Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to an extensive debate on the looming threat over Taiwan from China. The question, ‘what if Taiwan is next?’, is discussed widely now. And with this, the need for preparing for an imminent invasion is emphasised, even if it seems unlikely.
Of course, drawing parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine is not suitable. However, there is no denying that the recent developments have made people in Taiwan jittery about the future of Taiwan, and some have started believing that China might take a cue from the Russia-Ukraine crisis. This is one of the reasons why Taiwan has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine. From sending aid to Ukraine to organising solidarity rallies for the country with Taiwanese legislatures and officials in attendance, Taiwan is demonstrating its strong support.
China's Coercive Exercises
Taiwan’s support for Ukraine was best manifested in President Tsai Ing-wen’s words: “As a member of the global partners of democracy, Taiwan is not absent, and we fully support Ukraine.” It was also announced that Tsai, along with Taiwan’s Vice-President and Premier, will donate one month’s salary each towards Taiwan’s humanitarian relief efforts for Ukraine. In a matter of three days, Taiwan was able to collect $7.46 million through public donations and $100 million through the government-initiated and monitored account at the Disaster Relief Foundation.
Even though the situation has worsened in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, it has not stopped China from militarily coercing Taiwan by sending military aircraft to the latter’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) on a daily basis. Such moves have become a routine exercise for China, which may or may not be in response to countries’ support for Taiwan.
Such events have also renewed discussions about the United States’ commitment to Taiwan in an event of Chinese invasion. While the United States has taken several steps to strengthen its commitment to Taiwan, several in the country have called for the government to boost its self-defence.
In view of the threat from China, in January, an additional sum of $8.6 billion was approved by the Taiwan legislature to be added to the country’s annual defence budget of $17 billion for 2022.
Is the US a Reliable Partner?
The United States sent a delegation of former high-ranking officials to Taiwan last week. Even though such visits are planned much in advance, the timing was crucial to reassure Taiwan of the United States’ commitment towards the country. From 2 March to 5 March, former United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was also on a visit to Taiwan. Though the visit had nothing to do with the current US administration, Pompeo’s statements were controversial enough to generate a debate regarding the US-Taiwan ties.
During his public address, Pompeo stated that “the United States should immediately take necessary and long-overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing, that is to offer the Republic of China [Taiwan] America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country”. While this does not seem to be a possibility in the time to come, the current US policy of strategic ambiguity does not really clarify what role the US will play in an event of cross-strait tensions, apart from issuing statements and sanctions.
Even though the US is attempting to assure its Asian allies and partners that the crisis in Europe will not impact its commitment and policies in the Indo-Pacific, this seems inevitable. In this context, Taiwan will be the most affected given it looks up to the US for support and assistance vis-à-vis China.
Having said that, it is unlikely that China will go for a full-blown conflict unless it is assured of a result in its favour. But Taiwan should take lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war and revisit its policies and options – it should formulate a policy that is not dependent entirely on the US.
If America is still hesitant in opting for a direct confrontation with Russia, there is no guarantee that it would change its stance in the case of China.
Options for Taiwan
As the situation becomes more precarious, Taiwan needs to revisit its policies and make amendments in both its domestic considerations and external outreach. But what are Taiwan’s options here?
First, it has to focus on eventually becoming self-sufficient and boosting its defences against China. Relying on the US for a security guarantee may not be entirely prudent in the long term.
Second, Taiwan’s decision to stand with Ukraine resonates well with its current situation and stand regarding authoritarianism. Taiwan has been promoting democratic values and has even been exchanging ideas with the world on how to ensure a free and open world. Its support for Ukraine shows a greater understanding of the similar challenge the two countries face – an aggressive and authoritarian neighbour. Ratcheting up its support for Ukraine and working with like-minded countries to ensure a rules-based order will prove beneficial for Taiwan.
Third, it is vital for the country not to get carried away. It must refocus on diversifying its relations with regional countries. The New Southbound Policy seeks to reinforce Taiwan’s relations with the countries such as India and Australia. As it enters its second phase, injecting vigour into the policy is the need of the hour.
With the Ukraine crisis, the US’ focus is bound to shift from the Indo-Pacific to Europe. In such a situation, the countries of the region, including Taiwan, have no option but to recalibrate their regional ties.
Why Like-Minded Countries Should Unite
Even if Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support in the US, its geography does not allow it to take its regional partnerships for granted. Though several have criticised India for not being forthcoming enough towards Taiwan, that is not entirely true. In this context, raising the stakes in regional ties so that countries such as India openly advocate for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is important. Here, Taiwan should perhaps try to improve the commercial aspect of relations so that India sees merit in changing its approach.
For the advocates of the Indo-Pacific, it is crucial to understand that with Taiwan, it should be a two-way process. The onus also lies on like-minded countries in the region to admit that supporting Taiwan is in their best interests and that this will eventually lead to stability in the Indo-Pacific.
(Sana Hashmi is Visiting Fellow at Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and affiliated scholar with Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Japan. She is the author of China’s Approach toward Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects. She tweets @sanahashmi1. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)