What Ukraine Means for Taiwan


Bella Roth, Contributor

Image Credit: Photo by “Just Click’s With a Camera” on Flickr

For decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has laid claim to their neighbor, the Republic of China (otherwise known as Taiwan), under the “One China” policy. More recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought greater attention to the Taiwan conflict given parallels between the two situations. 


Taiwan is an independent country with its own constitution, democracy, and military, yet the PRC and most of the world diplomatically regards the island as a breakaway province from the one Chinese government in Beijing since the end of the Second World War. Over time, as the PRC has emerged from decades of Maoist isolation while steadily growing more powerful, Taiwan has developed independently from their cross-strait neighbors into a de-facto independent state. In the past year, the PRC has increased its efforts of reining in Taiwan, and tensions between the two have swelled to levels unprecedented in the 21st century. 


The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has added another layer to tensions between Taiwan and the PRC as Russian President Vladimir Putin tests the waters of NATO involvement in international armed conflict. Leaders and the public on both sides of the Taiwanese strait closely watch as a “parallel” situation plays out in Europe. Enoch Wu, a member of Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party, asserted that Taiwan and Ukraine face the same threat of “a revisionist power claiming another sovereign country as its own.” Many in Taiwan see Russian action as a potential “wake up call” to the PRC and world leaders regarding the potential for armed conflict and its consequences. Taiwanese headlines can be found reading “Ukraine Today, Taiwan tomorrow?”. 


Thus far, Taiwan has not reported any irregularities in PCR action since Russia’s invasion. However, the last year has been particularly turbulent for Taiwan and China. Although 95% of the Taiwanese population is ethnically Chinese, less than 2% of people in Taiwan identified as simply Chinese in 2021; about a twelfth of the percentage thirty years ago. As a result, the PRC’s bid to “reunify” Taiwan with mainland China has intensified, resulting in a record 969 intrusions into Taiwanese airspace by Chinese warplanes this year. This is almost triple the roughly 380 intrusions the year before. 


The official goal of the PRC is a “one country, two systems” policy set up similarly to that of Hong Kong and China, in which the mainland has great influence on Taiwan’s policies and economy. 


PRC President Xi Jinping said in 2021 that unification could be achieved in a “peaceful manner” which is “most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots”. However, Xi was not hesitant to add that “no one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He has not ruled out the use of force as a method of reunification as flyovers and military tests continue with growing frequency. The talk surrounding potential armed conflict in Taiwan has only grown with recent events in Ukraine.


International concerns with recent events surrounding Ukraine have led to two different conclusions on the situation in Taiwan. The aggression between Ukraine and Russia has both the potential to deter or to encourage more aggressive PRC action towards Taiwan. On one hand, the direct invasion of Ukraine has failed to mobilize NATO or any of its constituent nations. Russian forces have been fairly successful in their invasion, reaching the Ukrainian capital in a number of days. However unsurprising, the success in the Russian invasion and the lack of international military involvement might be a positive signal to China.


On the other hand, thousands of Russian deaths have already been reported in Ukraine, and Ukraine has put up a surprisingly substantial defense. Brenton Kenkel, a Vanderbilt University professor of crisis diplomacy, says that the success of Ukrainian forces “is a reminder that it’s hard to seize cities and especially hard to do so in the face of nationalist resistance, which at the margin would tend to deter China from taking military action against Taiwan.” Kenkel also points out the surprising severity of international sanctions on Russia, and how the “higher-than-expected level of coordination around fairly stringent economic punishment” could potentially be another deterrent to Chinese action against Ukraine. 


While the situations are not directly comparable, there is no doubt that both PRC and Taiwanese leaders have been taking note of events in Ukraine, and that these events have pushed the Taiwan conflict to the forefront of the international stage. There is certainly fear that the Ukrainian invasion and its disregard for international norms might be the tipping point in encouraging President Xi to take more aggressive action, but there is also evidence that the surprising results of the Russian invasion could discourage further conflict. Only time will tell how the events in Ukraine will impact the Cross-Strait conflict.