Taiwanese join Ukraine’s fight against Russia, due to Chinese threat

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky called in February for foreign volunteers to help repel invading Russian forces, Chuang Yu-wei, a Taiwanese tour guide, signed up the next day.

“Taiwan cannot be a giant baby who calls for help but is unwilling to help others,” said the 51-year-old from Taoyuan, near Taipei. Since arriving in Ukraine in March, he has joined patrols, helped cook, transported supplies and dug trenches near the front lines in Kharkiv. “It doesn’t matter how many of you come, just come,” he said in a phone interview.

For many in Taiwan, the Russian assault on Ukraine hits home because of the parallels with their own situation. The islanders live under constant threat from a powerful, authoritarian neighbor China, which claims sovereignty over democratic Taiwan and vows to seize it by force if necessary.

Chuang, who served in the Taiwanese army in the 1990s, is one of a small group of Taiwanese volunteers in Ukraine for whom the war is a chance to bring battlefield experience home – where the debate is rage over the island’s military readiness – and to show the international community that Taiwan is worth fighting for.

“I want the world to see that we are not the kind of people lying on the ground waiting to be rescued. If you want people to help you, you have to help them first,” Chuang said.

Taiwan leaders try to calm fears over Ukraine invasion, but citizens fear their island may be next

It is not known how many Taiwanese are in Ukraine. Volunteer soldiers interviewed by the Washington Post estimate that about 10 of their compatriots have joined the war effort.

Taiwanese officials warn that war in the Taiwan Strait, the 100-mile-wide corridor between China and Taiwan, is not imminent. Officials point to the differences between Taiwan’s situation and that of Ukraine, including the island’s geostrategic importance and its close relationship with the United States. In May, President Biden said the United States would militarily defend Taiwan if attacked by China, before the White House backtracked, maintaining a longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity over the extent American aid.

Yet the possibility of an attack from Beijing looms ever larger as Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to take up a third term this year, ushering in a critical period to cement his legacy. With China increasingly at odds with Western countries and pursuing an ambitious military buildup, there are growing concerns that Xi is taking inspiration from his friend and partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For Pan, 26, a volunteer fighter from Hsinchu who previously served in Taiwan’s special forces and the French Foreign Legion, those worries motivated him in April to join the International Legion for Ukraine.

“When war broke out in Ukraine, I rushed as soon as I could,” said Pan, who only gave his last name for security reasons.

He said he was struck by how the Ukrainian military valued soldiers with special skills. While covering drone pilots carrying out reconnaissance on the front lines, Pan said, they were ordered to protect the pilots at all costs.

“In Taiwan, our electronic warfare specialists are secondary to the traditional army, and [the military] continues to promote the use of bayonets,” he said. Pan hopes to open a training camp upon his return and bring some of his comrades from Ukraine to teach Taiwanese civilians how to defend themselves.

Taiwan has lived under military threat from Beijing since Chinese communist forces defeated nationalists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, prompting nationalists to flee to Taiwan and set up a rival government. Some Taiwanese islands suffered intermittent bombardment by Chinese forces in the 1970s. For most residents, war remains a distant memory and an abstract possibility.

Now, the fate of Ukraine has renewed questions about the possibility of an attack and Taiwan’s overall defense strategy, while reinforcing calls to reconsider the role civilians would play in a conflict. He also highlighted concerns about the quality of training in the Taiwanese military, which requires most men to complete four months of service.

Biden vows to militarily defend Taiwan in case of invasion by China

The government has extended its training program for reservists, raised its alert level and said major military exercises this year will be informed by the war in Ukraine and focus on asymmetric warfare. Last month, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan had “taken inspiration from Ukraine” to strengthen its defense.

But these measures may not be enough to repel a much more powerful adversary like China. Taiwan’s compulsory military service is often compared to a summer camp, where recruits spend more time doing menial jobs than learning combat skills. The tactics taught are comparable to those used in the 1991 Gulf War or the Vietnam War.

“The biggest questions are: what kind of war are we going to fight now? Can our equipment, our military units and our training match the type of war we will have to fight? said Lin Ying-yu, associate professor of Asia-Pacific affairs at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.

For Taiwanese soldiers, the Ukrainian conflict is a chance to see modern warfare up close. From using artillery in conjunction with drones to using man-portable missile systems like Javelins and Stingers, “what they experience on the battlefield will definitely come in handy,” Lin said.

Some Taiwanese soldiers in Ukraine say the most important skill is one that is difficult to learn outside of real conflict.

Chen Ting-wei, 27, who trained with an elite amphibious patrol and reconnaissance unit in Taiwan known as “frogmen”, was tasked with defending a village near Kharkiv in april.

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One day, while hiding in a trench with his squad, a car came up from behind and sped past. One of his teammates, a US Navy veteran, advised leaving in case the car was Russian surveillance. Less than a minute later, their area was bombarded, killing one member of their team who had not escaped in time.

“The most important experience I gained is agility on the battlefield,” Chen said. “Without the experience, you won’t be able to react quickly.”

Others were affected by public morale. Lee Cheng-ling, a 34-year-old Uber Eats delivery driver from Taichung who joined Ukraine’s foreign legion in April, said he was very impressed with the will of the Ukrainian people, which he fears Taiwanese citizens missing.

“They have a very strong sense of unity,” he said of the Ukrainians. “I feel like in Taiwan, our solidarity is more like a show for the international community.”

The volunteers are also spreading the news of Taiwan’s precarious situation. When Chen tells other foreign soldiers that he is from Taiwan, they promise to help the island if needed.

“People from Poland, the United States, Australia, Brazil and Ukraine all told me that if China attacks Taiwan, ‘we will meet in Taiwan,'” he said.

For Chuang, helping Ukraine is like buying time for his motherland. Recently, in Kyiv’s Independence Square, he took photos with the Taiwanese flag in front of a monument dedicated to foreign fighters serving in Ukraine. He thinks Taiwan should be the one expressing gratitude.

“If Ukraine had been defeated in two weeks, then Xi Jinping would have attacked Taiwan,” he said.

But, he noted, Kyiv withstood the Russian siege, which gave him hope for his homeland.

“We can be more confident in ourselves,” he said.

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