Ukraine’s Lessons for Taiwan

Taiwan Ukraine Flag

Today, Ukraine is the site of a violent struggle between an embattled democracy and a repressive, irredentist, authoritarian regime bent on subduing it. Tomorrow, Taiwan could be the site of a similar clash. Oriana Skylar Mastro is likely correct in arguing that Russia’s assault on Ukraine does not presage a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But applying lessons from the current crisis could nonetheless be critical for defending Taiwan in the future. 

While the Ukraine invasion is still in its early days, it has already demonstrated how the United States and its allies can prevent a Chinese invasion from becoming the world’s next big crisis. Rather than treat a Chinese victory as inevitable, Washington should begin preparing in peacetime to ensure a rapid, coordinated military and economic response to any potential attack. Policymakers in allied states around the region should also prepare for a dramatic refugee crisis, exacerbated by Taiwan’s geography. To strengthen these efforts, America and its allies can target intelligence collection to better assess Beijing’s intentions while also trying to anticipate the unexpected ways an invasion could reshape the political landscape from Canberra to Tokyo.

No Surprises

Months prior to its invasion, satellite imagery showed that Russia was building up its forces on Ukraine’s border. While many had hoped that Putin would avoid conflict, the West should have seen his buildup as a sign of intent to invade. If China chooses to invade Taiwan, it will likely have to prepare on a scale that will be impossible to conceal. In addition to massing missiles, the Chinese military would likely need to assemble an amphibious armada, aircraft, paratroopers and infantry, and logistical support capabilities that could be incredibly challenging to hide. But these preparations could either signal the start of a very large exercise or an assault. As a result, maintaining a close watch on military movements will be critical. Distinguishing between efforts geared toward an exercise versus an invasion will be difficult. There are arguably certain logistical preparations that China would conduct for an invasion but not a large-scale exercise, such as amassing greater amounts of food, fuel, and ammunition and assembling a large number of field hospitals. Similarly, it may be the case that for an invasion, some units that rarely participate in East China Sea exercises would be called up and moved east. This suggests that active and real-time intelligence could be the critical factor in alerting the world to an invasion.

The more allies monitor Chinese movements during future exercises, the better they will be able to judge what could potentially be invasion preparations. Taiwan should continue to devote its satellites and other advanced intelligence collection capabilities to this effort while the United States and other like-minded countries should foster robust intelligence links with Taiwan toward this end. By doing so, they can ensure that critical information collected by foreign sources is shared widely to prevent any surprise attacks and to assist with targeting cues in wartime. By the time it becomes apparent that an “exercise” is a ruse for an invasion, it will be difficult to assemble a credible deterrent in the region. Thus, it would benefit the United States and its allies to maintain a robust force posture, including logistical and sustainment support, to make clear that China will not be able to achieve its goals by force, or will at least incur enormous costs in doing so.

Prepare for a Struggle

It is still too early to draw definitive conclusions, but it has been striking how well the Ukrainians have defended themselves. Facing a quantitively larger and better equipped Russian military, Ukrainian forces have proven stubbornly resistant despite assessments that they would be unable to stop Russia’s rapid movement. This underestimation of the Ukrainians’ capability and will to fight had disastrous consequences for Russia. The same hubris could bedevil a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As in Ukraine, national identity could play a factor. An overwhelming number of people in Taiwan see themselves as Taiwanese, distinct from mainland China, which can serve as a powerful motivation to fight. Training these people into some sort of territorial defense force could help make them lethal. Tactically, in advancing from Taiwan’s western shore to Taipei, an invasion force could encounter numerous insurgents ready to set ambushes and take out vehicles with the types of anti-tank weapons being used in Ukraine. Rather than engage the People’s Liberation Army force-on-force, Taiwan would be better positioned to pursue an asymmetric guerilla war in which civilians and military forces fight from urban areas, where they could hide and restock supplies. Similarly, the same forces could use guerrilla tactics to defend key choke points like bridges or valleys while leveraging mountains or rivers as obstacles. The more effectively teams of citizens and soldiers work together, the more of a challenge the Chinese forces will face. In Ukraine, Russia is already facing these challenges, including resupply issues. The longer Ukrainians hold out, the more challenges Russia will face. The same would be true for China, made worse by the fact that any resupplies would have to be brought from the mainland across the Taiwan Strait.

Just as defenders should not be underestimated, aggressors should not be overestimated. Russia has a large military but proved unable to force Kyiv’s quick capitulation. There is still a lot the West does not know about Putin’s operational plan and it is unclear which of his generals’ assumptions regarding force readiness and training proved false. Ukraine showed that even a prepared invasion, telegraphed in advance, can go off-track quickly. China’s military, like, Russia’s, is sometimes viewed as a 10-foot giant. But if Russian forces, with recent operational experience in Chechnya and Syria, can struggle, why should we be confident the People’s Liberation Army will be successful in what would be its first military operation since its border war with Vietnam in 1979? China may choose a more aggressive and lethal approach from the outset in order ensure victory at any cost, but there is still nothing inevitable about a Chinese conquest of Taiwan.

Launching a successful large-scale amphibious invasion across a maritime strait would require a lot of things to go right, and thus involves a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. Whether it be rough waters across 100 miles of strait, a botched amphibious landing, stretched supply lines, or battlefield mistakes, the People’s Liberation Army has opportunities for tactical failures that could result in operational catastrophes. The more that other countries help Taiwan, the more opportunities there will be for such catastrophes. And the more these allies prepare and coordinate their force postures and capabilities in peacetime, the more effective their help will be.

Taiwan could best prepare for this operation by ensuring the right kind of defense strategy and capabilities. According to Drew Thompson, this means “systems that are short-range and defensive, able to survive an initial bombardment from a larger adversary, and suitable for deployment close to home in defense of the island should it come under blockade or attack.” Knowing that an invasion would come largely by sea, a premium could be placed on sea mines and anti-ship cruise missiles. Similarly, in addition to successfully injecting paratroopers into Taiwan, air superiority could be critical for any Chinese amphibious invasion to succeed. This would put a premium on anti-air capabilities. Finally, for everything, passive-defense measures and lots and lots of munitions may be needed. As Michael Hunzeker wrote in War on the Rocks last year, Taiwan and the United States should be focusing on stockpiling large numbers of small and cheap asymmetric capabilities, things like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defenses, naval mines, and drones.

Allied countries have been explicit that they would not defend Ukraine given that it is not a NATO member. Instead, European countries have been forthcoming with military assistance meant to bolster Ukraine’s defense, with the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and even Germany, among others, providing Ukraine with a variety of weapons. Many European countries may choose to do the same thing if Taiwan is attacked: they do not even formally recognize it, and it is geographically far away. These facts could lead to a situation in which allied states, including some of the European nations that had started to make forays into the Indo-Pacific operationally — such as France, the United Kingdom, or Germany — may be less inclined to provide operational support to Taiwan in a crisis. Were they to still provide military assistance to Taiwan, such as anti-air missiles, this may be exponentially more difficult because of the distance and the fact that Taiwan is an island. Difficulties will only increase if China establishes air superiority and a maritime quarantine of Taiwan, enabling Chinese forces to intercept or prevent such aid from arriving. As a result, this assistance would be more effective before a war starts. Taiwan should be encouraged to stockpile — or procure — critical capabilities in peacetime. 

A Quick and Coordinated Economic Response

Despite some initial disagreements over things like military aid or exclusion from SWIFT, the United States helped to rapidly coordinate an international coalition to punish Russia diplomatically, economically, and financially. It also led the way on providing military assistance to Ukraine. A similarly quick and unified effort would be necessary if Taiwan were attacked. While it is possible the United States, along with Japan and Australia, would intervene to defend Taiwan either directly or indirectly, it is likely that other countries would find it difficult to do so. Yet these countries could still be part of a coordinated international response to punish Beijing.

As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, war is conducted on two battlefields: one between militaries and one among nations, banks, companies, and individuals. While Russia appears to be increasing its military advantage over Ukraine, Western allies are destroying Russia through financial sanctions and other types of economic penalties. Because of China’s global trade and overseas investments, targeted, coordinated sanctions could drastically hurt the Chinese Communist Party, which is heavily involved in the economy. Of course, China’s larger economy and greater integration with the world economy means that such steps might have a larger impact on some allied economies than the sanctions on Russia have had. In other words, the consequences for the global economy could be massive — far worse than what we have seen with Russia.

That said, Western countries should be prepared to take many of the same steps they have taken against Russia. These could include cutting off Chinese banks from SWIFT, sanctions on Chinese goods, and secondary sanctions on countries willing to trade with China. In addition, Western countries could ban Chinese planes from their airspace and ships from their ports, forcing Chinese citizens to remain locked in China. For a globally integrated economy like China’s, this kind of isolation would dry up international trade and possibly collapse the renminbi, leading to significant economic contraction. The damage done by government sanctions could be further compounded by corporate actions. If global corporations discarded their joint ventures in Chinese companies, ended their business relationships with China, or withheld Western products, the air would be sucked out of the Chinese economy. While none of this is likely to cause China to cease an attack on Taiwan, the pain brought to bear on the government could undermine its legitimacy and authority. As with military aid, Taiwan’s allies and partners should coordinate their economic response in advance to ensure they can act as quickly and effectively as possible.

A Greater Humanitarian Challenge

As of 2020, Ukraine’s population was approximately 44 million people. The website for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that almost three million refugees have left Ukraine for neighboring countries such Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and SlovakiaMillions more are stranded inside the country. There are already growing concerns that the situation is leading to a humanitarian crisis. But Ukraine is surrounded by land, enabling those refugees who can manage it to escape by train, car, or foot. This is not the case for Taiwan. As of January, the population of Taiwan was approximately 23 million people. Should conflict occur, where will these people go? The Philippines and Japan are too far by boat. According to the Ministry of the Interior National Immigration Agency, as of September 2021 there were also approximately 765,000 foreigners on the island. Noncombatant evacuation operations would pose an extra challenge, as there are no good options for getting any of these people off Taiwan during a conflict. And in addition to the large number of people who would want out, there is also the difficulty of getting supplies in. If all Taiwan becomes an active war zone, delivering humanitarian assistance will be more dangerous as well. 

Understanding the possible massive scale of a humanitarian crisis, the United States and Taiwan should focus on stockpiling critical resources and relief items. As the most capable ally that is closest to Taiwan, Japan would play a particularly important role. The United States, Japan, and Taiwan should begin discussions in peacetime about how Japan can best receive civilian refugees during a conflict. This would include identifying likely Japanese air- and seaports that could handle large influxes of people and pre-positioning critical supplies there.

There Will Be Unintended Consequences 

While trying to prevent surprises, policymakers should recognize that there will still be unintended consequences. Russia’s war has led to dizzying changes that even a month ago seemed impossible. Belarus amended its constitution to allow it to host nuclear weapons. Finland and Sweden have signaled their interest in joining NATO. And Germany has taken unprecedented steps to increase its defense spending and arm Ukraine.

In response to a Chinese onslaught against Taiwan, regional countries might make similar changes. For example, a Chinese attack could coalesce U.S. partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific. This could create a quasi-alliance between Japan and Australia and also push several states like the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam — which have been trying to balance between Washington and Beijing — closer to the United States. Even South Korea may decide that the price of trying to play nice with China is no longer advantageous.

As with Germany, a conflict could force Japan to rethink aspects of its strategic approach to the world. Already, the Ukraine crisis has caused Tokyo to take unprecedented steps to brace for the fallout of Russia’s actions. A Taiwan conflict could lead Tokyo to accept its first combat role since WWII and possibly to make rapid changes in its defense policies. Political leaders might prove willing to host U.S. ground-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles or a U.S. Army Multi-Domain Task Force. Given recent chatter among some in Japan’s political elite on the need for a nuclear-sharing arrangement with the United States, there is always a possibility that a war with China could push Japan into a position where it feels a nuclear deterrent is necessary.

Chinese leaders are learning from the conflict in Ukraine, not just by observing Russia’s actions, but also the West’s response. The United States, Taiwan, and other like-minded partners should be learning too. By doing so, they can help ensure that Beijing comes away from the current crisis with a greater appreciation of the risks that attacking Taiwan would entail.



Jeffrey W. Hornung is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: President of the Republic of China (Taiwan)