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Steady as She Goes: Taiwan's Security After Ukraine

China’s close attention to how the world is reacting and mobilizing in the face of war in Europe will undoubtedly inform its long-term policy towards the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is looking at the defense Ukraine is putting up and seeing aspects of its own reflection.

Cover Image for Steady as She Goes: Taiwan's Security After Ukraine
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen Photo Credits: Financial Times
Article byJames Paisley
March 28, 2022

It is impossible to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and not recognize it as an imperfect mirror for Taiwan. It is important to note, however, the limits of applying the Ukraine analogy to Taiwan. The two conflicts exist in distinct geographical and geopolitical realities. Taiwan benefits from factors that Ukraine doesn’t: Taiwan’s economy is the 19th strongest in the world by purchasing power and is most technologically advanced microchip producer. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan has a diplomatic relationship with the United States dating back to before World War II. A common point being made about reticence to send support to Ukraine is the lack of an international security agreement, something Taiwan also lacks, but the Taiwan Relations Act could be interpreted as potential legal foundation for U.S. military support. Every U.S. president has pledged commitment to Taiwan’s defense through the Taiwan Relations Act; this decades-long policy has led to the Chinese military expecting U.S. intervention in case of aggression against Taiwan, despite the abrogation of a formal military alliance. While the situations of the two countries are unique, Taiwan can nevertheless glean many lessons from the war in Ukraine.

Asymmetric warfare capabilities and the ‘porcupine strategy’ are a viable template of resistance for Taiwan. For a Taiwan contingency, the resounding success of Ukraine’s resistance provides a successful proof of concept for the use of asymmetric tactics. Not only does it reflect the necessity for resilience among Taiwan’s traditional military assets – planes, tanks, command and control centers – but also the value of asymmetrical weapons. The use of Javelins, NLAWs, and Stinger missiles has prevented Russian tanks and air assets from commanding the military space. For Taiwan, there is an equivalent need for such weapons to interdict the PLAAF and PLAN and degrade initial air and sea superiority. Anti-ship missiles, naval mines, and surface-to-air missiles will be crucial. It should be taken as a given that Taiwan cannot seize such superiority itself; but the longer Taiwan can contest the space, the greater the likelihood of allied assistance from Japan or the U.S. breaking through Chinese anti-access and area denial efforts.

Geography continues to matter greatly, particularly in relation to strategic surprise and Chinese sealift and airlift efforts. China cannot secure Taiwan by the strength of its air force or its number of ships alone. As the adage goes, boots on the ground hold territory, not planes. The logistics necessary for such an invasion would be immediately noticeable, just as with Ukraine. Furthermore, while states may be less likely to try and deploy their own militaries to occupy territory, choosing to instead rely on local proxies or overwhelming airpower when the territory itself isn’t the objective, this is not feasible with Taiwan. It will require urban warfare with a hostile and motivated civilian population that is militarily costly and humanitarianly egregious. Taiwan, unlike Ukraine, is much more densely populated and urbanized. Attempts to occupy the island necessitate the deployment of soldiers to urban environments, which will be largely non-permissive, thoroughly defended, and play by a set of rules that make urban combat the most difficult form of war.

Cultivation of a civilian populace trained and willing to fight is critical. Ukraine has shown how war can come for civilians and Taiwan’s urbanization means the involvement of civilians in any warzone. Improvements to Taiwan’s reservist training regimen are long overdue, as Bonnie Glaser notes, and there are calls for a return of the year-long mandatory military service. These training improvements should include increased ammunition supplies, more dynamic shooting drills, and military advisors from the United States and Japan. Making the military service focus more on concrete skills needed for urban and guerilla combat, medical support, and logistics will also help to counter narratives that the service is pointless or unable to meet realistic needs. Combined with improved reservist and civilian training programs, Taiwan’s efforts at promoting national identity – which has been on the rise over the years – and a willingness to defend itself will create dividends in the long run by countering fatalist arguments that similarly appeared with regards to Ukraine. Just as Ukraine, Taiwan too will be a motivated defender, and displaying that willingness to fight is crucial to securing external support.

Taiwan needs to continue to develop deeper ties with other nations, particularly regional powers. Japan has already indicated that Taiwan’s security is Japan’s security, and the New Southbound policy has improved Taiwan’s economic ties and integration with Southeast Asia. These help to strengthen Taiwan’s position as an economic lynchpin in the region in addition to improving people’s understanding of Taiwanese people and culture. The support that Taiwan has given to the Ukraine crisis has also helped generate goodwill among European countries that may be more willing to contradict China’s position on Taiwan, just as Lithuania currently does. The United States, Japan, and other states should look for ways to support Taiwan’s economic and cultural integration in addition to sponsoring Taiwan’s membership in organizations that do not rely on statehood.

Keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait continues to be imperative. Maintaining the status quo is the minimum policy objective. Watching for changes in signaling from China based on lessons the CCP is taking from Russia’s performance – diplomatically and militarily – will show if the calculus in Beijing is changing. Xi’s language has indicated he does not want the ‘Taiwan question’ to go unanswered for another generation. The rapid response to Russia’s invasion has shown that the West is capable of decisive political action, but China’s economy is much larger and more deeply intertwined with the international economy than Russia’s. A sanctions regime like that levied against Russia is unlikely, but the united diplomatic front may lead Chinese policymakers to hesitate as the cost is reconsidered – or decide that the window is rapidly closing. One thing to keep an eye on will be language used to describe the DPP and President Tsai and if cross-strait dialogues resume; another will be the speed at which China tries to internalize its supply chains and remove reliance on the systems targeted by the sanctions.

All eyes are on Ukraine and Russia right now. China’s close attention to how the world is reacting and mobilizing in the face of war in Europe will undoubtedly inform its long-term policy towards the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is looking at the defense Ukraine is putting up and seeing aspects of its own reflection. The United States should move forward with helping Taiwan implement the lessons learned from this conflict across the military and diplomatic spheres, in preparation for the enormous repercussions it carries for the international system.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.