TAIPE, Taiwan – Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Justin Huang, a 23-year-old recently graduated from a university in Taiwan, has been gripped by news of the crisis, just like many others around the world. He examined reports of Ukrainians enlisting in the military and carefully examined videos of Russian missiles hitting apartment buildings. He is deeply concerned about Russia’s brazen disregard for global norms.
But for Mr Huang and many Taiwanese, Russia’s attack is particularly close to home.
The self-governing island democracy has long faced the threat of being swallowed up by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, which has vowed to do so by force if deemed necessary. As Taiwanese watch Russian troops invade Ukraine, concerns about the future of their own island are growing. The courage of the Ukrainians, as well as the harsh reality of this country’s lonely battle, has sparked a greater sense of urgency among many Taiwanese to strengthen the island’s defenses.
“Reading the news was a bit traumatic emotionally,” Mr Huang said. Driven by a sense of solidarity with Ukraine, he and about 200 others protested in front of the Russian embassy in Taipei on Saturday. He said he feared the invasion of Ukraine could be a “turning point” in the world order, ushering in a new era in which autocrats can operate with impunity.
“I see how, after the crisis in Ukraine, China may find a reason to invade Taiwan in the near future,” he said.
Taiwan’s parallels with Ukraine are obvious to many on the island, which has a population of 23 million. Taiwan, like Ukraine, has long lived in the shadow of a large and powerful neighbor. Both Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have called for nationalist historical narratives to justify their territorial claims today. And in recent years, Mr Xi has stepped up his warnings to Taiwan not to seek official independence from China, similar to the ways Mr Putin has threatened to punish Ukraine if it seeks to boost its security ties with the West, for example by NATO accession.
In Taiwan, the invasion has rekindled debates over the likelihood of a Chinese invasion, Taiwan’s level of military readiness and whether the United States is committed to defending the island. Taiwan is more vulnerable than Ukraine, in part because it is not recognized by most countries as a sovereign nation.
For days, the slogan “Today, Ukraine, tomorrow, Taiwan!” Ricocheted online. In Taiwan’s news programs and talk shows, some experts said Beijing could take advantage of the distracted West to increase pressure on Taiwan. Others expressed concern that the West’s weak response to the Russian invasion could encourage Chinese leadership. Others say that such talk only creates unnecessary anxiety.
Despite the possible results, many Taiwanese see the need for greater independence.
Dr Charlie Ma, a 59-year-old doctor in Taipei, said the West’s refusal to send troops to help Ukraine fight Russia had led him to think that Taiwan could not rely on other countries to advocate for his protection. If China invades Taiwan, Dr. Ma said, he will volunteer as a combat medic.
“This is Ukraine’s lesson for us: Don’t rely on others,” he said.
As Beijing now regularly sends fighter jets to Taiwan, there are no signs that an attack on the island is imminent. Dr Ma said his biggest concern was that an accident, like a military plane crash, could inadvertently start a war.
However, Taiwan’s President Cai Ying-wen last week ordered the island’s armed forces and security officials to step up surveillance and strengthen defense, in part to reassure the public.
For Ms. Tsai, making comparisons to Ukraine helps draw the world’s attention to Taiwan’s concerns about Beijing’s aggression, but leaning too heavily on this story risks causing panic at home.
Ms. Tsai said Taiwan sympathized with Ukraine and cited the country’s continued resistance as proof of strength in unity.
“We all see the people of Ukraine uniting to fight the invasion of a powerful state,” Ms. Tsai said on Monday. She is speaking at a ceremony honoring one of Taiwan’s most painful chapters in modern history: the 1947 Taiwan People’s Uprising, which was crushed by nationalist soldiers who killed tens of thousands of people.
But she and other voices in Taiwan have also sought to emphasize that the situation is vastly different.
Unlike Ukraine, which has a land border with Russia, Taiwan is separated from mainland China by wide waters, making the invasion more difficult. The world, including China, also has much to gain from a stable Taiwan, which is a key hub in the global economy.
In the face of growing militancy on the part of Beijing, Ms. Cai’s government highlighted the United States’ efforts to increase its presence in Asia and its informal ties with Taiwan. On Monday, the Biden administration sought to show support for Taiwan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by sending a delegation of former senior defense and security officials to the island.
Yet many in Taiwan are aware that even when the United States provides political and military support, it has long avoided explicitly avoiding to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Some people pointed to reports of Ukrainian civilians standing in line for Kalashnikov rifles and volunteers to donate blood, calling on Taiwan to invest in nascent civil protection.
In recent years, mass programs have been launched to train citizens in first aid skills and situational awareness, such as how to find the nearest bomb shelter. Last week, one of these programs, Kuma Academy, posted on its Facebook account a two-day camp flyer that was announced as an opportunity to build knowledge on modern concepts of war and learn basic self-defense strategies.
Understand Russia’s attack on Ukraine
What is the basis of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine in its natural sphere of influence and is concerned about Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military assistance from the United States and Europe.
“Of course, the situation in Ukraine cannot be directly compared to that in Taiwan,” the camp organizers wrote in the accompanying publication. “But the situation in the Taiwan Strait is such that we cannot lower our vigilance and we must use this time of peace to prepare for the worst.”
Other Taiwanese citizens draw a far different message from Russia’s invasion, seeing it as appalling evidence that the borders of a powerful country should not be tested. They say that instead of leaning on the United States, Ms. Cai’s government should work to improve relations with Beijing to avoid war.
For Tu Dong-xiang, a 58-year-old pensioner, the war in Ukraine reminded her of growing up in Matsu, part of a chain of Taiwan-controlled islands off the coast of China that was often shelled by mainland troops until the 1970s. century. Mrs. Tu remembered the horror she often felt as a young girl, fleeing with her family to cover the local bomb shelter, sometimes while still carrying her bowl for dinner.
“We know how terrible the war can be,” said Ms. Tu, who now lives in New Taipei. “That’s why I think the most important thing for Ukraine and Taiwan is to be able to live.
And although ties between Taiwan and China have deteriorated in recent years, some pockets on the island still have strong family ties to the mainland, making the idea of war incomprehensible.
Ms. Tu’s son, 26-year-old Rick Hsi, said that although he had just completed the military service required of all Taiwanese, he had no desire to fight China. Mr Hsie said that, unlike many of his peers, he had an affinity for the continent, where he still has relatives. He was even open to the idea of unification.
“Of course, I know there may be restrictions on freedom of speech, but in general I don’t think being absorbed by China would be so bad,” said Mr Hsie, a poet who works in a café in New Taipei. .
For many others in Taiwan, however, the war in Ukraine has only strengthened their embrace of the island’s democratic values.
At Saturday’s anti-war rally in Taipei, protesters raised placards with slogans such as “Ukraine is not alone” and “Taiwan stands with Ukraine!” Hours later, buildings around Taiwan, including the iconic Taipei 101 skyscraper near the protest, were lit in blue the Ukrainian flag in solidarity.
“After all, the situation in Taiwan is not so different from that in Ukraine,” said Lillian Lin, a 50-year-old mother who stays at home and attends the rally with her husband and 9-year-old daughter.
“Honestly, a dictator is a dictator and the decisions they make are essentially the same.