As the war is raging in Ukraine, shock waves reverberate in East Asia, where many in Taiwan fear they could be next. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has never made a secret of his ambition to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, preferably peacefully, but without ruling out the deployment of military force if necessary. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has become increasingly assertive, routinely violating Taiwan’s airspace. The return of interstate war engenders vivid security concerns, provoking major foreign policy ruptures worldwide. Germany has announced a Є100-billion envelope to modernize its military and pledge to spend 2% of its GDP on defence in response to Russia’s aggression, while influential former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for an end to the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan. Abe also expressed favorable views for hosting and sharing nuclear weapons with the U.S.
Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC/China) and Russia have denounced for the first time, in a joint statement, NATO’s enlargement, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, and affirmed a shared world view. Despite Chinese media and officials explaining that the comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan is wrong, there are fears that war in Ukraine could impact China’s calculus over Taiwan and enhance conflict escalation in East Asia. Analysts interpret Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as another hit on the liberal world order, further fragilizing U.S. credibility, and encouraging authoritarian regimes to rely on force. Western intelligence agencies, experts, and pundits have expressed concerns that China could capitalize on the West being busy in Ukraine to increase pressure on Taiwan. This begs the question: What parallels and lessons can be drawn from the war in Ukraine for a possible conflict in Taiwan?
First, U.S. diplomatic and military support to Taiwan results from America’s geostrategic and geo-economic interests associated with the island’s defence. Such interests are absent in Ukraine, which means U.S. credibility in East Asia shares no relation with Ukraine. Second, China is unlikely to change its short-term calculations regarding Taiwan because the PLA remains unprepared to conduct a difficult amphibious invasion successfully. Unlike Russia, China has time on its side, a broader toolkit to coerce Taiwan, and a need for global stability.
U.S. Security Commitments to Taiwan Are Stronger Than to Ukraine
The United States has been far more implicated in Taiwan’s defence since 1954 than it has ever been in Ukraine since 1991, making one commitment incomparably stronger than the other. During the first and second Taiwan Strait Crises (1954 and 1958), the U.S. actively supported its ally, the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan). The U.S. Congress passed the “Formosa Resolution,” giving President Eisenhower full authority to defend Taiwan and its small islands. The third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-96) witnessed another American display of forces supporting the ROC to deter the PRC, even though the U.S.-ROC alliance had been replaced in 1979 by the Taiwan Relation Act: While not a formal security alliance, it nonetheless has provisions for the U.S. to supply weapons so Taiwan can defend itself.
Furthermore, the U.S policy of strategic ambiguity has never stopped Washington from arming Taiwan with technologically advanced weapons (including fighter jets, drones, artillery). In comparison, Ukraine has only received defensive weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger air defence missiles, ammunition, and military hardware since the beginning of the crisis and then of the war. President Biden’s supportive declaration reaffirming U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan is completely different than the unambiguous statement that no U.S. soldier will ever step foot on Ukrainian soil to defend Kyiv against Moscow. However, it is interesting to note that not only U.S. military instructors have been in Taiwan to train its army – they were also already present in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion.
Even though there has been no official U.S.-Taiwan policy shift, Biden’s supportive declaration to Taiwan is accompanied by the introduction of the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, the Taiwan Defense Act, and the Arm Taiwan Act to the U.S. Congress. Although not adopted yet, these bills contrast with the $14 billion in emergency funding Congress authorized to help Ukraine and especially with the newly introduced 2022 Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act, which has no provision for the use of U.S. military force in defence of Ukraine, while it is increasingly discussed in the case of Taiwan even though it is under specified circumstances. Moreover, the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages the U.S. and Taiwanese officials to visit each other, was signed into law in 2018, while the TAIPEI Act, which reinforces trade and economic relations with Taiwan and other nations, was adopted in 2020.
As such, U.S. credibility is more at stake in Taiwan than in Ukraine. A new version of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act could allow the U.S. to lend more sophisticated military equipment to Ukraine. But even if Washington further extends its support to Ukraine, Kyiv does not have anything remotely similar to the Taiwan Relation Act. As Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser, emphasizes, this policy decision constitutes a significant legal difference between Ukraine and Taiwan. From a diplomatic standpoint, the significant and long-lasting U.S. support to Taiwan makes its retrieval highly complex and reputationally costly. U.S. actions or non-actions in Ukraine will not fundamentally change this situation.
U.S. Interests in East Asia
The significant U.S. geo-economic and geostrategic interests in Taiwan’s defence mirrors the strong diplomatic and military support Taipei has received from Washington. Taiwan is located in the First Island Chain, which stretches from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south, bordering strategic maritime sea lanes in the East and South China Seas. A PRC-seized Taiwan would give its missiles a 150 nautical miles extension to the east. This would increase Chinese control on strategic sea lanes and place parts of Japan and Guam within the Chinese missile range. It would seriously undermine, if not shatter, the credibility of U.S. commitments to other allies, potentially pushing Japan, South Korea, and others to go nuclear. Taiwan represents a crucial link of the U.S. security network, as indicated in Washington’s latest Indo-Pacific strategy.
Economically, Taiwan is the U.S.’s 9th-biggest commercial partner totalling $105.9 billion in goods and services (two-way). In comparison, Ukraine was the United States’ 67th trading partner with merely $3.7 billion in economic exchanges between the two countries in 2019. Taiwan is widely integrated into the global economy and has strategic importance for semiconductors. It is home to TSMC, one of the world’s biggest semiconductor companies, representing 50% of the total global market share. It even goes to 90% of dominance on specific market segments. Semiconductors are crucial for electronic devices used in military systems and other non-military industries on which the modern economy depends. By ensuring the global supply of a product indispensable to manufacture strategic goods, Taiwan has a geo-economic value that Ukraine lacks.
China’s Calculus Over Taiwan is Different than Russia’s Over Ukraine
If Russian adventurism in Ukraine is like a barometer for Beijing to gauge the costs of using military force, it is unlikely that China finds it appealing to invade Taiwan. China has time on its side. Russia is in a hurry and has little leverage outside its military to coerce its geopolitical competitors, except for oil and gas exports. It results in Russia relying on its military to secure vital interests through disruption because it lacks other means. China, on the contrary, has more tools (lawfare, psychological and economic warfare, and the use of force under the threshold of war) at its disposal to engineer Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.
Russia is challenging the international system by reordering the European borders through brute force. China intends to modify the international system by creating new norms and institutions reflecting its world vision, values, and interests. Russia’s aggression is a source of instability, which is not good for Xi Jinping who wants to secure his coming renomination. In the longer term, China wants economic flows unaltered so its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can thrive and enhance world connectivity. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – a significant connector for China’s BRI – puts Xi Jinping in a very uncomfortable situation. Russia’s denial of Ukraine’s sovereignty runs counter to China’s foreign policy principles. China’s position is cautious – and its non-actions demonstrate a willingness to minimize backlash against its interests. Were China to attack Taiwan tomorrow, the current instability that Beijing wants to avoid would instead be spurred. 60% of China’s exports go to the U.S. and its allies. In the case of a sudden Chinese invasion of Taiwan, many of China’s trade surpluses would shrink due to sanctions, which would shake the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy, undermine its BRI, and potentially complicate Xi Jinping’s renomination for a third term.
Last but not least, militarily speaking, Taiwan is an island, making it more difficult to invade than Ukraine. Putin “just” had to cross land borders and face – on paper – a relatively weak Ukrainian army. In contrast, China would have to mount a sophisticated and costly amphibious invasion against a well-armed island closely backed by the U.S. and Japan. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the war in Ukraine could precipitate a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the short term. China’s broader toolbox, stability interests, and relation to time do not incentivize adopting Russia’s brute-force method. It is preferable for China to rely on its hybrid strategy and grey-zone tactics to work its way toward reunification.
In 2025, however, the modernization of the PLA will reach a point where an invasion of Taiwan is feasible. According to a U.S. military commander, China could invade Taiwan by 2027 to mark the 100th anniversary of the PLA. Another sensitive date is 2049 because it is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, where national rejuvenation must be achieved. Taiwan’s reunification is tightly linked to China’s rejuvenation. The latter is part of the Chinese Dream, along with the already-attained status of being a moderately well-off society. If the war in Ukraine might not immediately trigger a Chinese move on Taiwan, it does not mean it won’t happen in the medium and long term. Still, this supposes China’s hybrid strategy would not yield satisfactory results. In that case, a blockade might seem more appropriate than an all-out military invasion as it would theoretically limit material damages, human casualties, and the severity and unity of Western retaliation.
The first lesson of this analysis is that assessing a state’s underlying material interests is a sound way to gauge the credibility of associated security guarantees. China would be ill-advised to draw parallels between the U.S. response to the Ukrainian war and the potential U.S. response in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. It is a mistake to assume U.S. resolve must be at its maximum on all issues. States prioritize objectives depending on their interests and Taiwan tops the list of U.S. security interests, while Ukraine does not. This is reflected by the significant U.S. military and diplomatic support to Taiwan. Not only is linking the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in East Asia to peripheric stakes counterproductive, but it could even turn dangerous. In the last months, calls to end U.S. strategic ambiguity in favor of a clear commitment to Taiwan’s defence have intensified. Fearing for its credibility, the U.S. might end its long-time policy of strategic ambiguity and adopt a clear commitment to defend Taiwan. This might consequentially push Taiwan to proclaim independence as a clear U.S. commitment would boost Taipei’s confidence. This, in return, might accelerate Chinese assertiveness and even Taiwan’s invasion.
The second lesson is that “invasions are not contagious.” China is unlikely to alter its immediate plans and decide to invade Taiwan because of the war in Ukraine. China has global ambitions and is interested in preserving the fluidity of economic exchanges as its BRI intends to increase connectivity, for which it needs stability. The amphibious nature of a military invasion of Taiwan makes it very unsettling and costly for China to go down that path. China is better off leveraging its power through a hybrid strategy mixing diplomatic, economic, cyber, psychological, legal, and semi-military measures to coerce Taiwan into reunification over time.
On the other hand, this does not mean China will never use force, especially as the PLA’s modernization will soon make it capable of invading Taiwan. As we get closer to important anniversaries, the temptation to use force will increase, particularly if the CCP has nothing to brandish to demonstrate progress on Taiwan’s reunification. But if anything, the Ukrainian crisis, since its beginning, has shown a solid transatlantic unity and willingness to impose massive economic costs on Russia. Whether China is willing to bet on facing similar costs (is the world ready to impose such costs on China in case of an invasion of Taiwan?) and a U.S. military intervention to counter a Chinese invasion is hard to say. What is certain, however, is that invading Taiwan is different from invading Ukraine, both militarily and in terms of the consequences for world stability as well as for American and Chinese interests.