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Taiwan fears what's happening in Ukraine will happen there with China


The war in Ukraine is making much of Europe nervous, but it's also causing a lot of concern halfway around the world in Taiwan. Many in Taiwan see uncomfortable parallels between their island, which is off the coast of China, and Ukraine. To help us understand how Taiwan is processing the war, we are joined by NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Hi, John.


RASCOE: So can you explain why people in Taiwan are worried?

RUWITCH: Yeah, sure. So on a simple level, what people in Taiwan are seeing, you know, is - across the world, this relatively small democracy has been invaded by a much bigger country, an authoritarian neighbor, that claims sovereignty over it and claims a right to grab it, to invade it, based on a particular version of history. You know, sitting in Taiwan, it's really not hard to draw the parallel with China.

You'll know this. I mean, China's ruling Communist Party sees Taiwan as a part of China and preventing formal independence for Taiwan and getting it back is considered unfinished business from a civil war that ended more than 70 years ago. And to that end, you know, it's squeezed Taiwan diplomatically and on the international stage. It's built up its military. And China won't renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan back to the fold.

RASCOE: OK, so there are some parallels here, but are they really significant? Like, are these - or are these situations fundamentally different?

RUWITCH: Yeah. I mean, there's no doubt that Taiwan and Ukraine have huge differences, right? They have different histories, different national conditions. Russia and China are hugely different countries with different motives, different trajectories. But in Taiwan, this is a visceral thing, you know? They've lived with a threat from China hanging over them for decades.

I spoke with Brian Hioe about this. He's a journalist and a writer living in Taipei. And he says Ukraine has been just dominating the news cycle there, which is kind of unusual. Taiwan's this vibrant democracy. It's got a very crowded media space, and normally domestic issues are at the forefront.

BRIAN HIOE: I do think that generally, people are afraid. People are afraid of just war in general. They don't want that to happen. And so seeing war in Ukraine offers a parallel to Taiwan. They're afraid that this could happen in Taiwan. And I think that's why you have increasing talks, for example, of what Taiwan can do to stave off an invasion.

RASCOE: So it is affecting the policy discussions in Taiwan.

RUWITCH: Yeah, definitely. There's increasing talk of boosting Taiwan's military capacity, its abilities to wage asymmetric warfare, you know? They're talking about expanding compulsory military service for men from four months to one year and possibly even conscripting women. They're talking about more training for reservists. You know, and speaking to the lessons that Taiwanese are taking from Ukraine, some legislators have even been discussing this possibility of doing more training in the military in anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which have been so potent in Ukraine's defense.

There's one thing, you know, interestingly to point out. There does seem to be a growing concern in Taiwan about whether or not the U.S. would join Taiwan in a fight against China. You know, ambiguity about that has been kind of a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan, but the Ukraine war has raised some questions about that. There was a poll released last week that showed that about 60% of respondents don't think the U.S. would jump in. Five months ago, in October, 65% thought the U.S. would help defend Taiwan.

RASCOE: So there's been a shift. What do we know about China's take on all of this?

RUWITCH: Yeah, I asked Zheng Wang about this. He's a professor at Seton Hall University, and he says that Beijing is watching and waiting at this point.

ZHENG WANG: To some extent, the Ukraine war provide a kind of, like, simulation or experiment for China. I don't think there's a conclusion or the evaluation has already been made or consensus has been reached.

RUWITCH: You know, he says there's still a lot of different opinions in China about how to interpret what's happening in the Ukraine war, and we're still watching it unfold.

RASCOE: That's NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.