As goes Ukraine, so goes Taiwan?


At the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine, panic arose as to whether or not China would capitalize on the opportunity to invade Taiwan and address the long-held and potentially war-inducing tensions over the question of Taiwanese independence. However, as the war has continued on without Chinese aggression, it not only seems that it will not encourage China, but may even serve to warn China away from making war as the current situation increases tensions.

China and Taiwan have experienced a fragile peace for decades, with conflicts over Taiwanese independence, an issue stemming from the Chinese Civil War. During the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang (aka the Guomindang or Chinese Nationalist Party) and the communists fought over control over China. Critically, while fighting ended, it ended with no armistice or peace treaty ever being put in place. This left the place of Taiwan in international politics rather unclear. 

To put it simply, the Kuomintang and ROC retreated to Taiwan while the PROC gained control of the mainland, yet neither believed this to be the true order of things. The Kuomintang continued to claim sovereignty over all of China, a stance that became increasingly hard to hold onto as the PROC gained more and more international recognition as the true government of China. Similarly, the CCP defines Taiwan as a part of China, another feeble claim that holds little water given that Taiwan exercises complete domestic autonomy and is not subject to the mainland. 

Over time, conflicting ideas of preserving the status quo, unification, and Taiwanese independence emerged as the main question that would be at the center of Chinese and Taiwanese relations. While China has no control over Taiwan and they both have entirely separate governments, China has used its power on the world stage to deny Taiwan official recognition and status as a country. Currently, only 13 countries recognize Taiwan, and it is excluded from many international organizations, such as the United Nations. 

China’s stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war is unclear, both expressing support for Ukraine and refusing to condemn or distance itself from Russia, with which China had previously declared a cooperation that has “no limits.” What is clear, though, is China’s goal to “resolve the Taiwan issue” by reuniting the two as “one country, two systems,” which it hopes to do peacefully.

However, while a majority of Taiwanese citizens in recent years do not believe that China and Taiwan will go to war, this situation has been followed by complications and preceded by violence which still exists in recent memory. 

My father, who was born in the United States but raised in Taiwan by Taiwanese parents, was alive at a time when this violence was still happening and war did not seem so implausible. Growing up, I had thought that the reason his parents had not renounced his US citizenship so he could become a Taiwanese citizen was because it was a ticket to “the land of opportunity,” or because it was simply more trouble than it was worth.

While this may be part of it, my dad never told me the rest until, when talking about the war in Ukraine, he told me that his parents wanted him to be an American citizen so that if war broke out in Taiwan, he and the family would have a way out.

Relations may have stabilized since his childhood, when China was still shelling Taiwanese lands, but this history and tension is still carried in the memories of current generations.

China’s reluctance to commit to either side or to take decisive action indicates that it may be waiting to see how the war in Ukraine plays out in order to gauge the possible response to an invasion, not only from Taiwan, but also other countries.

Shortly after the initial invasion, Chinese officials reiterated its stance on Taiwan, possibly sensing that there might be an opportunity to further its agenda in Taiwan. This has certainly been a concern for Taiwan, which has recognized parallels between Ukraine and itself. In response, China has increased its presence in the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan has bolstered its defenses in case of an attack

However, as the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, it seems that it may serve as a warning to China in regards to aggression in Taiwan. While the war has been disastrous for the Ukrainian people, it is also no secret that they have managed a far greater defense than Russia anticipated, and that Russia has struggled over sanctions and has plunged into an economic disaster. Rather than a short invasion, Ukraine has held its place for over a month, and China may take this as a sign that Taiwan will not go easily, either.

But whether or not the international community would actually leverage sanctions against China is a gamble which could drive the course of relations between China and Taiwan. While the response to the Russian invasion has certainly caused the Chinese government to think twice, many countries, such as the US, are more reliant on Chinese imports than on Russia. 

Despite some parallels, war between China and Taiwan would look different than what we have seen in Ukraine so far. For one, the situation for refugees would be different. Being an island, Taiwan is both harder to invade, at least in some ways, and harder to escape. Refugees would need to leave by air or by sea and go to a country other than its closest neighbor, a more difficult route than what we have seen in Ukraine. Furthermore, the acceptance of refugees is hard to anticipate because, as many have pointed out, European refugees have been more quickly welcomed into certain countries than their non-European counterparts.

Another important factor is that Taiwan, given that it is not recognized as a country, doesn’t technically have reliable allies. By itself, Taiwan’s relatively small population and military is greatly outnumbered by China, and would desperately need foreign support. Taiwan does have potential allies, though – many of which are sympathetic to Taiwan even if not officially allied, in part because it has often been hailed as a democratic stronghold against authoritarian China.

The possibility of interference from the US has long been a main factor in China’s hesitance to start a war in Taiwan. The US has had friendly relations with Taiwan and a common enemy in China, but it has also been deliberately vague as to its support for Taiwan. It is not unlikely that the US will support Taiwan, either directly or indirectly.

Either way, the US has been selling weapons and other military support to Taiwan, and has agreements that allow, although don’t require, it to support Taiwan in a conflict with China. Thus, Western response to Ukraine doesn’t just help Ukraine, but also Taiwan. 

That being said, US involvement in a way between China and Taiwan would almost certainly escalate the situation, and could push the world into a larger conflict not just between countries, but between great powers, a dangerous game which no party seems willing to risk just yet. 

What is certain, though, is that most Taiwanese people do not wish to be under Chinese rule. They have forged their own identity, viewing themselves not as Chinese but as Taiwanese.

Growing up in America as a child of Taiwanese immigrants, I have learned that there is no proper word to describe the Taiwanese diaspora and what it means to be Taiwanese. I am not Taiwanese in nationality (having been born in the US) nor in ethnicity (as most Taiwanese people are ethnically Han Chinese rather than indiginous Taiwanese).

But even if the exact vocabulary is missing, I know that I am in some way Taiwanese, and I know that, to Taiwanese people everywhere, to be Taiwanese means something other than solely Chinese. 

But at the end of the day, while both may claim vague ideological goals of what the futures of China and Taiwan look like, both sides continue to consider what lengths they are willing to go to. So far, neither has been willing to pay the high costs of war, instead choosing to tread the precarious line between ideals and pragmatism, a delicate balance which could be tipped one way or another by the war in Ukraine. While Russia and Ukraine look to the east to see what their influence will be, China and Taiwan look back towards them also to determine how their conflict will play out, and ultimately, to determine what actions they will take.