As Ukraine fought a bloody battle to prevent Russian forces from seizing its capital Kyiv in the first two weeks of the war, the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society was polling residents of the island to see if they too would be willing to fight in the event of a Chinese assault.
The findings were striking. Just over 70 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to take up arms, a dramatic increase from the 40 percent who expressed that opinion in a survey conducted in late December.
But the majority expected self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by China as sovereign territory, to have to fight alone – the proportion expecting support from the United States slumped to 42 percent from 55 percent in October 2020, with 47 percent now saying they expected the United States to avoid direct intervention.
They did not expect to win – only 36 percent believed Taiwan had the ability to stand up to an assault from mainland China without US support.
No one knows what has truly happened to those numbers since, as the war in Ukraine has entered its third month and Western nations that expected a swift fall of Kyiv increased arms shipments and openly talked of helping inflict a damaging defeat on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What is clear, however, is that the authorities in Taipei have been paying close attention to events on the ground in Eastern Europe – as, most likely, have their counterparts in Beijing.
Last week, Lin Wen-huang, head of the Taiwan defense ministry joint operations department, announced that the island's largest annual Han Kuang military exercises in May and June would specifically "draw on the experience" of the Ukraine war.
China has never renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification with Taiwan, which raised its military alert level following the Feb. 24 Ukraine invasion. But officials say they have seen no evidence Beijing is on the brink of something imminent. Chinese rhetoric, however, has intensified sharply in the last two years, as has Beijing’s military activity around Taiwan’s maritime and air borders.
Taiwan officials and media say they have learned multiple lessons from Ukraine’s existential fight, from the effectiveness of relatively cheap anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to keeping electrical systems and the internet running and ensuring regular, reserve and paramilitary forces can fight together well in urban areas.
Much Taiwan media commentary has focused on the importance of the clear and visible leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to Taiwan media, that has been enough for authorities on the island to rethink plans to shelter President Tsai Ing-wen deep within a bunker in the event of an attack, instead focusing on keeping her visible to maintain civilian morale and reach out to potential allies and backers abroad, particularly in the United States.
Whether Beijing would let that happen is another question – strategists in Taipei and Washington believe China would try to “decapitate” Taiwan’s leadership in the opening stages of any war, a conclusion likely further reinforced by events in Ukraine this year.
Since March, Tsai has argued that the invasion of Ukraine – which she said “jeopardized world order” – was a strong argument for greater US support for Taiwan. Washington, Taiwan's biggest ally and arms supplier, has always maintained a position of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would defend the island, but Taiwan argues events in Ukraine simply suggest that approach may make war more likely in the end.
According to Taiwan media, other lessons from the Ukraine war include the importance of protecting electronic and communications infrastructure, both internet and broadcast – Ukraine’s broadcasters pulled resources at the beginning of the war to keep pro-government stations on the air despite Russian strikes against transmitters.
Even before the war, Taiwan was making unambiguous comparisons with similar existential threats facing former Soviet states in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Like those countries, it is building its reserve forces – the invasion prompted a dramatic uptick in support for extending Taiwan’s national service to a year.
The conflict has seen considerable government and public support for Ukraine in Taiwan – pro-Ukrainian demonstrations are scheduled this weekend in three Taiwan cities ahead of Russia’s May 9 “Victory Day” parade to commemorate the end of World War Two, amid concerns Putin might call for mass Russian mobilization and the destruction of Ukraine.
But Taiwan is also aware its plight is very different, bringing both advantages and different challenges. Russian troops were able to attack across their long land borders with Ukraine, while China would need to cross the Taiwan Strait. But while weapons have poured across Ukraine’s borders throughout the war, Taiwan’s geography makes it much vulnerable to a blockade from foreign support – at least if Beijing is willing to sink ships.
The loss of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship the Moskva last month offers a stark reminder of the effectiveness of anti-ship missiles. Once ashore, Chinese forces might face even more brutal large-scale urban battles, with Ukraine a reminder of how fast human costs can mount once heavy weaponry is unleashed.
It is a fight Taiwanese are openly preparing for, buying 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks by 2027, US F-16 fighter jets and US-made artillery, although a “crowded” production line is said to be slowing the delay of the latter.
The rapid consumption of US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles in Ukraine is also likely to delay supplies for Taiwan, even as Taiwan itself clamps down on the sale of microchips to Russia to reduce Moscow’s ability to use them in its missiles.
In Taiwan, few doubt that Beijing is also watching the Ukraine war closely for lessons – surprised and alarmed by both Russian losses and the speed and aggression of international sanctions.
That may nudge China back towards non-military solutions to its “Taiwan problem” – or prompt it to conclude that if it ever does choose to act, it may need even more overwhelming and devastating force.