Lessons for Taiwan from the war Russia is waging against Ukraine : Consider This from NPR The war between Russia and Ukraine is reverberating in Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as its own and has threatened to invade if Taiwan declares independence.

Residents of the island are watching intently as Ukraine defends itself against a much larger and more powerful adversary. And they are thinking about what it takes to galvanize international support.

The U.S. has a longstanding policy of ambiguity when it comes to talking about Taiwan and independence, not wanting to risk a conflict with China. So it was surprising last month when President Biden said the that U.S. will defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China.

We speak to journalist Chris Horton, who is based in Taiwan. His recent piece in The Atlantic is headlined, "The Lessons Taiwan is Learning from Ukraine."

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

China and Taiwan: What's Ukraine Got To Do With It?

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1105545989/1105593823" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is not something American presidents say.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: You didn't want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?



BIDEN: That's the commitment we made.

KELLY: President Biden in Tokyo last month saying the U.S. will defend the self-governed island of Taiwan in the event of an invasion by mainland China. China claims the island as its own and has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence. The U.S. has a long-standing policy of ambiguity when it comes to talking about all this, not wanting to risk a conflict with China. But not only did the president fail to be ambiguous in those remarks last month, he repeated something he's actually said before.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense in trying to attack?

BIDEN: Yes, we have a commitment to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: All right, we're going to...

KELLY: That was Biden last October in a town hall on CNN. He also made similar remarks in an ABC News interview last summer. Then and now, the White House says that U.S. policy on Taiwan hasn't changed, even as the president committed to a policy that would represent a significant change. What is indisputably changing is how Taiwan views its role in light of another global conflict with some similarities to its own, the one between Russia and Ukraine.


JOSEPH WU: The Ukrainian people are very brave. And we are taking the war in Ukraine into very serious internal discussions.

KELLY: Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, spoke to NPR last month and said Taiwan looks to Ukraine as a model for how it could defend itself against a much larger adversary with help.


WU: Defending Taiwan is our own responsibility, but what we need is the international support, speaking out to support us and to provide us with the necessary means for us to be able to defend ourselves.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - a major world power that wants to control a smaller neighbor, one that sees itself as independent and sovereign. That describes Russia and Ukraine and also China and Taiwan. And leaders in both places are watching and learning.

From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Thursday, June 16.


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. There's a term for how the U.S. deals with Taiwan when it comes to conflict with China - strategic ambiguity. Meaning, the U.S. will not say what it's going to do if China invades.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Mr. President, is the policy of strategic ambiguity for Taiwan dead?

BIDEN: I was - no.



KELLY: That was Biden one day after he said, yes, the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He was notably more ambiguous the next day.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Would you send troops to Taiwan if China invaded?

BIDEN: Our policy has not changed at all. I stated that when I made my statement yesterday.

KELLY: In the weeks since, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S., as has long been its policy, does not support Taiwanese independence. Still, international observers debated the intent of Biden's words. Was it a gaffe? Was it an attempt to remind the Chinese that if Taiwan is attacked, a U.S. military response is a real possibility? Whatever the answer, the world is watching tensions between Taiwan and China through a new lens.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We need a diplomatic resolution to support countries that are in need of help. We must not leave them behind at the mercy of another country, which is more powerful.

KELLY: This is audio via a translator of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the International Institute of Strategic Studies this past week. He was asked about comments from Japan's prime minister likening the situation in Ukraine to that in East Asia. The international community, Zelenskyy said, must not enable countries whose leaders aspire to control and dominate others.


ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) So the world must use preemptive measures from such people. Today's example of Ukraine is the example for the whole world.

KELLY: Take, for example, Taiwan. Chris Horton is a veteran journalist based there. And when we spoke this week, he told me people in Taiwan are paying special attention to events in Ukraine. He picks up on it in surprising places, like when speaking with a young surgeon recently, someone who focuses on pancreas and thyroid surgeries. She told Horton she is adding trauma surgery to her skill set. Why?

CHRIS HORTON: With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, like many people here, especially younger people, she's trying to think about what she can do to apply what she knows and what she does towards helping Taiwan were it to be attacked by China. And so for her, trauma surgery is the, you know, lowest hanging fruit.

KELLY: Horton says she's not looking to learn how to shoot a gun.

HORTON: At least not yet.

KELLY: And she's not alone.

HORTON: For many people in Taiwan, there's been a kind of jolting effect that has woken people up to the possibility that an invasion or attack by China could be more when than if.

KELLY: Horton wrote about this for The Atlantic in a piece headlined "The Lessons Taiwan Is Learning From Ukraine." He has lived and reported in Taiwan for seven years, and he says people in his life were not having the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go conversation, not until this year.

HORTON: This year has been the year that you've really started to have people start to think about their plan Bs here. There's a much more sense of immediacy and we need to think about this now. That's not just families thinking about, well, you know, do we stay, do we leave? It's also the government saying, look, you know, it's our strategy to deal with a possible attack from China. Is it a good strategy? And what is Ukraine doing against Russia that we can emulate that would work?

And in terms of preparing for a Chinese invasion or a Chinese attack, most of what Taiwan has been buying has been big-ticket items that look good, both to a domestic constituency as well as to American congresspeople who represent different states who are selling Abrams tanks and F-16s to Taiwan. But what it really seems like they're lacking here is nimble, portable rockets that can take out planes or ships.

KELLY: So tell me a story about someone you have met, someone you've interviewed, who is now preparing for possible conflict, possible war. Because it occurs to me that one thing that's very different between Taiwan and Ukraine, among the things that are very different, is that there haven't been a lot of opportunities in Taiwan to gain battlefield conflict experience. If you're a surgeon, for example, you're talking about a real shift in mindset and a very recent one.

HORTON: That's right - and something that both the government and civil society kind of weren't really prepared for. So I recently attended a screening of a film - a documentary about what's been going on in Hong Kong. And I spoke with one audience member afterwards. She's in her mid-30s. She was basically like, I would be happy to learn how to do first aid. I would be happy to learn how to shoot a gun. But I just don't have those opportunities.

Here you have, I would say, insufficient reservist program as well as conscription, and it's all men. Women are being considered now as candidates for these programs, but time is of the essence. And I think a lot of people are just - they're asking themselves and they're asking the government, what can we do today to be ready for tomorrow?

KELLY: And what can they do? I mean, you're getting at something that I saw when I was reporting recently in Ukraine, which is the patriotism, the desire to defend the country that almost every person I met and interviewed talked about. You're hearing that in Taiwan. What are you hearing?

HORTON: Well, one of the biggest challenges here is that the military here is still associated with the Republic of China government that came over in the '40s after being overthrown by the communist revolution in China. So prior to that, Taiwan had been a colony - a Japanese colony for 50 years. So there was 38 years of martial law after 1949, after the Republic of China was overthrown. And that led to - I mean, it was - hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned or arrested. Some - many were tortured. Many were killed. And so there's a lot of distrust of the Republic of China military, which is what Taiwan's military is officially known as.

And there's not a lot of young people who are looking to join the military these days because, you know, they remember the stories of their parents and grandparents about human rights abuses under martial law, under the ROC, the Republic of China, military. So people are kind of trying to figure out how to take things into their own hands.

KELLY: When you talk to ordinary people, to civilians, I'm curious what they might be doing to prepare. When I was reporting in Ukraine right before the invasion, people had go bags packed in case they had to run, and they were trying to get their hands on guns and learn how to use them.

HORTON: That makes sense in Ukraine's context. Sadly, here, if something were to kick off, the ability for people to leave would probably not exist or be close to nonexistent.

KELLY: It's an island, for starters.

HORTON: It is an island, yes. And so, like, any sort of invasion attempt would start off with attempts to control airspace, and that would include commercial civilian flights. So go bags - I mean, if you're going to leave Taiwan - people who are thinking about leaving, they're making plans now, and maybe they're sending children to other countries to get citizenship.

KELLY: Is that happening?

HORTON: I mean, it is happening, at least anecdotally. In my experiences, people are talking about it and doing it. But we don't really have data available to say, like, how much of a thing that is. But it's definitely...

KELLY: Yeah, it's part of the conversation.

HORTON: Yeah. Yeah. And in terms of guns, I mean, basically - there's a few articles that have come out recently that have highlighted the influx of people signing up for, like, airsoft gun classes. And it's better than nothing, I suppose, but it really doesn't give you much of an idea of what it's like to fire a real firearm. But I think that's really all people can do here because there's just not many options.

KELLY: For people in Taiwan, what is the understanding, what is the expectation of how the rest of the world fits in? Because as you know, the U.S., its allies have rallied to help Ukraine. Is the expectation that there would be a rallying to help Taiwan?

HORTON: So in terms of American assistance, I think most Taiwanese people do feel that the U.S. would provide intelligence and weapons at least prior to a conflict and intelligence throughout the conflict. But I don't think anyone here is expecting or taking for granted that American soldiers would come to Taiwan's aid.

KELLY: How did President Biden's recent remarks that caused a bit of an uproar here in the states - how did they play there, the comment that the U.S., yes, is committed to defend Taiwan militarily?

HORTON: In American media, there were a lot of comments and observations, you know, saying, like, OK, this is Biden making a gaffe. But here, you have a situation where Taiwanese people are expecting American assistance of some kind and American support - at the very least, you know, sanctions, but probably more than that. But also, looking at Ukraine and what it's going through now, Taiwanese people have, I think, kind of generally come to the conclusion that no matter what happens, if Taiwanese people aren't willing to defend Taiwan themselves, at least initially, then additional help won't be forthcoming.


KELLY: Journalist Chris Horton in Taiwan.


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.