respond to China’s military threats. Taiwan, like Ukraine, will need to maintain strong diplomatic contacts with its neighbours and like-minded countries in order to garner assistance in times of crisis. It will be critical to construct and secure a powerful cyber defence system in order to protect itself from cyber intrusions and acquire intelligence that will be critical in order to defend itself.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have stoked fears that Beijing could follow Moscow’s lead and invade Taiwan. Such debates should not provoke public concern in Taiwan, but instead, drive Taiwan’s government to take efforts toward a more secure future. Taiwan is not Ukraine yet there are lessons to learn for Taipei.

Shivangi Dikshit is Research Assistant at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and co-currently a Senior Research Analyst at Nehginpoa Kipgen Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. She is particularly interested in Southeast Asian Studies, particularly the role of India and China in the region. She focuses on India’s Act East Policy and relations with countries in Southeast Asia. Shivangi is also interested in traditional and non-traditional security issues in the Indo-Pacific. She can be reached @DikshitShivangi on Twitter.

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