How Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Is Playing Out in Taiwan Amid China Threat

In April 2021, The Economist described Taiwan as "the most dangerous place on Earth" on a magazine cover that reverberated across the country. Now, as Russian forces march into eastern Ukraine, commentators in the West believe Beijing might seek to emulate Moscow by launching its own invasion—but most Taiwanese disagree.

The People's Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan, but its oft-declared historic claim to the island goes back to at least 1949, when Mao Zedong founded the PRC. Not since Mao has a Chinese leader wielded both the ambition and capacity to attempt a seizure of Taiwan, a democracy whose 23.5 million people have shown little interest in being ruled from Beijing.

But even when Chinese President Xi Jinping's fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers flew record numbers of sorties near the island in October 2021, in the largest show of force in decades, Taiwan's public remained unconcerned. The near-daily military flights continue unabated, appearing to have strengthened rather than weakened Taiwanese resolve, and now few believe Xi is willing to take the same gamble as Russian President Vladimir Putin has with Ukraine.

On Tuesday, just hours after Putin ordered troops into the Donbas, the Taipei-based Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation published the results of a survey that appeared to contradict much of the popular belief regarding Taiwan's potential risk of annexation during the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Residents on the island didn't see the West's perceived failure to deter Putin as likely to embolden Xi, according to the TPOF poll, which was conducted by means of telephone interviews with 1,079 adults over the age of 20 between February 14 and 15.

Some 22 percent of respondents thought a Russian military offensive against Ukraine was possible in the "next one or two weeks," versus 51.3 percent who thought it wasn't. The questionnaire didn't consider as a possibility the events that unfolded late on Monday, as Putin formally recognized Ukraine's rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

Of those surveyed, 60.7 percent agreed the West should back Kyiv against Moscow, but only around one-quarter approved of President Joe Biden's decision not to deploy American troops on Ukrainian territory. 51.1 percent didn't like the decision, said TPOF.

Asked whether they thought China could attack Taiwan "at any time, especially after the outbreak of a Russia-Ukraine war," only 26.6 percent thought it possible. A majority, 62.9 percent, said it wasn't, while 10.5 percent of respondents had no opinion or said they didn't know. According to the polling figures, 7.1 percent felt an attack was "very possible" and 20.2 percent said it was "not possible at all."

In its press release, TPOF said the view—over six in 10 predicting no Chinese invasion—was consistent across major party affiliations. Incidentally, it's also in line with the Taiwanese government's own assessment, which doesn't foresee a conflict in the near future, particularly during such a politically sensitive year as 2022.

On Tuesday, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry condemned Russia's latest moves on Ukraine and said Moscow's unilateral action was inconsistent with the United Nations Charter. Taipei's position aligns with that of Washington's and was therefore not unexpected.

Taiwan's anxieties about China are long-established; the likelihood of a bloody cross-strait war has been a matter of debate for decades. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is separated from its belligerent neighbor by a body of water, the Taiwan Strait, an inhospitable maritime buffer that is still 80 miles across at its narrowest point. Crucially, the Taiwanese retain overwhelming faith in the United States—its strongest international backer in the postwar period.

Polling shows nearly 60 percent believe Washington would support Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese attack, while over half believe the U.S. could successfully defend Taiwan if it chose to intervene. This trust is borne out by sentiment on the other side of the Pacific, where the American public appears willing to see the island protected with U.S. military assets, although the same view was not extended to Ukraine.

Taiwan's strategic position in the so-called first island chain may be a factor here, but so could its economy and critical industry of world-leading computer chips. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Taiwan is America's ninth largest goods trading partner, worth $90.6 billion in two-way trade in 2020. Ukraine was 67th at $3.7 billion in 2019, USTR data showed.

Taiwan Calm About Invasion Despite Ukraine Crisis
A Ukrainian flag flies at the Haidamatska Sich in Skole, Ukraine, on February 20, 2022. On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized Ukraine’s rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, ordering troops to cross the border into the Donbas region. Gaelle Girbes/Getty Images/Ukraine military via Storyful