Ukraine’s resistance offers Taiwan a useful lesson


Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught some useful lessons to the world’s autocrats:

Invasions can be harder than they look.

It is unwise to go to war with an army that has not had much practice against serious opponents.

The United States and its allies may appear divided, but they can still pull together in a crisis.

And when ordinary people decide to defend their homeland, they are surprisingly good at fighting back.

These lessons could have practical implications half a world away from Ukraine in the standoff between China and Taiwan.

Since taking power in 1949, retaking Taiwan has been one of the main goals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. China’s President Xi Jinping regularly reiterates that he intends to return Taiwan to the motherland – peacefully if possible, if not by non-peaceful means.

It is reasonable, then, to assume that Xi and his aides have paid close attention to the problems their quasi-ally Vladimir Putin has encountered in his brutal campaign to restore Russia’s control over its smaller neighbor, Ukraine.

In some ways, Taiwan seems like an easier target than Ukraine. It’s smaller – 24 million people, not 44 million. Its military is only a tenth the size of China’s, and it has not built up the kind of territorial defenses that Ukraine is currently using with great success. Meanwhile, China’s Navy and Marine Corps (yes, so they say) have spent decades working on the ability to conduct amphibious assaults against an island like Taiwan.

But Taiwan has advantages that Ukraine did not have.

The Taiwan Strait is more than 100 miles wide, which would make an amphibious invasion daunting.

Taiwan has a US security obligation — not as strong as the treaty that obliges the US to defend NATO allies, but more so than Ukraine. (President Biden specifically mentioned it in his conversation with Xi on Friday.)

Finally, the United States has a more direct economic interest in Taiwan than in Ukraine; Taipei is a key trading partner, producing more than half of the world’s high-end microchips.

“What we saw in Ukraine raises serious questions for China about the risks of military activity against Taiwan,” Georgetown University’s Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council official, told me last week.

“China’s theory was that if we have to use force, it will be quick and successful, and the West needs China more economically than Taiwan. All of these assumptions are now in question.”

But there have also been important lessons for Taiwan.

The biggest surprise in Ukraine, besides the poor performance of the Russian army, was the success of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, their army of reservists and unevenly trained civilians.

“This is Ukraine’s real lesson for Taiwan: you need civilians who know how to use a gun,” said Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the German Marshall Fund. “Taiwan could easily do something like that, but they haven’t.”

US defense planners have long urged Taiwan to pursue a strategy they call “asymmetric defense” – recognizing China’s vast advantages in terms of manpower and equipment, and aimed at increasing the cost of an invasion. The goal, wrote the retired Adm. James Stavridis recently, it should be to turn the island into “a porcupine – a prickly and indigestible entity that could discourage China from using violence”.

But for much of the past decade, Taiwan has been moving in the opposite direction: reducing the size of its regular army and reducing the training of its reserves. It invested in high-end weapons loved by militaries, like F-16s and Abrams tanks, rather than more mundane tools that might deter a ship intruder: anti-aircraft weapons, anti-ship missiles, and advanced mines.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has echoed the US argument, at least rhetorically.

“The recent situation in Ukraine proves that alongside international support and assistance, the unity of our people is essential to protect our country,” she said recently.

But progress was slow. Tsai has promised to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic project from the current 2.1% (the US spends about 3.5%). But even after Taiwan’s lawmakers approve more defense spending, it will still be more than five years before that happens.

Thus, US officials privately imposed another lesson on Ukraine: the United States and other countries can help Taiwan in self-defense, but only if the Taiwanese show they are ready and willing to fight.

“People love a fighter,” noted Elbridge Colby, a former senior defense official in the Trump administration. “If Ukraine collapsed, international support for her would not happen.”

The longer Ukraine shows that a determined population can make an invasion costly, it’s giving small countries like Taiwan a model on how to defend themselves – and, with any luck, deter the next invasion before it begins.

If so, the terrible toll of the war in Ukraine may have at least one positive side effect: it’s entirely possible that this conflict has reduced the likelihood of conflict in Asia. Ukraine’s resistance offers Taiwan a useful lesson

Grace Reader

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