Taiwan Watches Ukraine With an Eye Toward Security at Home

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Taiwan Watches Ukraine With an Eye Toward Security at Home

Taiwan’s government is on alert for ripple effects from the Russian invasion in the form of “cognitive warfare” and economic difficulties.

Taiwan Watches Ukraine With an Eye Toward Security at Home

President Tsai Ing-wen inspects the 32nd Han Kuang military exercises in Pingtung County, Aug. 25, 2016.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

As tensions – and Russian troop numbers – mounted along the Ukraine border over recent weeks, Asia-focused analysts have wondered about the implications for Taiwan. Some argued that a lack of U.S. resolve or decisive action in response to Russia’s invasion would embolden China to seize control of Taiwan by force. Others downplayed any similarities, arguing that the U.S. was reluctant to take a more active stance on Ukraine’s defense precisely because Washington needs to keep its attention on the Indo-Pacific.

But what does Taiwan’s government think of the Russian invasion and the implications for Taiwan?

Unsurprisingly, given both Taiwan’s own self-identity as a peaceful, rule-abiding democracy and its close (albeit unofficial) relationship with the United States, Taiwan’s government spoke out against Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“The people & government of #Taiwan strongly condemn #Russia’s military aggression against #Ukraine,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted on the morning of February 24, as Russian troops moved into Ukraine. It ended the tweet with the hashtag “#StandWithUkraine.”

“Taiwan condemns Russia’s infringement on Ukrainian sovereignty & encourages all parties involved to resolve their disputes rationally & peacefully,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted on February 23, before the large-scale invasion began.

That stance was the outcome of a National Security Council meeting held on February 23. According to a summary of the NSC meeting by Presidential Office spokesperson Xavier Chang, “Our government condemns Russia’s infringement on Ukraine’s sovereignty—infringement which has led to increased tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, and calls on all parties to continue working peacefully toward a rational resolution to the dispute in order to jointly uphold peace and stability in the region.”

Taiwan, along with other U.S. allies and close partners, is looking into possible sanctions to hold Russia to account for its invasion. According to the Taipei Times, the Ministry of Economic Affairs was considering sanction options, including a possible ban on semiconductor exports.

More than the international implications, though, the NSC discussed the potential for the crisis to directly affect Taiwan in three ways: physically (through the potential for military action in the Taiwan Strait), psychologically (through disinformation campaigns and “cognitive warfare”); and economically (through disruptions to supply chains, stock markets, and commodity prices).

The worst-case scenario, posited by some analysts, is that China might use the chaos and distraction caused by a Russian invasion of Ukraine to try to seize Taiwan by force. It’s worth noting that there has been no sign of a military build-up on China’s east coast that would presage any large-scale military action. However, the Tsai administration sought to reassure its people (and the world at large) that it is carefully monitoring the situation in the Taiwan Strait even as Russian bombs fall on Ukraine.

“Our national security agencies and military remain on top of the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific region at large,” the NSC meeting summary said. “However, our national security agencies and military must ramp up their efforts to monitor and provide early warning of military developments in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding areas…”

The Tsai administration wants to signal that it is monitoring the situation closely, but its statement does not indicate immediate concern about military action.

A more likely threat is the possibility for China to attempt to use the war in Ukraine to spread disinformation and foment pessimism about Taiwan’s future. Beijing has a long history of running disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwan – sometimes with the specific goal of swaying public support ahead of an election, but sometimes with the more general purpose of sowing political divisions and dissatisfaction.

Taiwan’s government expects a similar campaign to piggyback on the Ukraine crisis. The NSC meeting readout took pains to stress that Taiwan and Ukraine are not analogous: “In terms of geostrategic factors, geography, and the importance of our role in international supply chains, the situations in Taiwan and Ukraine are fundamentally different.” That said, the readout notes the potential for the crisis in Ukraine to affect “morale among the people of Taiwan.”

“[O]ur government agencies must step up their guard against cognitive warfare from external forces as well as their local collaborators, and must strengthen efforts to clarify disinformation in order to ensure Taiwan’s domestic social stability,” the read-out said.

Finally, Taiwan’s government shares similar concerns with many fellow resource-constrained Asian nations about the potential for the Ukraine conflict to drive up prices, particularly in the energy sector. Taiwan relies on Russia for about 17 percent of its coal imports and 14 percent of LNG imports.

At the NSC meeting, Tsai directed her administration to “[c]ontinue responding to economic developments while ensuring the stability of our supply of goods, commodity prices, and stock and foreign exchange markets.”

The NSC meeting summary makes clear that while Taiwan’s government wants to be prepared for a military contingency, it has its eye on other knock-on effects from the crisis in Ukraine. We shouldn’t let the remote possibility that China will launch a copycat invasion overshadow the far more likely, if more prosaic, ways the war in Ukraine will impact Taiwan. The Russian invasion of Ukraine will have ripple effects around the world, Taiwan included.