Many in Taiwan are carefully watching the U.S. response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, seeing parallels to Taipei’s embattled relationship with China, which tests Taiwan’s air defenses almost daily.
Asked how Taiwan would react if the U.S. government does little or nothing to help Ukraine in response to a Russian attack, pro-Taiwan activist Ken Wu said he believes the Taiwanese would “feel definitely disheartened, and also they’ll be disappointed, and they’ll feel that if China invades Taiwan, then that’s exactly how the U.S. will treat Taiwan.”
Wu is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, which lobbies Congress for pro-Taiwan action.
Two threats, three superpowers
Russia has deployed hundreds of tanks, howitzers and self-propelled artillery along with tens of thousands of troops near its land border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Russia annexed Crimea, once a part of Ukraine, in 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show January 23 that the United States is “preparing massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again.”
The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in August, ushering in Taliban rule, raised questions in Taiwan and elsewhere around Asia about Washington’s resolve.
“If the U.S. were to do anything in Ukraine, it would be I guess viewed as an act of redemption, but still I think after Afghanistan, it’s very difficult for countries around the world to be fully dependent on the U.S.,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, although the two sides have been separately ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and retreated to the island.
Beijing has not renounced the use of force if needed to bring Taiwan under its flag. While the U.S. does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Washington sells arms to Taiwan, maintains aircraft carriers in the region and has in place the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which says the United States maintains the capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency recently described Taiwan’s independence efforts as doomed to fail. The report in January quoted Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, saying the Taiwanese leadership was “creating an illusion of the reliability of the United States regarding the situation in the Taiwan Strait.” Beijing has discouraged the U.S. from encouraging Taiwan’s independence.
Views from Taipei
Leaders in Taiwan are already drawing parallels to Ukraine.
“Taiwan has faced the long-term military threat of China and deeply recognizes that rising tensions could trigger war,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei said in a January 27 press statement. “Our government urges all sides to respect Ukraine’s sovereign independence and territorial integrity and oppose one-sided changes to the status quo.”
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told her National Security Council a day later to form a task force that would follow developments in Ukraine.
Close to 60% of Taiwan’s rank and file anticipate help from the United States if attacked by China, Taipei-based CommonWealth Magazine found in a January 12 survey.
“If the U.S. did not defend Ukraine in an attack from Russia this time, I think Taiwanese including me should reassess the U.S. determination on militarily helping Taiwan when it comes to the invasion of China,” said Wang Wei-chieh, a university student and co-founder of the FBC2E International Affairs Facebook page.
In that scenario, Wang said, “Taiwanese should understand that the recent U.S. administration and society are not willing to sacrifice their troops for foreign countries.”
U.S. policymakers ultimately see Taiwan as more crucial to American interests than Ukraine or Afghanistan, says one scholar.
“If Taiwan falls, then the whole of Asia will fall, Korea and Japan and everywhere,” said Shane Lee, a retired political science professor from Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.
Washington sees Taiwan as a core Asia Pacific ally that can help contain the expansion of China, according to James Lee, a researcher with the UC San Diego Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
“If Taiwan were to be taken over and its democracy extinguished, that would be a disaster for the global spread of democratic values,” he said in an interview.
Fabrizio Bozzato, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute, said Taiwan would have nowhere else to look for superpower support if the United States showed weakness on Ukraine.
“In case the U.S. hesitates or declines to take swift action, even military action to counter Russia in Ukraine, there will be a lot of concern in Taipei because it will be an omen of Washington’s indecision, unwillingness, hesitancy to protect Taiwan from an attack or an invasion from China,” Bozzato said.