U.S. defense strategists warn that China may use the distraction of the war in Ukraine to launch military action against Taiwan. They believe Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to gain control over the breakaway province — which has been beyond Beijing’s control since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — before he leaves office.
In response to these concerns, in July 2023, the U.S. announced a $345 million military aid package for Taiwan. For the first time, arms are being delivered to Taiwan from U.S. stockpiles under presidential drawdown authority, which does not require congressional approval.
Such fears have been heightened by the fact that China has stepped up its probes of Taiwan’s defenses over the past year. Last month saw the release of an eight-part docuseries by state media broadcaster CCTV titled “Chasing Dreams” about the Chinese military’s readiness to attack Taiwan.
Factors making war more likely
The main argument that the war in Ukraine makes a Chinese attack on Taiwan more likely centers on the failure of the threat of U.S. sanctions to deter Russia from invading.
Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that U.S. power, weakened by the Trump presidency, was in decline. He also knew — because President Joe Biden said so — that the U.S. was unwilling to commit its own troops in combat against the nuclear-armed foe.
Putin saw the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 as a sign that the U.S. has lost its appetite for military intervention overseas. The U.S. relies on economic sanctions to pressure adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. But Putin was confident that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would prevent it from imposing serious sanctions on Russia. He was also emboldened by the lackluster Western response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
It turned out that Putin was wrong about Europeans’ unwillingness to stop buying Russian energy. But he was right about the U.S. aversion to committing its own forces to defend Ukraine.
As with Ukraine, U.S. policy regarding Taiwan is built around using the threat of economic sanctions to deter China from attacking the province. However, there is also the possibility — absent in Ukraine — that the U.S. would commit its forces to defend Taiwan. The official U.S. policy is one of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. Furthermore, there is the simple geographical fact that Taiwan is an island, and thus easier to defend than Ukraine.
For the people of Taiwan, Putin’s invasion shows that an authoritarian leader can wage war at any time, for no good reason. Ukraine has so far managed to prevent a Russian victory, but it is paying a heavy price in terms of lost lives and a shattered economy. According to some Taiwanese observers, the people of Taiwan would be unwilling to pay such a heavy price to preserve its political autonomy.
There is also the concern that the U.S. is so tied up with the Ukraine crisis that it does not have the political bandwidth to deal with Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Arms that could have been sold to Taiwan have been sent to Ukraine. Xi may see this as an opportunity that he can exploit.
Factors that make war less likely
There are, however, several factors that make conflict over Taiwan less probable. Russia’s failure to achieve victory in Ukraine makes it less likely that Xi would gamble on the use of military force to occupy Taiwan.
The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov argues that “the Ukrainian war has focused minds in Beijing on the inherent unpredictability of a military conflict.” Meanwhile, Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative in the U.S., has said that Ukraine’s success in defending itself will deter China from attacking Taiwan.
One reason is advances in weaponry. The latest generation of drones and missiles capable of destroying aircraft, ships and tanks favors the defense. This makes invasion of Taiwan more risky for China. Moreover, Russia’s weapons seem to be generally less effective than those of its NATO counterparts — and China’s arsenal relies heavily on Russian designs.
Also, the Ukraine war has unified European allies behind U.S. leadership. In 2019, French President Emanuel Macron was talking about NATO being “brain dead.” After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the alliance stepped up defense spending and both Sweden and Finland applied for membership. Finland officially joined NATO in April 2023 while Sweden awaits final ratification.
The European Union was previously reluctant to join the U.S. trade war with China. However, China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Brussels more willing to join the U.S. in pushing back against China’s efforts to dominate key sectors of global trade. EU Commission President Ursula van der Leyen said in March 2023 that “China is becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” China is all too aware that overstepping in Taiwan would further unite nations in a trade war against Beijing.
The Ukraine war has also unified core Asian allies behind U.S. leadership. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea joined the sanctions on Russia, and Japan plans to increase defense spending by 60% by 2027. In March 2022, Russia added Taiwan to its Unfriendly Countries and Territories List, and in August 2022 Taiwan canceled visa-free travel for Russians, which had been introduced in 2018.
It is difficult to assess how sanctions on Russia affect China’s decision calculus. The sanctions have seriously hurt Russia’s economy, but have not prevented the country from waging the war. Given China’s high level of trade with Europe and the U.S., it is likely that sanctions leveled in retaliation for an attack on Taiwan would be severely damaging for the Chinese economy.
In launching the abortive war on Ukraine, Russia has shown itself to be weak and unstable, and therefore less useful as an ally to China. Besides the initial failure to take Kyiv, developments such as the Wagner mutiny illustrate the fragility of the Putin regime and must have rung alarm bells in Beijing. In November 2022, Xi called for an end to threats to use nuclear weapons in an implicit rebuke to Russia.
The peace plan that China released in February 2023, “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” insisted on the importance of respecting sovereignty while ignoring Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. It was arguably more about Taiwan than Ukraine.
China seemingly wants to see an end to the Ukraine war, but on terms acceptable to its ally, Moscow. China has accepted Russia’s narrative that NATO is to blame for the war, but still pays lip service to the importance of respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Those principles are central to the “One China” policy and Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. China’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion puts it in a position that is riven with contradictions and makes it hard to play a role as a broker for peace.
There is no simple answer to the question of how the war in Ukraine has impacted Beijing’s intentions regarding Taiwan. But it has starkly illustrated to all sides that the stakes are high, and the costs of miscalculation are punitive.
Prof. Peter Rutland has taught at Wesleyan since 1989. Before that he taught at the University of Texas at Austin, and at the University of York and London University in the UK. He has a BA from Oxford and a D. Phil from York. He has also been a visiting professor at Columbia University, and is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
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