The expansion of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” from the Donbas region into the rest of Ukraine caught many by surprise and has alarmed all of Russia’s neighboring countries. Far from the region, the people of Taiwan are also concerned that Chinese leader Xi Jinping may take advantage of a distracted West to invade.
While there are no signs an attack on Taiwan is imminent, the war in Ukraine has created a new sense of urgency in the self-ruled archipelago.
In recent days, President Tsai Ing-wen has ordered the island’s armed forces and security personnel to step up surveillance and strengthen defenses, and discussions are under way to reform Taiwan’s mandatory military service, improving the quality and increasing the time served from four months to at least a year.
How prepared is Taiwan’s military?
Images of Ukrainian civilians waiting in line for Kalashnikovs and reports of success on the battlefield are testament to the courage of the Ukrainians and are proving inspirational to the Taiwanese, who would face similar overwhelming odds when confronting a superior military.
While the “will to fight” is notoriously difficult to judge, a survey released on March 15 by the Taipei-based think-tank Taiwan International Strategic Study Society (TISSS) found that the proportion of Taiwanese respondents willing to fight for their country was 70.2%, a substantial increase from 40.3% in December.
While the polling numbers are hypothetical and subject to changes on the ground during the course of an invasion, the increase is significant.
In Taiwan, this renewed sense of urgency has created the demand for training in war preparedness, such as that offered by the Forward Alliance, which hosts workshops on situational awareness, personal safety, and first aid.
While the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians may have inspired a fighting spirit among the Taiwanese, the TISSS survey indicated tha only 34.7% of those polled believe Taiwan can stand alone against China militarily without support from the US. A similar poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) released on March 22 found only 15.8% of those polled believe it is possible to fend off the Chinese on their own.
One major reason is sheer quantity. China boasts 1.04 million ground-force personnel (with 416,000 in the “Taiwan Strait Area”) against Taiwan’s 88,000 ground forces. Taiwan’s reserve forces may amount to 1.5 million, but there is widespread concern that the reserves have been poorly trained and ill-equipped.
To combat China’s overwhelming air and naval advantage, Taipei would largely need to rely on asymmetric warfare using anti-ship cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles.
How committed is the US?
Chinese propaganda organs and China’s nationalistic netizens have been pushing the idea that since the US did not send troops to Ukraine (a non-NATO country), US troops will not fight for Taiwan. Only 42.7% of those Taiwanese polled by TISSS now believe the US will come to Taiwan’s defense, down from 55.1% in October.
A similar poll by TPOF found that only 34.5% of respondents believe the US military would help defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion, with just 10.5% considering it “very likely.”
Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (which replaced the 1955-1980 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty), it became US policy “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force.”
Despite the lack of explicit commitment to fight for Taiwan, President Joe Biden has twice stated unequivocally that the US would help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Though his administration has backed off these remarks, Beijing assumes in its invasion plans that Washington would send troops.
Probability of Chinese invasion
A document purported to be from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) was recently made public, stating that “Xi Jinping was at least tentatively considering the capture of Taiwan in the autumn” but concludes “after the events in Ukraine, this window of opportunity has shut.”
The unverified document, written by an unnamed Russian analyst, argues that Xi needed a “small victory” to secure a historic third term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the next Party Congress in late 2022.
But at a time when the CPC is calling for stability, as the latest variant of Covid-19 spreads, closing factories and disrupting supply chains, a dangerous gamble on Taiwan seems irrational. Economically, Beijing is not ready to face the heavy economic consequences of a move to take Taiwan and is still a long way off from mitigating the enforcement of potential measures taken by the West.
As we’ve seen with Russia, these measures could include blocking China’s access to most of its foreign-currency reserves, forbidding all trade (including for semiconductor chips and equipment) and financial transactions with China, freezing the assets of senior Chinese officials, denying access of Chinese banks to SWIFT (the global financial messaging system), and seizing Chinese assets within Western jurisdictions.
The extent and rapidity of the imposition of sanctions by an international coalition against Russia must have alarmed Beijing, but China has a greater ability to retaliate against and upset Western consumer markets, so the extent and severity of sanctions might be limited.
Nonetheless, Beijing will need to take further measures to lessen its dependence on Western technology, supply chains, and markets should sanctions be widely adopted by a united front of its trading partners.
Assuming Xi is a rational actor, he will only look to start an invasion if Taipei declares de jure independence, but President Tsai is unlikely to make any significant moves toward independence until the end of her term in 2024.
Xi will also need to be confident his military can conduct a successful and rapid amphibious invasion. China’s military is neither fully modernized (with 2027 as the goal) nor “world-class” (expected by 2049), and Beijing’s confidence must have been dented after witnessing Russia’s superior (on paper) forces fail to take Ukraine swiftly, while suffering innumerable deaths and loss of morale.
Questions also linger over the capabilities of a military that hasn’t been tested since the unsuccessful 1979 border war against the Vietnamese, as well as the will to fight the Taiwanese among Chinese soldiers.
Even a fully capable Chinese military would face difficult circumstances when launching an invasion of Taiwan. Unlike the land border Ukraine shares with Russia, Taiwan is separated from mainland China by a potentially treacherous strait of water at some 180 kilometers wide, with only a handful of suitable amphibious landing spots.
Moreover, two-thirds of Taiwan is covered with 258 peaks over 3,000 meters, and fighting door-to-door in its dense urban areas could be problematic. And there is always the possibility that if the invasion of Ukraine drags on, pent-up anxiety and frustration within the Biden administration and the Pentagon over being handcuffed in Ukraine may result in a much stronger reaction should China attack Taiwan.
For the Taiwanese, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Ukraine is not a country” is reminiscent of Xi’s claim that Taiwan is a province of China. The invasion of Ukraine has fostered an empathetic kinship among Taiwanese and Ukrainians and furthered in both nations a sense of an independent identity separate from their larger neighbor.
The severity of the invasion has also served as a wake-up call to Taiwan’s military and citizens. Despite indications that the US commitment to defend Taiwan is “rock-solid,” Taipei knows it needs to press forward with reforming its military and civil preparedness.
Finally, if Xi had any plans to invade in the immediate future, these plans have no doubt been delayed after the stunning success of the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Although the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians in some places has been able to hold off or drive back the Russians, the invasion is still in its early days, and Taiwan needs to prepare now should escalation occur or an eventual victory by Russia changes Xi’s calculus.
Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.
Follow Gary Sands on Twitter @ForeignDevil666.