This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan has kept a close eye on the war and how Kyiv has fared.
For the democratically governed island, which has been under the threat of an invasion by China for decades, the fate of Ukraine is closely linked with its own.
China views the war in Ukraine as a “test case” for its own designs on Taiwan, according to Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Roy Chun Lee.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL on the sidelines of the GLOBSEC security conference in Slovakia, Lee explained why Taipei wants the West to keep supporting Ukraine’s war effort, how Europe’s stance on Taiwan is changing, and in what ways China and Russia’s close ties could affect the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Until a final victory arrives, defending Ukraine against Russia has [direct] implications for Taiwan,” Lee said. “In particular, it shows the potential support that we will receive from our democratic allies in the case of a Chinese military invasion.”
Beijing views Taiwan as a rogue province and has promised to unify it with mainland China — even by force, if necessary. U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to defend the island if it is attacked, fueling concerns that Taiwan could be the next geopolitical flashpoint after Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Lee said Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been monitoring both Russia’s performance on the battlefield and the level of Western support for Ukraine as the war nears its 16th month of fighting.
The senior Taiwanese diplomat added that Ukraine, backed by the West, has defended most of its territory from Russia, a move that he argued has had a deterring effect on China. But he added that Beijing is assessing the war over a “longer time span” and is closely watching if divisions emerge among Western nations over continued military support to Ukraine and enforcing tough sanctions against Moscow.
“I think China is waiting to see what happens two years from now, and three years from now, and if the Western democratic camp will be able to hold their position,” Lee said.
Navigating Western Cracks
Due to the sweeping implications of Chinese actions toward Taiwan, some Republicans in the U.S. Congress have called for scaling back U.S. military support for Ukraine, arguing that it detracts from being able to arm Taiwan, which they view as a more urgent task.
Congress will face another decision about whether to provide more military aid to Ukraine this fall, and support for Kyiv is likely to come under scrutiny as the U.S. presidential election cycle begins. Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — the early front-runners for the 2024 Republican nomination — have questioned U.S. aid to Ukraine.
Lee rejected the idea that aid for Ukraine undermines Taipei’s defenses, saying the best form of support for the island nation of some 24 million was to avoid “making the same mistakes” with China that were made with Russia in the years before its full-scale invasion in February 2022, which the Taiwanese diplomat said amounted to “appeasement.”
“That’s why we’re asking everybody to support Ukraine. It’s the best way to deter China,” Lee said. “It’s too late already for us to stop Russia, but I think we still have time to build up our solidarity to deter China from making the worst-case scenario into reality.”
Taiwan and China split in 1949 following a civil war. From the 1970s onward, most countries established formal ties with Beijing, leaving Taipei with few formal friends as China’s political and economic power expanded globally.
Currently, only 13 countries and the Vatican have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Many Western governments do not openly contest China’s claim to Taiwan, but they do not support it either.
Support for Taiwan is backed by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, with congressional action and visits to the island picking up steadily.
Interactions with Europe have also grown in recent years, with delegations from European capitals visiting the island and Czech President Petr Pavel even taking the step of accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen after his election in January, which marked a departure from previous norms for dealing with high-ranking politicians from the self-governing island.
But Europe has also struggled to offer a unified strategy for how to deal with China. Following a state visit to China by French President Emmanuel Macron in April, he appeared to distance European support from Taiwan. Macron said that Europe must avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and Taiwan, and that it was important for the continent to keep its distance from any U.S.-led foreign policy moves in the region.
Lee said that while “everyone was a little bit confused about the signal that President Macron was sending,” the overall picture for Taiwan in Europe is still positive, with growing diplomatic linkages across Central and Eastern Europe.
Rather, the Taiwanese diplomat said Macron’s comments reflect Paris’s goal of pushing “strategic autonomy” for Europe, a foreign policy strategy advocated by the French president to avoid becoming too dependent on the United States for foreign policy and defense decisions. He added that French support for the status quo across the Taiwan Strait was reaffirmed in a recent G7 statement this month and French parliamentarians have also been visiting the island.
The War’s Ripple Effects
As Ukrainian forces reportedly prepare for a much-anticipated counteroffensive aimed at retaking territory occupied by Russia, Lee said Taipei is watching closely how the military and diplomatic dynamics of the war will affect Taiwan.
China and Russia’s growing ties, which were described as a “no limits” partnership by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin before the invasion and have continued to endure since, are a particular area of interest.
The Chinese and Russian navies have conducted several exercises in the past 12 months in the East China Sea and other areas. The defense partnership could be a new factor in the region in the event of a crisis involving Taiwan and its neighbors like Japan and South Korea.
Lee said Taipei is “monitoring the situation closely” but that focus is still on China and how it can act unilaterally against Taiwan.
“China has built up a military capacity that is able to implement a blockade strategy [of Taiwan] single-handedly without the intervention of Russia,” Lee said. “It’s unlikely in my assessment that Russia would be part of a blockade because they would make things much more complicated and difficult to control.”
Lee and other Taiwanese officials have said that a blockade of Taiwan, rather than a direct military invasion, is Beijing’s most likely future course of action.
The Chinese Army rehearsed a blockade with live-fire exercises in August 2022 following a visit by former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei and with military drills in April when current U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy met Tsai in California.
Some U.S. officials have said China wants to have the military capability of overrunning Taiwan by 2027.
Admiral Harry Harris, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told Congress in February that the United States is ignoring the prospect of China invading Taiwan within years “at our peril.”
But that view is not shared by top current U.S. officials, with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying they do not believe a Chinese attack is imminent.
Lee is adamant Taiwan can learn from the war in Ukraine and “start to accelerate the preparations along with the United States and European countries.”
“Taiwan has benefited from the very fact that it was Russia who invaded Ukraine before China invaded Taiwan,” Lee said.