TAIPEI—When technology entrepreneur Schee Tzu-han convened a meetup early last month in the Taiwanese capital to talk about how citizens of the self-governing island should respond in the event of a Chinese invasion, fewer than 20 people showed up.
In the days since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, interest among Taiwanese in civil defense has reached “tsunami levels,” said Mr. Schee. More than 200 people have called or sent him messages seeking advice on first aid and physical training. “Everyone is aware of what’s happening in Ukraine,” he said.
The psychological impact of the war in Ukraine has hit hard in Taiwan, a small democracy that, like Ukraine, lives under the cloud of conflict with a vastly more powerful authoritarian neighbor. News from the battlefront some 5,000 miles away has dominated headlines and airwaves on the island. Pundits, government officials and ordinary citizens are using the opportunity to imagine what a similar conflict would look like for its population of 23 million.
One of the most concrete responses, according to residents and political analysts, has been the amount of fresh public attention paid to the island’s defenses—a topic that has often appeared of greater concern to foreign military analysts than to the Taiwanese public itself.
“Ukraine is a revelation for Taiwan,” Cheng Hung-yi, a political commentator who supports Taiwanese independence, said on a recent talk show, echoing a sentiment expressed across Taiwanese traditional and social media in recent days.
The parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan aren’t perfect. Unlike Ukraine, which shares a long land border with Russia, Taiwan is separated from China by rough seas that security experts say will make an all-out invasion a challenge for Beijing. Taiwan is also the world’s leading supplier of advanced semiconductors, a status that many on the island hope will buy it an added measure of support from countries whose technology supply chains depend on it.
But just as Mr. Putin argues that Ukraine is an artificial construct, Chinese leaders in Beijing see Taiwan as merely a part of China, and have vowed to take control of it by force if necessary. Like Ukraine’s military, Taiwan’s defenses would face a vastly larger and better-equipped foe in the event of an invasion.
While there are no indications that China plans to launch an invasion of Taiwan in the near future, Beijing has raised tensions by ratcheting up displays of military might around the island. In response to tightening ties between Washington and Taipei, China’s People’s Liberation Army has sent jet fighters and bomber aircraft on sorties near Taiwan’s airspace on a nearly daily basis over the past two years.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine has led political analysts in the U.S. and Taiwan to ponder whether Washington might be so distracted by Mr. Putin that it takes its eye off Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his designs on Taiwan.
The U.S. has recently taken moves to reassure Taiwan—and warn Beijing. The Navy destroyer USS Ralph Johnson passed through the Taiwan Strait this past weekend. President Biden followed up on Tuesday by sending a delegation of former military officials on a two-day trip to Taipei.
“We come to Taiwan at a very difficult and critical moment in world history,” Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the delegation, told Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. “Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a U.S. interest, but also a global one.”
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the visit during a regular press briefing on Wednesday. “It is futile for the United States to send anyone to demonstrate its so-called support for Taiwan,” he said.
The situation in Ukraine has focused even more attention on Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told lawmakers this week that the Ukraine war had spurred the island’s military to strengthen its combat-readiness training.
The war has also reignited debate in Taiwan about military conscription—a matter Mr. Chiu said the military was willing to revisit.
Taiwan currently requires four months of mandatory service from men, down from the roughly two-year-long requirement more than two decades ago. While military experts have said the current conscription system is too short to provide adequate training, extending military service has long been a thorny issue for the government due to its unpopularity.
“Many people complain that serving in the military is a waste of time, but I think that’s faulty logic,” a Taiwanese author and social-media influencer who goes by the name Littelifer wrote on Facebook, reflecting on the Ukraine crisis. “It’s a waste of time because the training is poor. What you should do instead is to enhance the quality of training and not drop it.”
Yeh Yao-yuan, who teaches international relations at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said reports of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce defense has sparked questions about how Taiwan would fare under a Chinese attack.
“Can we show a stronger attitude to China that it will face the same resistance?” Mr. Yeh asked. “Many in Taiwan are reflecting on this question.”
The war has forced the Taiwanese government into a balancing act, according to Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine has helped Ms. Tsai highlight the possibility of a Chinese invasion to a local population that often dismisses Beijing’s threats as empty. At the same time, he said, “the government also wants to avoid sparking a panic.”
Taiwan’s government has repeatedly stressed that the situations facing Taiwan and Ukraine are “fundamentally different,” though Ms. Tsai has also offered plenty of moral support for Ukraine, sharing photos of Taiwanese landmarks lighted up with the gold and blue of the Ukrainian flag.
“The determination of Ukrainians has moved the world, making Taiwanese feel the same,” she said in a speech to members of the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Wednesday.
That new sentiment has manifested itself in the recent flowering of civic efforts to improve the island’s resilience in the event of war, including the efforts of Mr. Schee, the entrepreneur, who says he is planning another civil defense meetup—his fourth—this month because of the swelling interest.
A day after Russia invaded Ukraine, dozens of people filled up seats at a two-and-a-half-hour seminar on the war’s lessons for Taiwan organized by Kuma Academy, a newly established nonprofit that offers courses on civil defense.
“There’s been an impression in the past about Taiwanese being unwilling to fight and only relying on the U.S. troops for help,” said Ho Cheng-hui, a researcher at Taiwan Association for Strategic Simulation and one of Kuma Academy’s co-founders. “That’s not right. Taiwanese people are willing to defend themselves.”
All of the nearly 50 slots in a two-day crash course on modern warfare that the group plans to host later this month were filled less than 24 hours after it was announced.
“What we can do right now is to get ready,” said Chiang Chia-hung, a 25-year-old graduate student studying international relations, while participating in a small rally in support of Ukraine outside Russia’s de facto embassy in downtown Taipei last week. “We’re also telling the world that we stand with the values of freedom and democracy.”
Write to Joyu Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org
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