Taiwan: Concern over readiness for conflict with China sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The 400-plus men were Taiwanese reservists, the first to face a new, rigorous 14-day training schedule – down from the previous seven days – introduced by the government this month to boost the island’s combat readiness.

Analysts say the tighter training schedule shows, among other things, how serious Taiwan is about the threat of a possible Chinese invasion. — and those fears have only intensified recently, with some drawing comparisons between Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and a potential existential threat to Taiwan.

Beijing dismisses the similarity, even though China’s ruling Communist Party has repeatedly vowed to “reunite” with the self-governing island of 24 million – by force if necessary – despite never ruling it. Beijing has also stepped up its military pressure on Taiwan, including sending a record number of military aircraft last year near Taiwan, less than 124 miles (200 km) from China’s southeast coast.

The increase in military training this month has already angered Beijing, with the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Administration calling the move a “provocation.”

“It’s very dangerous for them to continue like this,” spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian said at a regular briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, referring to Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “(They) don’t hesitate to tie the people in Taiwan to the separatist tank and push them into the abyss of disaster.”

But while increased preparations appear to have angered Beijing, military analysts and lawmakers warn that it won’t be enough to fend off a potential attack by one of the world’s most powerful armies. And while the war in Ukraine is half a world away from Taiwan, it has sparked a debate on the island about what the Taiwanese government can do to prepare.

What is Taiwan doing?

Even before Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine last month, there were growing fears that Beijing might take Taiwan by force.

In the past few months, Beijing has been conducting combat readiness exercises near the island, including regular flights of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, as well as joint air and naval exercises around the Taiwan Strait, Chinese state media reported.

Taipei has responded by allocating a record amount to defense this year and an additional $8.7 billion over the next five years to increase its capabilities for asymmetric warfare — a term for military strategies designed to counter a much more powerful military — including developing new long-range weapons. missiles that could hit Chinese military facilities in the event of war.

The island’s government is also looking to increase its military ranks to 160,000 in its all-volunteer professional ranks. Taiwan’s military is less than one-tenth the strength of Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army, although it also has over 1 million reservists to call on if needed.

President Tsai Ing-wen indicated that these reserve forces could be an important part of Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion, drawing parallels to Ukraine, where the government armed ordinary people to protect their cities from invading Russian troops.

“The recent situation in Ukraine proves that, apart from international support and assistance, it comes down to the unity of our people to protect our country,” Tsai said during a training inspection on Saturday.

“This training mission embodies the spirit of total defense,” she added. “Every reservist … has to assume that war can happen in their hometowns.”

The “total defense” initiative aims to increase general military knowledge in Taiwan, allowing the general public to be mobilized if the situation calls for it.

Under current regulations, all eligible Taiwanese males between the ages of 19 and 36 are required to complete four months of compulsory military training.

When they’re done, some join the reserve force, which obliges them to extra training, such as the 14-day drill that the reservists joined this week.

Taiwan has not disclosed how its reserves will be distributed among the ground, naval and air forces, except that they will be activated depending on their area of ​​specialization.

This new training regime aims to allay fears that reservists are not ready for combat, but military experts say a longer mandatory training period is actually needed.

Chang Yanting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force, told CNN that four months of mandatory training is “completely insufficient.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks as he inspects the training of reservists at a military base in Taoyuan on March 12, 2022.

Is Taiwan doing enough?

He is not the only one. Last week a number of deputies over political differences, called for an extension of the mandatory training period in Taiwan, citing the need to build a viable standby force.

Wu Si-huai, an MP from the opposition Kuomintang Party, said that eligible men in Taiwan must complete one year of military training, a return to a previous requirement that was reduced to four months from 2018.

The New Power Party, the fourth largest party in Taiwan, often sided with Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, also encouraged women to be included in non-combat training programs, in particular military logistics.

Taiwan’s presidential office told CNN on Sunday that authorities are assessing whether they should extend mandatory military training on the island after local media reported that President Tsai personally instructed the Defense Ministry to look into the possibility after witnessing civilians mobilize in Ukraine.

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Chang, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force, said there was an “urgent need” to extend Taiwan’s mandatory military training—perhaps even longer than a year.

“We need to update our military strategy, including extending the enlistment period so that we can properly teach them how to position themselves in case of war and how they should handle anti-tank missiles and other equipment,” Chang said.

J. Michael Cole, senior fellow at the Taiwan Global Institute from Taipei, said the island needs to build up its military capabilities and be prepared for any contingency.

“Events in Russia demonstrate that the assumption that an authoritarian leadership will always make rational decisions has been completely shattered by Vladimir Putin in his decision to invade Ukraine,” he said.

“This does not mean that Xi Jinping will decide tomorrow to use force against Taiwan because his friend in Moscow has decided to do so against Ukraine,” he said. “But it does make it clear that there is a possibility – however slight – that authoritarian regimes may decide, for their own calculations, their own reasons, to use force against a democratic country.”

Lessons from Ukraine

Beijing rejects comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine, and China’s ambassador to the US wrote this week in an op-ed for the Washington Post that observers are wrong to compare the two countries.

“Taiwan’s future lies in the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and the reunification of China,” Qin Gang wrote. “The Taiwan issue is China’s internal affair. It does not make sense for people to emphasize the principle of Ukraine’s sovereignty by harming China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in Taiwan.”

Experts agree that there are major differences between a Russian attack on Ukraine and how any Chinese invasion of Taiwan could end.

Russia's attack on Ukraine exposes political divisions in Asia

Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is an island, which means Beijing is likely to have to conduct one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. A potential invasion is also likely to spark a regional backlash due to Taiwan’s close physical proximity and importance to Japan, which is only 62 miles (100 km) from Taiwan.

And Taiwan is the world leader in the supply of semiconductor chips needed to power everything from smartphones to cars, so the invasion is likely to have ripple effects around the world.

“This changes how the international community will calculate its response to a threat or invasion against Taiwan,” Cole said.

However, analysts say there are lessons to be learned from the situation in Ukraine that will help Taiwan prepare.

“The lesson of Ukraine is clear,” said Chang, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force. “We must be responsible for the defense of our country.”

John Meese and Will Ripley of CNN contributed to the story.

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