For many in Taiwan, the Russian attack on Ukraine hits close to home due to parallels with their own situation. The island’s people live under constant threat from a powerful authoritarian neighbor, China, who claims sovereignty over democratic Taiwan and promises to conquer it by force if necessary.
Chuang, who served in Taiwan’s military in the 1990s, is among a small group of Taiwanese volunteers in Ukraine for whom the war is a chance to bring home battlefield experience – where the debate rages over the island’s military readiness – and show the international community that Taiwan is worth defending.
“I want the world to see that we are not the kind of people lying on the ground waiting to be rescued. If you want people to help you, you must help them first,” Chuang said.
Taiwanese leaders try to quell fears of Ukraine’s invasion, but citizens worry their island will be the next
It is not known how many Taiwanese there are in Ukraine. Volunteers interviewed by The Washington Post estimate that about 10 of their countrymen have joined the war effort.
Taiwan officials warn that war in the Taiwan Strait, the 100-mile-wide corridor between China and Taiwan, is not imminent. Officials point to differences between Taiwan’s situation and Ukraine’s, including the island’s geostrategic importance and close relationship with the United States. In May, President Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of an attack by China before the White House withdrew his statement and maintained a long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity over the scope of US aid.
Still, the possibility of an attack from Beijing is greater as Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to take on a third term this year, heralding a critical period to cement his legacy. With China increasingly at odds with Western countries and continuing with an ambitious military build-up, several observers are worried that Xi will take inspiration from his friend and partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For Pan, 26, a volunteer fighter from Hsinchu who previously served in Taiwan’s special forces and the French Foreign Legion, these concerns motivated him in April to join the International Legion for Ukraine.
“When the war broke out in Ukraine, I hurried over as soon as I could,” said Pan, who gave his surname only for security reasons.
He said he has been struck by how the Ukrainian military values soldiers with special skills. As they provided coverage for drone pilots who reconnoitered at the front lines, Pan said they received orders to protect the pilots at all costs.
“In Taiwan, our electronic warfare specialists are secondary to the traditional army, and [the military] still promotes the use of bayonets, ”he said. Pan hopes to open a boot camp when he returns and pick up some of his comrades from Ukraine to teach Taiwanese civilians how to defend themselves.
Taiwan has been living under military threat from Beijing since Chinese communist forces defeated the nationalists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, causing the nationalists to flee to Taiwan and form a rival government. Some Taiwanese islands experienced periodic shelling by Chinese forces throughout the 1970s. For most residents, war remains a distant memory and an abstract possibility.
Now, Ukraine’s situation has renewed questions about the possibility of attack and Taiwan’s overall defense strategy, while strengthening calls for a review of the role civilians would play in a conflict. It has also highlighted concerns about the quality of training in the Taiwanese military, which require most men to perform four months of service.
Biden promises to defend Taiwan militarily if it is invaded by China
The government has expanded its reservist training program, raised its level of preparedness and said that this year’s most important military exercises will be informed by the Ukraine war and focused on asymmetric warfare. Last month, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan was “inspired by Ukraine” to strengthen its defenses.
But these steps may not be enough to repel a far more powerful adversary like China. Taiwan’s compulsory military service is often compared to a summer camp, where recruits spend more time doing little work than learning combat skills. The tactics taught are comparable to those used during the 1991 Gulf War or the Vietnam War.
“The biggest questions are: What kind of war are we going to fight now? Can our equipment, military units and training match the kind of war we will have to fight? ” said Lin Ying-yu, associate professor of Asia-Pacific Affairs at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University.
For soldiers from Taiwan, the Ukraine conflict is a chance to see modern warfare up close. From using drone artillery to using portable missile systems like Javelins and Stingers, “what they experience on the battlefield will certainly be useful,” Lin said.
Some Taiwanese soldiers in Ukraine say the most important skill is one that is difficult to learn outside of a real conflict.
Chen Ting-wei, 27, who trained with an elite amphibious reconnaissance and patrol unit in Taiwan known as the “frogmen”, was assigned to defend a village near Kharkiv in April.
China calls the United States a ‘bully’ and promises to ‘fight to the end’ for Taiwan
While hiding in a trench with his team one day, a car came from behind and hurried past. One of his teammates, a U.S. Navy veteran, advised them to leave if the car was Russian surveillance. Less than a minute later, their area was bombed, killing a member of their team who had not fled in time.
“The most important experience I’ve had is agility on the battlefield,” Chen said. “Without experience, you will not be able to react quickly.”
Others have been touched by public morality. Lee Cheng-ling, a 34-year-old Uber Eats messenger driver from Taichung who joined Ukraine’s Foreign Legion in April, said he was most impressed with the will of the Ukrainian people, something he worries Taiwanese citizens lack.
“They have a really strong sense of unity,” he said of the Ukrainians. “I feel that in Taiwan, our solidarity is more like a show for the international community.”
The volunteers also spread the news about Taiwan’s precarious position. When Chen tells other foreign soldiers that he is from Taiwan, they promise that they will come to the island for help when needed.
“People from Poland, the United States, Australia, Brazil and Ukraine have all told me that if China attacks Taiwan, ‘we will meet in Taiwan,'” he said.
For Chuang, helping Ukraine is like buying time for his homeland. At Kiev’s Independence Square recently, he took pictures with the Taiwanese flag at a monument to foreign fighters serving in Ukraine. He believes that Taiwan should be the one to express gratitude.
“If Ukraine had been defeated in two weeks, then Xi Jinping would have attacked Taiwan,” he said.
But, he noted, Kyiv resisted the Russian siege – giving him hope for his homeland.
“We can be more confident in ourselves,” he said.