“If Russia wins, China will do the same to us”: Taiwanese fighting (and dying) for Ukraine

Tseng Sheng-guang died in November while fighting for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.

In a church in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, Tseng Sheng-guang’s mother takes one last look at her son, who lies in a coffin.

She is accompanied by other relatives and a number of Ukrainians who want to pay tribute to a man who died thousands of kilometers from his home, fighting for a country he had never visited before.

“My boy Sheng-guang, I want you to know that you were very brave,” says his mother. “You will always be my baby and I am proud of you.”

Tseng was fighting with the International Legion of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces when he was killed last month in the eastern city of Lyman. He was the first Taiwanese killed in action in the Ukraine.

In a statement released after his death, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Tseng had “gave his life for Ukraine’s struggle for freedom.”

Thousands of foreign soldiers have traveled to Ukraine to fight, and the number of Taiwanese among them is small, estimated at around 10.

But the invasion of Russia has resonated with the tiny island, half a world away.

China argues that Taiwan is part of its territory and says it will unite it, even by force. Taiwan sees itself as an independent territory from China.

The tensions in the strait that divides both territories increased considerably after the visit of the US politician Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last August, something that angered Beijing. China responded with military exercises around the island.

Military service

Sammy Lin, a virtual friend of Tseng’s, said the young man’s main concern was that one day, Taiwan would suffer the same fate as Ukraine:

“I remember telling his friends that he couldn’t stand Ukrainians being abused and killed by the Russians.”

Tseng was one of the “most correct people” he had come across, Lin said.

Tseng Sheng-guang’s mother traveled to retrieve her son’s remains.

Taiwan has conscription, which makes those who complete it eligible to join Ukraine’s Foreign Legion.

Jack Yao, 28, is also one of those who made the decision to go. He arrived in Ukraine three days after President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign volunteers to join Ukraine’s fight, traveling from Taipei to Poland and then to the capital Kyiv.

“I was looking at the situation since last year, especially with the Russians moving soldiers and tanks to the Ukrainian border. Nobody believed it could happen,” he told.

“The situation in Taiwan and what is happening there is very similar. I was thinking about what I could do to support Ukraine,” he added.

He joined the Georgia Foreign Legion and received close combat reconnaissance duties. When he arrived, the Russians were still trying to take Kyiv.

“There were several attacks with missiles and bombs while the Russians were in Bucha,” he says, referring to the town north of the capital.

“I had a mission, and I saw our men killed in an explosion. The bomb went off almost 50 meters behind them.”

During leisure time, he managed to discuss the Taiwan situation with members of his unit.

“A guy had lived in Taiwan for two years and knew the situation. Taiwan and Ukraine are almost brothers. It’s 100% the same. They were telling me that I couldn’t die here because I had to go back to protect my homeland,” he said.

Jack Yao – in Poland – registered to fight in Ukraine just three days after President Zelensky invited people to fight for his country.

While Yao has returned to his coffee business in Taiwan, others remain in Ukraine. In a recent video for a Ukrainian charity, two Taiwanese explained their reasons for staying in the combat zone.

“The main reason we came here was to safeguard the security of Ukrainians,” they say while holding up a Taiwanese flag.

“We also fear that if Russia wins, China will do the same in Taiwan. So we are ready to come to Ukraine, to sacrifice our lives and freedom for the safety of the people here.”

Still, not all Taiwanese who went to Ukraine had geopolitical motivations in mind. In June, Li Chenling told the  Chinese service that he was there because he wanted to live a “memorable” life.

He added that if Taiwan were to be invaded, his will to fight would depend on the response of both the Taiwanese and US governments.

“Shoulder to shoulder”

US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said his government would defend Taiwan given a possible Chinese attack. However, Washington’s official position is one of “strategic ambiguity”: it does not commit to defending Taiwan, but it does not rule out the option either.

Last month, President Biden said he did not believe a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was imminent. He said so after a face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the G20 meeting in Bali.

Taiwanese have different positions and views on the possibility of conflict, says Paul Huang of the Taiwan Public Opinion Forum.

“It’s interesting, but more people seem to indicate that they are not concerned,” he told.

“As we have seen in Ukraine, the concern that people have about a certain event does not affect in any way the probability of that event occurring, nor does it refer to the level of preparation,” he said.

However, most Taiwanese do not believe the island will be able to hold out against China for as long as Ukraine has with Russia, he added.

In her grief, Tseng’s mother said her son’s decision to fight side by side with others for Ukraine gave her some peace.

“Despite my pain, it gives me great comfort to know that in the last moments of his life, Sheng-guang was fighting shoulder to shoulder with the group of the bravest warriors, who supported each other and stood together in life and in death.”

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