TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky called in February for foreign volunteers to help repulse invading Russian forces, Chuang Yu-wei, a Taiwanese tour guide, signed up the next day.
For many in Taiwan, the Russian assault on Ukraine hits close to home because of parallels with their own situation. The island’s people 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 Taiwan’s military in the 1990s, is among a small group of Taiwanese volunteers in Ukraine for whom the war is a chance to bring battlefield experience back home — where debate is raging over the island’s military readiness — and show the international community that Taiwan is worth defending.
“I want the world to see that we aren’t the kind of people who lie on the ground waiting to be rescued. If you want people to help you, you first have to help them,” Chuang said.
It’s 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.
Taiwan officials caution that war in the Taiwan Strait, the 100-mile-wide corridor between China and Taiwan, is not imminent. Officials point to differences between Taiwan’s situation and that of Ukraine, including the island’s geostrategic significance and close relationship with the United States. In May, President Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of an attack by China, before the White House backtracked on his statement, maintaining a long-running policy of strategic ambiguity over the extent of U.S. assistance.
Yet the possibility of an attack by Beijing looms larger as Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to take on a third term this year, ushering in a critical period to cement his legacy. With China increasingly at odds with Western countries, and continuing an ambitious military buildup, more observers worry that Xi will take 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, these worries motivated him in April to join the International Legion for Ukraine.
“When the war broke out in Ukraine, I rushed over as soon as I could,” said Pan, who gave only his surname out of security concerns.
He said he has been struck by how the Ukrainian military values soldiers with particular skills. When providing cover for drone pilots doing reconnaissance at the front lines, Pan said, they received orders to protect the pilots at all costs.
“In Taiwan, our electronic warfare specialists are secondary to the traditional army, and [the military] is still promoting the use of bayonets,” he said. Pan hopes to open a boot camp when he returns and bring in 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 the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war in 1949, prompting the Nationalists to flee to Taiwan and set up a rival government. Some Taiwanese islands experienced intermittent shelling by Chinese forces through the 1970s. For most residents, war remains a distant memory and an abstract possibility.
Now, Ukraine’s plight has renewed questions about the possibility of attack and Taiwan’s overall defense strategy, while bolstering calls to review the role civilians would play in a conflict. It has also highlighted concerns about the quality of training in Taiwan’s military, which requires most men to do four months of service.
The government has extended its reservist training program, raised its alert level and said that this year’s main military exercises will be informed by the Ukraine war and focused on asymmetric warfare. Last month, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan was “inspired by Ukraine” to strengthen its defense.
But these steps may not be enough to repel a far more powerful opponent like China. Taiwan’s mandatory military service is often likened to a summer camp, where recruits spend more time doing menial labor than learning combat skills. Tactics taught are comparable to those used during 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, military units and training match the kind of war we will have to fight?” said Lin Ying-yu, associate professor of Asia-Pacific affairs at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University.
For soldiers from Taiwan, the Ukraine conflict is a chance to see modern warfare up close. From using artillery in conjunction with drones to employing portable missile systems like Javelins and Stingers, “what they experience on the battlefield will definitely be useful,” Lin said.
Some Taiwanese soldiers in Ukraine say the most important skill is one that’s difficult to learn outside a real conflict.
Chen Ting-wei, 27, who trained with an elite amphibious reconnaissance and patrol unit in Taiwan known as the “frogmen,” was assigned to defend a village near Kharkiv in April.
While he was hiding in a trench with his squad one day, a car came from behind and sped past. One of his teammates, a U.S. Marine veteran, advised that they should leave in case the car was Russian surveillance. Less than a minute later, their area was bombed, killing a member of their team who hadn’t escaped in time.
“The most important experience I’ve gained is agility on the battlefield,” Chen said. “Without the experience, you won’t be able to react quickly.”
Others have been moved 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 has been most impressed by the will of the Ukrainian people, something he worries Taiwanese citizens lack.
“They have a really strong sense of unity,” he said of the Ukrainians. “I feel that in Taiwan, our solidarity is more like a show for the international community.”
The volunteers are also spreading word of Taiwan’s precarious position. When Chen tells other foreign soldiers he is from Taiwan, they promise they will come to the island’s aid when needed.
“People from Poland, the U.S., Australia, Brazil and Ukraine have 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 homeland. At Kyiv’s Independence Square recently, he took pictures with the Taiwanese flag at a monument to foreign fighters serving in Ukraine. He believes 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 — giving him hope for his homeland.
“We can be more confident in ourselves,” he said.