EWith apprehension, ric Chung followed the war in Ukraine. “I didn’t think Russia would invade, but they did, so China could do the same. War has become a reality for us,” the 27-year-old engineer says.
Chung has completed the four-month military service required of all Taiwanese men, but he says he doesn’t feel fully prepared for combat if he is called up. For Chung and the other young men who make up the island’s 1.65 million-strong military reserve, the conflict in Ukraine is prompting soul searching about how they would react if faced with an invasion by a People’s Liberation Army that is far larger and better equipped than Taiwanese forces. ”We’re too small,” says 24-year old Jason Hsu. “China would win.”
To resist Russian aggression, hundreds of thousands have been called up as active military personnel in Ukraine’s military reserves. Tens of thousands more citizens joined the Territorial Defense Force. Many Western intelligence and military experts expected Ukraine would fall under the power of the more powerful and heavily-armed Russian army. These forces have been credited with slowing the Russian advance.
Scenes of ordinary Ukrainians defending their homeland have awakened Taiwan’s own spirit of resistance; Taiwan is considering extending the length of military service, and calls have been rising for the government to train civilians. The geopolitical differences between Taiwan and Ukraine are extensive, but Taiwan has long lived under the threat of invasion by mainland China, which views the self-ruled democratic island of 24 million as a rogue province that must be reunited with the rest of the country—preferably peacefully, but by force if necessary.
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An anti-tank line runs along the shore of Lieyu. This is an island in Kinmen, which lies just off the Taiwan/China border.
An Rong Xu—Getty Images
“When the Ukraine war started, people in Taiwan were anxious, but now they’re inspired by Ukraine’s resistance,” says a junior officer in Taiwan’s Republic of China Armed Forces, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
He adds that the war has helped Taiwan’s military leaders see the need to mobilize civilians. Taiwan has yet, however, to set up anything akin to Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, which have organized militias and trained civilians since 2014. Mei-ling Yu is a paralegal aged 50 who hopes that such a force will be established by the government. “If all of us are trained and determined to protect our homeland, the PLA won’t be able to take over Taiwan,” she says. “Even if they invade, we’ll outnumber them.”
Enoch Wu is the founder and CEO of Forward Alliance. This NGO trains civilians in emergency medical skills in case of military or natural disasters. Over 1,000 people are on the waiting list to attend this short workshop.
The military and the reserves are responsible for Taiwan’s defense at the moment. Currently, Taiwan has 169,000 active-duty military personnel, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance. That’s a figure dwarfed by the PLA’s 2-million-strong military. PLA has more than 2400 combat-capable planes, which includes J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter planes. Taiwan boasts 474 combat aircraft and many of its fighter planes are more than a decade old. China also boasts the world’s largest navy, including two aircraft carriers with a third on the way.
Taiwan’s mandatory military service is a requirement for all men in order to boost its defense forces. But, the commitment is only four months—compared to 18 months in South Korea, and about two years in Israel and Singapore. “We only had basic training, but it wasn’t enough.” says Chung. “I’d like to have more training in combat skills and psychological warfare.”
2013 saw the service reduced to one-year. Because of the Russian attack against Ukraine, people are more concerned about cross-strait conflicts. Legislators want to extend the service to one year. A TVBS poll this month shows that 78% support the change, while 56% of those surveyed want it to be extended to women. “Four months is too short; that’s like summer camp,” says 28-year old Young Sun, who served for a year. “A year is sufficient, but China is so much stronger than us. We can only do our best to hold out.”
Hsu, who has completed his four-month service, doesn’t agree with extending the term. He instead believes that Taiwan needs to increase the salary of full-time volunteer military personnel.
Since transitioning to an all-volunteer active-duty force in 2018, Taiwan’s military has fallen short of its recruitment goals. Most Taiwanese don’t see the military as an attractive career—a common way to describe someone who has enlisted is, “he signed his life away.” The starting salary for an entry-level soldier is $1,235 per month, which is 18% less than the average salary of $1,500 on the island.
Ukrainian military volunteers pictured lining up to report to the Kyiv defence battalion in order to defend Kiev’s capital on March 4, 2022.
Mykhaylo Palinchak—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
However, even if Taiwan’s military grows, most analysts say that the island would not be able to stop a full-scale invasion on its own—and Ukraine’s situation has sparked debate over whether anyone would come to Taiwan’s aid. Although thousands of antitank, anti-aircraft and other weapons have been sent by the U.S. to Ukraine by its allies, the Americans and their allies refused to get involved in the fighting and rejected requests to establish a no-fly area that could bring the U.S.-NATO aircraft into conflict with Russian pilots. “The Ukrainian situation has taught us a lesson,” says Alexander Huang, a strategic and wargaming studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Your friend may not be able to send military forces to fight for you or with you.” Former President Ma Ying-jeou, of the opposition Kuomintang Party, has publicly predicted that the U.S. would send weapons, but not troops to defend Taiwan.
Sun, too, worries that the U.S. would not come to Taiwan’s rescue. “I don’t think they’d sacrifice themselves for us.”
The U.S. has long held a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on how it would react if the mainland attacked Taiwan—a policy President Joe Biden’s Administration has continued. The President promised Taiwan defense in answer to queries last October. However, his team was unable to respond. Australia and Japan have been increasingly open to the possibility of becoming involved in military conflicts over Taiwan.
Wang Ting-Yu, the co-chair of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, says that the U.S. should abandon this ambiguity. “The U.S. needs to tell Beijing that if it starts a war, it will pay a price it can’t afford,” he says.
For Taiwan, however, war seems far away. First, unlike Russia and Ukraine, Taiwan and mainland China don’t share a land border, and mounting an amphibious invasion across the 110-mile Taiwan Strait is a far more complex and costly task. Additionally, Taiwan occupies a unique role in the world—with more than 90% of the most advanced microchips being made on the island. Unauthorised invasions of chips production could lead to a global outcry.
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Beijing also tried to disarm comparisons to Ukraine with Qin Gang (the Chinese ambassador to the U.S.), writing in Washington Post that the dispute over Taiwan is an “internal matter” for China. “The future of Taiwan lies in peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and the reunification of China. We are committed to peaceful reunification, but we also retain all options to curb “Taiwan independence.”
Huang says that unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping prizes national stability, but “the long term risk will depend on Xi’s mindset on his legacy.” Xi has promised to complete Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland.
In Taiwan in January 2022, soldiers from Taiwan’s army participated in a Readiness Enhancement drill amid rising tensions between Taiwan and China.
Ceng Shou Yi—NurPhoto/Getty Images
Still, the war in Ukraine, along with China’s increasingly aggressive stance has many Taiwanese people on edge, and thinking about what it would take to defend the island. PLA warplanes dramatically stepped up their incursions into Taiwanese airspace in the last 18 months, with nearly 1,000 flights in 2021, according to Taiwan’s military.
Conscripts in Taiwan are forced to retire at 36 years old from the reserve army, while volunteers can be drafted at 45. Wang the lawmaker says that men over these ages call his office every day to request re-enrolment. At a recent dinner Wang had with successful businessmen in their 50s, he says they all chimed in, “Don’t think we’re too old. Let us have a shot. We want to be trained to defend our homeland!”
Wang adds: “This is unusual. Ten years ago most people wanted to make money, not provoke China. People in Taiwan have learned this spirit from the Ukrainians.”
Chung, the 27-year-old engineer, says he, too, would be proud to fight for Taiwan—despite reservations about his training. “Civilians in Ukraine have joined the war,” he says. “Their immense courage is inspiring. If a stranger came to our home, we would also fight to the end to protect it.”
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