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Taiwan is watching Ukraine to prepare for a possible invasion by China

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here is something you just don't hear American presidents say.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 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?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You are?

BIDEN: That's the commitment we made.

KELLY: President Biden in Tokyo in May 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 if Taiwan were to declare independence. Now, the U.S. has a long-standing policy of ambiguity when it comes to talking about all this, not wanting to risk conflict with China. The White House says that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not 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, a conflict with some similarities to its own, the one between Russia and Ukraine.

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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 in May and said Taiwan looks to Ukraine as a model for how it could defend itself against a much larger adversary with help.

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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: It's not just Taiwan's government that's taking notice. Chris Horton is a veteran journalist based there. He told me people in Taiwan are paying special attention to events in Ukraine. He picks up on it in surprising places, like 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, the 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, is our strategy to do 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?

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's 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 asking themselves and they're asking the government, what can we do today to be ready for tomorrow?

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 non-existent.

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 and 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 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 - we've been speaking to him from his base in Taipei. Thank you so much.

HORTON: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.