How Taipei reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making it anxious

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Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he calls “special military operations” to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2022. The attacks were launched from the east, north and the south, and Russian troops reportedly closed in Ukraine’s capital – Kiev – without any hint of a ceasefire. In about 48 hours, Russia has shaken up the post-war world order and established itself as a major pole in an anarchic international world, when it was only a great power in decline.

But more importantly for Asia, the Russian invasion brings a different set of challenges as it sets a template for a People’s Republic of China (PRC) invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan, a self-governing island of 23 million people more than 150 km off China’s eastern coast, has lived in the shadow of a regional power for the past seven decades. The PRC claims Taiwan as its sovereign territory. Many analysts and scholars have drawn comparisons with Taiwan after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the correlation is not precise, the US-Russian power showdown over Ukraine definitely underscores the strategic calculus for the future of US-China relations and cross-Strait geopolitics.

How did Taiwan react to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Anticipating Russian aggression, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on January 28 ordered her National Security Council to set up a task force to study how the confrontation might unfold amid growing tensions between the Ukraine and Russia. “Taiwan has long faced military threats and intimidation from China,” she reportedly told a meeting of her national security advisers late last month.

After the invasion began, Taiwan condemned the Russian aggression and called on all parties to resolve the dispute peacefully and rationally. Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Russia’s unilateral actions not only violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, but also undermine efforts to the international community to actively seek a peaceful solution to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis through diplomatic channels.

Tsai and Taiwan’s Executive Chairman Su Zhenchang were also briefed by Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC) and relevant ministries of the Response to the situation in Ukraine (wūkèlánjúshìyìngduì). The government presented four instructions – including the response to military developments in the Taiwan Strait – after the NSC briefings. Within the Tsai administration, tensions were seen with growing urgency, and the task force was tasked with monitoring and reporting regularly on the escalating situation in Ukraine.

In addition, the spokesperson for the Taiwanese presidential office said that the situation in Taiwan and Ukraine is fundamentally different in terms of geostrategy, geographical environment and the importance of the international supply chain. However, “Faced with foreign forces intent on manipulating the situation in Ukraine and affecting the morale of Taiwanese society, all government units should step up prevention. Foreign forces and local collaborators have launched cognitive operations, and we must strengthen the clarification of disinformation to stabilize the internal situation in society,” the spokesperson added, referring to China’s information warfare campaigns.

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Unlike its western neighbor – the People’s Republic of China – which is ready to bail out Russia economically, Taiwan is considering banning the export of semiconductor products to Russia. Its total trade with Russia is tiny, with exports accounting for 0.3% and imports 1.3% of total trade. However, its participation in the sanctions regime with the West symbolizes its courage and belief in universal internationalist values, such as the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference. It also highlights the geopolitical situation in East Asia, as the bandwagon with the United States is crucial for Taiwan’s survival in the future.

Earlier in 2014, Taiwan opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The latest Russian aggression, however, worries Taiwan as Chinese President Xi Jinping reforms the country’s armed forces and has claimed that “the complete reunification of the motherland is a historic task and must be accomplished”. Notably, unlike earlier, Xi’s speech emphatically emphasized “reunification with Taiwan” instead of “peaceful reunification with Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s concerns

Basically, there are a few aspects that should worry Taiwan. First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be a prototype for China’s campaign to reunify Taiwan. Many Chinese scholars have asserted that the Taiwan question and the Russian invasion are not comparable because the former is “China’s internal affair” and later resembles a geopolitical issue in the fight against major powers. However, like Taiwan, the PRC is watching the West’s response closely. The failure of the United States and its allies to respond to Russian aggression could further encourage Xi and his comrades to engage in similar campaigns across the Taiwan Strait before August 1, 2027, when the Army of Chinese People’s Liberation celebrates its centenary.

Similarly, the “American pivot to Asia”, introduced by the Obama administration, was intended to reinvigorate American diplomatic, military and economic attention on the Indo-Pacific region and to contain the rise of China. However, the recent crisis may temporarily bring the United States back to Europe, allowing the PRC to fill the void. This means that China would have a relatively free pass to explore its hegemonic aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

This would imply that the balance of power around the Taiwan Strait, East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, which is already shifting, would change drastically, pushing the region into a dangerous new phase of uncertainty for the next few years.

Suyash Desai is a student researcher who studies Chinese defense and foreign policy. He is currently studying Traditional Chinese at National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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