About 5,000 miles away from the violence in Ukraine, shock waves from Russia’s invasion are being felt in Taiwan. Until recently, Taiwan was considered to be one of the world’s most significant potential flashpoints for a multination war. It was heralded – albeit with some exaggeration – as “the most dangerous place on Earth”, under growing threat of invasion by Xi Jinping’s China, which considers the independently governed democracy to be a Chinese province.
This week its people have watched their fears play out in eastern Europe, as Russian forces – ordered by Xi’s ally Vladimir Putin – attacked in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday.
The invasion prompted solidarity from Taiwan. The government proclaimed it stood with Ukraine, and announced unspecified economic sanctions against Russia.
“The principle of self-determination cannot be erased by brute force,” said Taiwan’s vice-president, Lai Ching-te.
It also prompted fear.
There is speculation about whether Beijing might use this crisis to make its move, while the world is focused on Ukraine. “China may think about using military action against Taiwan at any moment,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said earlier this month. The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, warned “the shock will echo around the world” if Ukraine was endangered, specifically citing Taiwan.
On Thursday, Beijing sent nine warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone – a slightly larger than average sortie among the near daily incursions of the last two years. On Wednesday, President Tsai Ing-wen ordered Taiwan’s military and national security apparatus to boost its defences, surveillance, and early warning systems, and to strengthen its already sophisticated responses to cognitive warfare.
Analysts and China watchers say it is unlikely an attack is imminent. This year is politically sensitive for Xi with a once-in-five-years leadership congress, and Taiwan is both more easily defended than Ukraine and more important – strategically and economically – to world powers such as the US.
“The Chinese leadership continues to emphasise that time is on China’s side for cross strait [unification], that trends are favouring China,” says Brookings Institute scholar on China and Asia, Ryan Hass. “That’s an alibi for maintaining the status quo throughout a turbulent year.”
But J Michael Cole, a Taiwan-based China expert, warns there is a danger in assuming autocratic leaders like Putin and Xi are making decisions rationally. “The unimaginable is possible, even if, from our perspective, taking action, in this case launching a war of choice despite the threat of major sanctions, seems irrational.”
In Taiwan feelings are mixed. The crisis has raised questions about Taiwan’s preparedness and the commitment of its friends. The threat of invasion has loomed for decades, but when the day comes Taiwan will need help to survive, and so people are watching closely how the international community is responding to Ukraine.
In the bustle of a Taipei morning market, women are flitting from stall to stall, filling their trolley bags with produce, while sellers shout across the lanes to each other. Bebe, a fruit and vegetable seller, is unloading bags of cabbages from a blue truck onto her bicycle. It is a busy day before the long weekend, but Ukraine is at the top of her mind.
“I’m really concerned about it,” she says from behind a wide straw hat and a face mask bearing the flags of Taiwan, the US, Lithuania, and Japan, with the message: “Thank you my friends.”
“I don’t know if the US is strong enough to help protect Ukraine, so of course I worry about Taiwan.”
Lannie, a 20-year-old student, says she fears that China appears to be helping Russia, and that could mean Russia helps China later on. “I don’t think we will have war today, but now I see everything happening I’m a little bit worried.”
The moment is a litmus test for the US, several analysts say.
“If the US is perceived as indecisive or incoherent or otherwise indifferent to western Europe’s concern about Russia, then that may diminish western Europe’s intention and willingness to help the US in the Indo-Pacific theatre as well,” says Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
Several analysts argue that this week is a wake-up call for all western governments that have been strong on the rhetoric about Taiwan but haven’t yet really had to act.
“International volatility is compelling countries to speak out more clearly about the importance they attach to Taiwan security,” says Hass. “To a certain extent events are providing a bit of a catalyst for coordination.”
Online, many Taiwanese commenters fear those governments have already shown how far they are willing to go, and it is not enough.
“I just hope that the president will strengthen Taiwan’s national defence,” wrote one person on Tsai’s Facebook page. “[In Ukraine] many big countries have done nothing at all except for sanctioning and praying! These countries are unreliable.”
Taiwan’s military is no match for China’s despite billions of dollars in arms purchases from the US. Civilian urban warfare training programmes, similar to those that Ukrainians were filmed practising this week, are still in pilot mode.
On Taiwan’s north-east coast in Yilan, a Ukrainian restaurant owner, Sergei Balagov, is watching the invasion of his home from afar. Balagov’s family are still there: a nephew is in Kharkiv, one of the first cities targeted, an uncle and aunt elsewhere in Ukraine. His brother is in Russia.
“People are ready to meet the invaders,” he says just hours before Russian missiles hit Ukraine. He fears Taiwan’s people are not.
“My feeling is the situation will change drastically in their mind if there are invaders stepping on their country and try to force their will,” he says. “But they need to be more able to fight. Right now … they are quite laid back.”
Recent polling tends to support his concern. A survey taken just prior to the invasion showed more than half of respondents did not fear a war over Ukraine, and 63% did not think Xi would use the distraction to move on Taiwan.
Cole says the crisis could make the threat of war less abstract to the Taiwanese public, and the government should use it to push for a viable reserve force and to encourage citizens to “perhaps dedicate a few weeks/months of their time learning skills that would come in handy in time of emergency”.
Bebe believes it is up to Taiwan to defend itself. “Don’t depend on other nations,” she says, putting her faith in “a strong president” and the will of the people “to protect our country”.
“Taiwan is not China. Absolutely not. That’s very important.”