War in Ukraine holds sobering lessons for Taiwan

Russia’s terrible invasion of Ukraine is looming over the Indo-Pacific with its lessons for Taiwan’s relations with China. Some of those lessons are important reality checks. Assumptions about a nominally superior military force have been tempered by a recognition that the details of logistics, tactics, morale and the utility of weapons systems can shift the military balance.

Similarly, Ukraine shows how the impact of economic disruption and sanctions from a regional conflict is global. Taiwan by itself accounts for a greater percentage of global trade than all of Russia, and in sectors critical to global innovation and technological progress, so the disruption of a cross-strait war would also be global and measured in decades.

And the invasion demonstrates how history and identity mobilise states and peoples. Military aggression in the name of former empires and defence in the name of democracy are a reminder of history’s shadow and the moral force of modernisation, which shapes modern Asia as clearly as it does modern Europe.

But there is a key lesson that distinguishes Taiwan’s circumstances from Ukraine’s that is at once prosaic and consequential: international representation matters.

As a state in the international system seeking support for its defence, Ukraine has benefited from a host of international organisations: the UN, both the Security Council and the General Assembly; NATO and the EU; and numerous individual states, including Australia. Ukraine’s charismatic president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has addressed parliaments around the world and met with European leaders as the elected president of a sovereign nation with a UN seat and the instruments of diplomatic relations.

The international response in support of Ukraine is an expression of the functioning of the international system itself. Despite the many depredations against it over many decades, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an assault on that system and the belief that, for all its faults, it remains the best way of organising the affairs of nations.

But unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is largely excluded from the international system. It has diplomatic relations with only 14 countries and no seat at the United Nations. It has membership of some key multilateral trade organisations, including the World Trade Organization and APEC, as ‘Chinese Taipei’, not Taiwan, but no state-to-state security alliances or defence treaties.

By its very existence as a sovereign, democratic state standing outside the international system, Taiwan expresses the system’s failure to properly account for occluded histories and its willingness to compromise state power and economic opportunity with the national sovereignty upon which it depends.

But, in practice, Taiwan’s place outside the international system means that in the event of military action by China, the system cannot rally in support in the name of its own integrity. There will be no powerful speeches in defence of Taiwan’s sovereignty at the UN, like that offered by Kenya for Ukraine, that are implicitly a defence of the international order itself.

Instead, any support for Taiwan around the world will be improvised. It will be reliant on the United States, Taiwan’s longstanding supporter, and probably Japan, and their capacity to exercise global leverage. But without recognised statehood for Taiwan, a cross-strait crisis falls into being seen as simply as a contest between great powers, undermining the principles of the international system rather than validating them.

Neither will Taiwan benefit from unequivocal popular political support around the world, despite its achievements as the most progressive democracy in Asia being threatened by an authoritarian state.

When the international system is projected onto domestic politics, it is mapped onto a moral terrain of metaphor and symbolism. For Taiwan, its place outside the international system is read morally, as a place that, for significant political constituencies, is not worth, or is even unworthy of, political support. Disparaging Taiwan’s identity or simply ignoring it are expressions of this domestic moral representation of Taiwan’s international marginality.

Unlike Ukraine, whose existence as a state is a given despite being at war with a nuclear-armed power, the Taiwanese are tasked with arguing from the most foundational principles of democratic sovereignty and self-determination why Taiwan should exist at all.

As a result, despite Taiwan providing a compelling democratic story from which many countries should learn and making a vital contribution to the global economy, the kind of political rallying and popular sentiment that has benefited Ukraine in the domestic politics of many nations will be divided and equivocal for Taiwan.

The key lesson, then, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sobering for Taiwan.

In Australia, it points to the need for policies that support Taiwan’s international representation. Even within Australia’s existing policy architecture, this can include actively promoting Taiwan’s membership of multilateral trade and economic groupings, with the goal of conceptualising the kind of international coalition that could support Taiwan in a crisis. It includes setting aside the current passive approach to cultural and education links and actively prompting Australian public institutions, and the university sector in particular, to set aside their reflexive antipathy to Taiwan and to develop partnerships.

But any steps require a clear-eyed understanding in Australia of the failures of the international system to account for Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and a recognition that the region will not return to a new equilibrium if China annexes Taiwan. Australian policy is premised on equivocation on the status of Taiwan, which Beijing has always sought to leverage, and this remains part of Taiwan’s security calculus.