Why Ukraine inspires Taiwan
The island nation, facing threats from China, now sees how national unity around democratic identity can led to heroic defense.
The biggest surprise of the war in Ukraine has been the fierce resolve of Ukrainians to defend their national identity. Their civic solidarity, rooted in democratic ideals, not only helped them win the battle for the capital of Kyiv, but also awed the West into sending major weapons for the battles to come. Their unity around shared virtues has been the unseen armor against aggression by Russia.
This lesson in resilience may mean the most to another small country, Taiwan. It faces the threat of invasion from a much larger neighbor, China, that asserts a dubious claim to rule the independent island. A common slogan on Taiwanese social media is “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow!”
Many Taiwanese now ask if they would put up a heroic resistance during the early days of a Chinese assault to buy time and win military support from the United States and others. “We have to insist our principles – democracy, freedom, and the dignity – are what our people desire for,” pro-democracy activist Annette Lu told CNN.
Like the Ukrainians, the 24 million people of Taiwan have only lately shaped an identity around democracy. Their first direct election of a president was 24 years ago. Since 2016, when a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, was elected on a wave of support for retaining independence, China has stepped up military incursions near the island nation.
Taiwan’s economy accounts for a greater percentage of global trade than Russia yet its troop strength is small compared with China’s. While the island has a natural defense in the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, it would need to rely heavily on people’s morale to fend off Chinese forces just enough to gain time for a U.S. response to Beijing.
“The best defense of Taiwan is done by the Taiwanese,” says Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One sign of Taiwan’s new unity is a plan to lengthen the time for active military service from four months to one year, a move widely supported in a poll. Other possible moves include expanding conscription to women and boosting training for the country’s 1.5 million military reservists.
Just before the Ukraine war, nearly three-quarters of Taiwanese told pollsters they would fight for their country if China used force to unify the island with the mainland. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, polls show a significant increase in support in Taiwan for officially declaring independence. In addition, 80% of residents now see their identity as Taiwanese, not Chinese, up from 62% last year. Three decades ago, it was about 18%.
In May, the government plans to change its annual emergency drills for earthquakes and other disasters. People will be asked to also train for a simulated missile attack. Ukraine’s lessons in civic cohesion are finding followers in Taiwan.