While much of the world’s focus has been firmly fixed on Ukraine over the past year or so, the war against Russia isn’t the only conflict at play between a major world power and a much smaller nation. Located at the junction in the East and South China Seas in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, Taiwan has seen China’s rhetoric turn increasingly hostile over the past year, even as war in Eastern Europe rages on. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on 2 August 2022, back when she was still US Speaker of the House, served to enflame tensions further, seeing an end to China-US cooperation on key issues like the climate crisis, anti-drug efforts and military talks.

In response, Taiwan has taken decisive action. On 27 December 2022, President Tsai Ing-wen increased mandatory military service for the nation’s male population from four months to one year – and, crucially, directed her defence officials to embrace the training methods used by the US. As Dr Jerad Harper notes, it’s not enough to just obtain the best military systems they can get from the West – Taiwan needs to be able to use them effectively.

An associate professor at the US Army War College and retired US Army colonel, Harper sees these types of measures as vital steps forward for the Taiwan’s deterrence efforts. Year-long conscription, which will begin in 2024, will increase the size of the nation’s active military force – currently some 170,000 strong – by 60–70,000 annually by 2027. That could be a key year, as a number of military experts believe China will launch an invasion by this point, including retired US Admiral Philip Davidson, the former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command. Training, however, will play just as much a role as increased manpower, and Taiwan has long been desperately in need of overhauling its systems in this area.

Lessons from Europe

However, if Taiwan is to overhaul its training efforts, then it needs to learn some key lessons from other nations in similar positions, Harper points out – most notably from the way in which the US and its Nato allies worked to build multinational training cooperation with Ukraine ahead of the current conflict, and with the Baltic nations before it.

Back in the ‘90s, the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – had just shed the Soviet yoke and were looking to build their own militaries, which made them very receptive to US and Nato entreaties. They entered the world with the existential threat of Russian expansion on their borders from day one, and they had to build from the ground up. It was immediately apparent, however, that their focus couldn’t just be on purchasing weapons systems from the west – due thev Baltic nations’ small territories, they were unlikely to defeat Russia in any kind of direct conflict. Instead, they would have to be more effective than their Russian counterparts, focusing on maximising lethality with small numbers.

To achieve this, the Baltics committed to the concept of joint training with the US and their other Nato allies. This was achieved through a number of methods; for one, multinational Nato forces were permanently stationed in each of the Baltic states and in neighbouring Poland, where they were continuously exposed to a series of rotational training exercises aimed at instilling the professional practices most desired by the respective militaries.

“Ukraine was a different story,” notes Harper. “They were more resistant to change.” While the Baltics started rebuilding their military back in the 90s, Ukraine only really got going in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea. That year, the Ukrainian government launched an in-depth review of its national security and military defence, which identified a number of issues that had led to their military’s poor combat performance. At the same time, the US greatly increased financial aid to Ukraine, providing a total of $2.7bn in training and equipment by the end of 2021.

Ukraine benefitted from having its Baltic neighbours around to offer their cooperation with security personnel – they were newer Nato members, rather than long-established parties, and therefore less objectionable to both Nato sceptics and the ever-watching Russians. Ukrainian troops were rotated through the Yavoriv centre in the Lviv region of western Ukraine – supported by US trainers, British and Canadian troops worked with individual units’ combat training back at their home stations.

“There were multiple approaches [aimed at] hitting Ukraine’s tactical units at multiple levels so that they were focused on warfighting skills,” says Harper, noting the importance of introducing new tactics from the bottom up. “It’s not just that they were going to go out to the range and shoot, they were going through actual realistic warfighting exercises.”

Beyond this lower-level tactical proficiency, the US and Nato looked to improve Ukraine’s strategic and operational proficiency. Unlike the Baltic nations, Ukraine already had its defence infrastructure in place, making the process of transforming it from the top down a far more difficult project – but progress was starting to be made by the time the invasion began. “Just prior to the start of the current invasion, they were starting to allow us into some of their command posts,” Harper notes.

State of play

Taiwan, however, is in a wholly different situation than Ukraine and the Baltics – but not necessarily in a good way. “[Taiwan’s situation] is much more difficult, for several reasons,” says Harper. For one, Ukraine and the Baltic states are in Europe, where most of Nato’s members reside. European, US and Canadian forces are already stationed across the continent, so they can be connected quickly when conflict breaks out. It’s also worth noting that the Baltic nations were already Nato members when their military build-up began, while Ukraine was a partner of Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is not an officially recognised country in the eyes of the US government, and no diplomatic relations exist between the two entities – though, of course, there is a robust unofficial relationship. It’s certainly not in any kind of partnership with Nato, and this poses challenges when looking to develop multinational training efforts. “There are political nuances that are extremely charged,” notes Harper in relation to Taiwan’s status. “You need to work through the ability to authorise the US and other allies to partner with Taiwanese forces to train in our countries.”

While Russia was far from welcoming when it came to allowing Nato forces to enter and train on Ukrainian soil, it looks positively hospitable compared with China’s hostility against foreign actors entering Taiwan, as seen with then-Secretary Pelosi’s visit last year. “We have to be very careful about the amount of forces that we would put on the ground in Taiwan because it’s extremely politically sensitive with the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” Harper notes, calling the Chinese government “prickly” on this issue.

The annual increase in recruitment for Taiwan’s military by 2027 due to the new yearlong conscription requirement.
National Policy Foundation

Another challenge for Taiwan is its small size, like the Baltics. None of these boast the strategic depth that Ukraine possesses, which makes things difficult when defending against a superior opponent – you can’t really afford to cede territory with the goal of falling back to a more defensible position. That same lack of space is an issue when organising multinational training efforts. “Taiwan is a mountainous, urbanised country – there’s not a lot of space to train there,” says Harper.

As a result, one way in which the US can help Taiwanese forces work around this issue is by taking their soldiers off-island to train in the US and over with its partners – such as Australia, Japan and the UK. Similarly, the US and its partners have extensive facilities in the Indo-Pacific where they could train units, says Harper, which would be less likely to ruffle China’s feathers. International cooperation, however, is key. “That’s the success in the Baltic and Ukrainian cases – it takes a village,” he adds. “We don’t gain as America by just doing everything ourselves – we’re always best when we’re integrated with all our different allies and partners.

China and Russia

What’s imperative, however, is that Taiwan acts decisively in terms of restructuring its military – time is very much of the essence when it comes to the looming threat of a potential Chinese invasion. “There are obviously multiple dates out there,” notes Harper, referring to Admiral Davidson’s warnings of a Chinese invasion by 2027. “You have 2027, 2035 [and so on]. The PRC is certainly expanding its [military] capabilities, and reunification with Taiwan is definitely an option.”

The size, in personnel, of Taiwan’s active military force in 2023.
Global Firepower

With China’s expansionist ambitions on the immediate horizon, Taiwan needs to follow Ukraine’s example, carrying out both quick short-term changes and longer-term efforts simultaneously to maximise its deterrence capabilities. “Taiwan is highly unlikely to win a knock-down, drawn-out, one-on-one fight with the PRC on their own. The odds aren’t in their favour – but they can be a porcupine,” explains Harper. “You want to make such a military action as costly as possible for the PRC so that they’ll veer off and pursue other measures. That’s definitely in Taiwan’s benefit, but it’s also in the entire world’s benefit given its strategic location.”

Like the Baltic nations before them, Taiwan’s best hope is to draw out any conflict for as long as possible, and play for time to enable foreign military support to come from the US and its allies. Fortunately, due to its natural geography, any attempted invasion of Taiwan would be no easy scenario. “You’re looking at a Normandy-like distance, just like 1944, which was immensely challenging,” Harper notes.

The world has just seen what happens when a more powerful nation fails to accurately take stock of an opponent’s capabilities before launching an invasion. “Vladimir Putin clearly overestimated the ability of his forces to achieve their goals – but Xi is not Putin,” says Harper. “However, that makes it even more of a driver for him to make sure that he understands the capability of his forces to achieve his objectives.”

While China has not been at war since the 1979 conflict against Vietnam – which was tremendously costly for both sides – much of how the nation has reorganised its own military has been based on observations on recent conflicts, from the Gulf War in 1990–91, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and so on. Ukraine is just the latest in a long line of lessons.

Unlike Russia, however, China doesn’t have the option of simply driving into Ukraine – its forces have to cross 100 miles of water, which presents a far greater challenge in logistical terms. “It’s not just a sea problem, it’s also a land and air problem,” Harper adds. “Today, unlike World War Two, it’s a cyber challenge, it’s a space challenge too.”

Similarly, China will have taken note of the immense, immediate effect that a relatively small amount of Western hardware was able to have on the Ukrainian battlefield – particularly US equipment. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this will aid long-term deterrence. Technologies that at the beginning of the Ukraine war seemed like game changers, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and underseas vehicles, have since fallen from grace. The Bayraktar TB2 drone, once hailed as the saviour of Ukraine, today has been relegated to essentially a recon-only role.

For Taiwan, then, the takeaway is to keep its focus on security force assistance and building partner capacity. While some high profile US military partnerships have failed in the past, Taiwan’s only hope is to aim for success. “Prior to the kick-off of the Ukraine war, […] we’d had engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we had tried to train partner militaries. We could argue the point of why for days, but clearly they weren’t as successful as we wanted them to be,” concedes Harper. “But then we’ve seen Ukraine and the Baltics stand strong as alternatives examples.” All Taiwan needs is the will – and the time – to make it work.