The more I got to know her, the more I came to think that Wang Tzu-Hsuan exemplifies some of the best qualities of young Taiwanese I have met here in Taipei: open-minded, serious but not too serious, spontaneous and thoughtful. At 33, she is different from most surgeons in Taiwan – who are usually older and male – and when many of her medical classmates sought more lucrative careers in the United States, she chose to stay, out of a sense of duty. When she’s not busy in the OR or meeting patients, we chat about food or drink and talk about what’s going on in the world, which for us in Taiwan, where pandemic rules still ban foreign visitors, seems quite remote.
I was surprised when Wang told me during dinner at a local Japanese restaurant izakaya restaurant that she had decided to expand her skills from her usual thyroid, liver, pancreas and bowel surgeries to include trauma, namely gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Gun and bomb violence is almost non-existent in Taiwan, but after spending her whole life without worrying about the possibility of China attacking her homeland, she said she started thinking how she could help if the worst happened. “Although the threat from China has always been there,” she said, “it always seemed so distant to us.”
No more. Seeing the devastation that Russian bombs and missiles wreaked on once-quiet Ukrainian towns, Wang approached local volunteer groups to determine how to prepare a generation of surgeons who had never experienced war for the realities of conflict. The Chinese Communist Party seeks to annex Taiwan, which it claims although it has never ruled it, and to eliminate Taiwanese identity. With a densely concentrated population roughly the size of Florida on a mostly mountainous island that is somewhat larger than Maryland, any attempted invasion by China would result in significant civilian casualties.
Wang is not alone either. Many Taiwanese view the current reality of Ukraine as something that could happen to their homeland. A number of Taiwanese friends and interviewees told me they would stay and fight, while others described family plans to obtain citizenship elsewhere, just in case. The former Taiwanese army commander called for the formation of a territorial defense force to deter China’s ambitions. The war has also intensified political discourse, and Taiwanese politicians are using it to rationalize their view of China: for President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party, it justifies the past five years of arms purchases from states United while developing largely unofficial diplomacy with other democracies; For many in the opposition Kuomintang party, an on-and-off enemy of the Communists over the past century, heightened concerns over an attempted invasion of Beijing highlight the risks of getting too close to Washington.
Taiwan and Ukraine both democratized in the 1990s after years of brutal authoritarian rule. Today, these two young democracies, along with those in Central and Eastern Europe that share similar histories, are most directly affected by expansionist pushes from Russia and China. While the “threat to democracy” posed by the Beijing-Moscow alliance is more ephemeral in older, more established democracies like the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Japan, Ukraine, it manifests itself in widespread death and destruction. In Taiwan and in the European countries of the former Soviet bloc, it is viscerally destabilizing.
Indeed, if there is a frontline in the emerging global clash between democracy and autocracy, it is at the borders of these young democracies, where peoples and governments are changing their behavior in real ways and making tangible sacrifices to maintain their freedoms – from a peacetime surgeon in Taiwan preparing for conflict, to countries neighboring Ukraine donating weapons to help fight Russia.
Whether Ukraine and Taiwan get the support they need to remain sovereign is likely to be a defining geopolitical question for this generation, extending beyond regional political dynamics. Countries in Europe and Asia seem to see this clearly now – note how quickly the Biden administration enlisted Asian allies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and even Singapore to sanction Russia for its invasion from Ukraine. Their willingness to worry about distant Ukraine suggests they believe they might one day seek similar support from Europe, should China come into conflict with any of them.
The vengeful violence that Vladimir Putin unleashed against Ukrainians has not yet arrived in Taiwan, but it has nonetheless shaken the collective conscience. There were multiple protests outside the de facto Russian embassy in Taipei, a solidarity march through the center of the capital and a rush to send money and non-military aid to Ukraine. Tsai’s move to sanction Russia and cut it off from crucial Taiwanese semiconductors is perhaps the most divisive she has had with a major power. (For his part, Putin said in a joint statement with President Xi Jinping on Feb. 4 that Russia considers Taiwan “an inalienable part” of China.)
Just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fueled fears here in Taiwan that a Chinese attack could be more a matter of when that if, the Ukrainian response from the whole society also inspired the Taiwanese to think that if Xi made a move, it would not necessarily end in Chinese victory. “I think Ukraine showed us all a lesson that people in their own country should be prepared to fight for their democracies and their freedom, if it really comes down to it,” Albert Wu, a historian who moved from Paris last year, told me. “Their bravery and resilience was a true inspiration to all of us.”
Ukrainians I know who live here have made similar observations. “I hear from Taiwanese friends that Ukraine is also fighting for Taiwan, and that means a lot,” Oleksander Shyn, a university student living in Taipei, told me. “Because if Ukraine loses, and if the Ukrainian people end up in Putin’s hands, that might inspire China to do that here. So while most people in the world wish us peace, many Taiwanese wish us victory.
The Russian invasion has awakened many of Taiwan’s leaders and its people from a collective slumber, a less than urgent attitude to the threat from Beijing rooted in decades of a poorer China ill-equipped to pull off what would be the biggest amphibious invasion ever. But China’s rapid economic development and resulting naval development are tipping the balance in favor of Beijing.
Last month, Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng proposed extending military conscription for men from the current four months to one year. In a survey conducted in mid-March by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, 75.9% of respondents supported the idea. A senior lawmaker from Tsai’s ruling party floated the idea of imposing compulsory conscription for Taiwanese women for the first time.
Attitudes are also changing at the diplomatic level, with a growing realization in Taiwan and Central and Eastern European countries that the threats they face are part of a global struggle. In recent months, Taipei has seen a flurry of visits from lawmakers from Lithuania, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia, all of which became democracies in the 1990s after being controlled by Moscow. Along with this there was a visit from Jakub Janda, an expert on Russia who arrived here at the end of last year from Prague. The 31-year-old director of a Czech think tank and reservist is on a mission to establish an office in Taipei for the European Values Center for Security Policy, founded in 2005 to protect Czech democracy. Now back in Prague, Janda told me that the struggles against Russian expansionism in Europe and Chinese expansionism in Asia have converged. After the first Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory in 2014, Janda said, his think tank’s focus shifted to protecting European democracy from Russia. In 2018, Beijing’s growing influence in Central Europe led the center to include China in its remit.
Today it is clear, Janda said, that Ukraine and Taiwan are not disparate geopolitical flashpoints, but rather different fronts in the same battle against a new bloc that occupies eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, has taken over and militarized disputed islands in the South China Sea, and subsumes the democracy of Hong Kong. Russia and China have territorial disputes with Japan. Moscow has put the former Soviet states on high alert, while making vague nuclear threats towards Europe. Meanwhile, Beijing is testing the resolve of India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to defend their territory.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the repercussions of a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine are evident: countries formerly under Soviet rule would face a greater threat from Putin, who may continue his adventurism to bolster its support as the Russian economy suffers from sanctions. Citizens of Western democracies, however, are less aware of the importance of Taiwan’s continued sovereignty to the current security order in Asia and beyond.
Geographically, China would control key sea lanes through the South and East China Seas, greatly increasing its ability to exert military pressure in the Western Pacific and political influence around the world. Technologically, Beijing’s jurisdiction over the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing facilities would put China in a dominant position to establish dominant military advantages, expand global economic dependencies and set the standards for the future. technology of mankind.
Politically, “the loss of Taiwan would validate and propel Beijing’s narratives of the inevitability of American decline and the superiority of China’s ruthlessly efficient autocratic system over the inconsistency and disunity of Western-style liberal democracy,” he said. Ivan Kanapathy, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who previously served as deputy senior director of the National Security Council for Asia and US military attaché in Taipei. This, he told me, “would represent a historic strategic shift in global power and influence.”
As in Ukraine, the most important factor in Taiwan’s survival is the will of its people to defend their hard-won democracy. Wang, the surgeon, told me she has already gone from wanting to avoid getting involved in politics to feeling responsible for doing so, and hopes other Taiwanese will too.
“I want to be braver and I’m more willing to express my feelings for my country,” she said. “No matter what happens, I will choose to defend Taiwan.”