‘Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow': Is the comparison valid?

“Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” is a phrase often used in Taiwan alluding to the common threats Russia and China represent for both countries. But is that comparison valid?

While Ukraine has been invaded twice by Russia — in 2014 and 2022 — and continues to fight Moscow militarily, diplomatically, and politically, Taiwan has lived under threats of an invasion from mainland China since 1949, but has so far maintained a frozen status quo guaranteeing its peace. Yet Chinese boats and planes regularly violate its waters and airspace, and war rhetoric has escalated particularly since Xi Jinping took power in China in 2012.

So can the situation in Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, be compared to that of Ukraine, with its population of over 40 million and land borders with both Russia and Europe? To answer this question Global Voices interviewed Yurii Poita, a Ukrainian expert on China who is currently based in Taipei as a visiting research fellow at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research. The interview took place over Zoom in Russian after several conversations in Taipei. Poita's answers have been translated and edited for style and brevity.

Yurii Poita. Photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN):  There is a lot of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” talk pointing at the fact that Taiwan should learn from Ukraine’s full-scale invasion by Russia as it cannot exclude a similar attack from China. What do you make of this comparison?

Yurii Poita (YP) I think it is valid because both countries share the same geopolitical context: A large country denies the right of its neighbour to be independent, because it believes it must extend its influence over them, including by using military means. The key question is what do we expect from such a comparison. This also a question Beijing asks itself: It tries to destroy alliances, to demoralize Taiwanese people and their leadership based on the following narrative: “The US caused Ukraine to rebel against Russia, and if you want to avoid becoming a second Ukraine, you must cooperate and compromise with China.”

For Taiwan and the West, this question means that the island must get ready for such a scenario, because deterrence does not always work. Taiwan has learned a lot from Ukraine's experience in many areas including strategy, military readiness, civil preparation in case of war. Regarding strategy, now all scenarios are possible, including things that seemed very unlikely before. Besides, global trade and economic integration are not enough to prevent a war, an important lesson to remember. Words turn into actions: if one country goes on for decades saying that another country has no sovereignty, no language of its own, it can act upon those words. As for the military, Russia and Ukraine represent an invaluable study case for Taiwan to observe the use of weapons and strategies, the notion of asymmetric warfare being deployed in the field, the need of conventional weapons such as tanks and planes, the use of HIMARS system that Taiwan has commissioned, the essential role of and protection against drones, the crucial importance of stocking ammunitions for long periods of times.

Overall, there are more similarities than differences between Taiwan and Ukraine in this regard, and Taiwan's parters are also learning from the Ukrainian experience to provide support to the island.

FN: What do Taiwanese decision-makers focus on when they analyze or discuss Ukraine? And how is Taiwan expanding its relations with Ukraine?

 YP: Taiwan is constantly holding conversations to learn from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It extended military service duration and incorporated the concept of “All round defence.” Of course we can't know all the details, as they fall under state security secrets, thus experts cannot disclose classified information.

One important issue is solidarity in times of war, a topic often discussed in Taiwan when analyzing Ukraine. Ukraine could have easily fallen into opposite camps as a society, given that certains segments of Ukraine were looking rather positively at Russia until February 2022. Yet this did not happen. Taiwan's task is to make sure its society, where people have divergent views on China, remains united in case of an invasion, does not surrender and trusts its government.

Taiwanese experts also often ask why Ukraine was not ready for the invasion, why Russian troops were initially able to enter deep into Ukrainian territory, why Ukrainian population was not evacuated on time, and why air-missiles were not bought on time and in sufficient numbers?

What is often discussed is how Ukraine managed to gain full support from Western allies. Because in the West, the case of Ukraine and Russia is very black and white, and clear: Russia is the aggressor, Ukraine is the victim and needs assistance.  Should China invade Taiwan, which most countries recognized from the point of view of international law, as being part of China, support for Taiwan would not be as black and white as is now the case for Ukraine. That is a substantial difference.

Finally, Taiwanese observers want to know how Ukraine managed to link and manage together defense forces and civil society to prevent an invasion, when it is clear that military troops are not enough and thus, society must also join in the effort as civil defence or as volunteers. The military is usually quite conservative, and very unwilling to open up, so how to reach a point where both sides complete each other is a real challenge. In Ukraine, we managed to train jointly military professionals and civilians.

FN: Beijing remains a key economic and political player in Ukraine, yet Taiwan has provided support. Do you think Kyiv might allow for more space for Taiwan in its political, diplomatic, and economic strategy? What do you make of Ukrainian media’s coverage of Taiwan?

YP: Taiwan has delivered humanitarian help to Ukraine, is developing collaboration at the level of parliaments and mayors. Unfortunately Ukraine has no representative office in Taipei. Technological cooperation could be the biggest space for direct collaboration, because China used to be regarded as a promising partner but given how Beijing supports Moscow, decision makers in Ukraine are looking for new partners, and that could include Taiwan. The media, civil society and the parliament are openly discussing this need for a rapprochement with Taiwan, but now the message needs to be communicated to Ukrainian business as well.

Ukrainian media do cover Taiwan because world media cover it. Even within a year, I see how the coverage has increased. One reason is that China escalates its military threats towards Taiwan, and this resonates deeply with Ukrainians. And if China starts a war, this will have direct consequences for Ukraine: US Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was closely watched in Ukraine because in case of a war in the Taiwan Strait, the world economy would collapse, thus Western support to Ukraine could become problematic or event stop, and the same would be true about military supplies.

I was surprised to see that a CNA [Taiwan's state-owned Central News Agency] visited Lviv in western Ukraine recently and asked people on the street what they think of Taiwan. Many clearly knew about Taiwan and expressed their solidarity with and support to Taiwan.

For more on CNA, read: How do international media portray Taiwan in their coverage? 

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