Divided Reaction to the Ukraine Invasion in Taiwan

Written by Brian Hioe

Image credit: 高雄愛河灣 烏克蘭 國旗色光效 by 昇典影像 www.dantw.com/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Tsai administration has presented somewhat mixed messaging on the invasion of Ukraine. When questioned by opposition lawmakers, officials such as Premier Su Tseng-chang have rejected comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, stating that the two contexts are sufficiently different and cannot be compared. On the other hand, President Tsai Ing-wen has said that Taiwan stands with Ukraine as a fellow democracy and has condemned Russia’s actions. Contributions from her administration have included the establishment of a relief fund.

More generally, there is a significant amount of public concern over the Ukraine crisis at present in Taiwan. Since the invasion began, solidarity rallies have sometimes been held outside of Moscow’s representative office in Taiwan on a near-daily basis, drawing both Ukrainian and other foreign residents of Taiwan and Taiwanese. Participants have included pan-Green politicians such as DPP deputy secretary-general Lin Fei-fan and independent legislator Freddy Lim.

In discourse, one broadly sees a divide between experts, who point to the differences between Taiwan and Ukraine, and more generalised discourse, in which there are more comparisons ventured. Experts have pointed to the stronger historical relationship between the US and Taiwan, as well as Taiwan’s centrality to global semiconductor manufacturing and the world economy, to show how the US or other regional actors would likely have stronger reactions to an invasion of Taiwan. Likewise, there is a significant difference between the military contexts, given the logistical difficulties of staging a beachhead invasion and the greater loss of life that would occur compared to a land invasion.

As for reactions from the pan-Blue camp, one sees a divergence in messaging from the comparative mainstream, with party chair Eric Chu and preceding chair Johnny Chiang calling for support of Ukraine, and the deep Blues that have struck a very different tone. This can be seen in former chair Hung Hsiu-chu, who recently returned from a trip to China to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, claiming that Taiwan cannot judge whether it is Ukraine or Russia in the right. Former president Ma Ying-jeou, who is increasingly strident in criticisms of the Tsai administration, has also asserted that the Ukraine crisis shows how the US would supply arms at best but not become directly involved in the event of a Chinese invasion, perhaps hoping to cast doubt on the reliability of the US as an ally.

In terms of the economic impact of the Ukraine invasion, these can be divided between global effects and effects that specifically will affect Taiwan. For example, inflation resulting from international sanctions on Russia will be global in nature and not specific to Taiwan. However, the Tsai administration has generally downplayed economic effects insofar as Taiwan conducts less than 1% of annual trade with Russia. To this extent, Russia provides 10% of Taiwan’s natural gas supply, but this is not expected to affect Taiwan significantly, and Taiwan was already pivoting away from using Russia as a supplier.

Taiwan’s semiconductor industry could be affected by the invasion of Ukraine, seeing as most of the global supply of neon is from Ukraine, and 40% of krypton. As Taiwan is the world leader in semiconductor manufacturing and maintaining this advantage is of great importance to Taiwan so that other countries are incentivised to defend Taiwan and because China itself is reliant on Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing. But, if so, this impact is also not limited to Taiwan.

The Tsai administration has sought to reassure the public, stating that it has placed the military on alert. But despite much rampant media speculation in international media of whether Taiwan will be next or if China could take advantage of the chaos while the world’s eyes are on Ukraine to invade Taiwan, a Chinese military invasion would be known far in advance through satellite imagery showing troops massing on China’s coast. After all, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine required a month of Russian forces moving into place before the invasion, and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be significantly more complicated.

The Biden administration has also sought to reassure stable ties remain between the US and Taiwan, quickly dispatching a bipartisan delegation of former defence officials. This was largely overshadowed, in terms of media coverage or red carpet treatment, by a visit from Trump administration former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Otherwise, one expects the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine to accelerate existing trends. China is likely to place greater significance on decapitation strikes that lead to disorganised resistance to avoid protracted conflict. At the same time, it remains a question whether China would be willing to target civilian centres to accomplish this. China will likely also seek to strengthen coordination between various branches of its armed forces to avoid the uncoordinated actions of the Russian military.

China may also redouble focus on information warfare, particularly in light of Ukraine’s successes in controlling the narrative about the invasion, aiming to lower morale and discourage resistance from Taiwan in the event of an attack. The Tsai administration initially warned of Chinese “cognitive warfare” after the invasion. There were fears at the time that a power outage caused by an accident at the Hsingta Power Plant could be a cyberattack from China. For its part, however, China has also evidenced some conflicting messaging regarding Ukraine, in that China has sought to take advantage of the situation to intimidate Taiwan but also does not want to go all-in on unconditionally backing Russia.

There will be greater emphasis placed on boosting asymmetric warfare capacities, with Ukraine seen as having had successes resisting Russia due to its emphasis on asymmetric warfare. However, the Tsai administration has sometimes been criticised for prioritising military hardware purchases that can be touted as achievements more than practical use for asymmetric warfare. Furthermore, there will probably be more discussion of how the public could prepare for dealing with wartime conditions, as in civic resilience training.

But to date, the largest discursive shift is regarding the military draft, with the NPP coming out in support of the draft being extended to one year. Some members of the pan-Blue opposition have seized on the matter to attack the Tsai administration, as in a cross-examination of Premier Su Tseng-chang by Hualien legislator Fu Kun-chi over whether it is necessary to reinstate a yearlong draft. For its part, military officials claim that they will re-evaluate whether a full year’s draft is necessary within the year.

When push comes to shove, political parties may be more hesitant on the issue, seeing as young people are reluctant to serve in the army and could be risk-averse. However, it is to be seen whether the Tsai administration seizes the opportunity to push for an extension of the military draft, or if it passes on the issue, as well as whether it proves willing to increase the military budget–a longstanding demand of the US as a precondition to closer defence cooperation.

Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Ukraine and Russia-Taiwan and China’.

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