Ukraine and Taiwan’s Fates Are Not Predetermined

This article was co-authored by Kuan-Ting Chen and Huynh Tam Sang (黃心光), a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Faculty of International Relations, a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.

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Pundits have claimed that China could take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to launch a military assault on Taiwan. But considerations of the security landscape, pragmatic commitments of the US, and the trajectory of countries getting involved in worrisome hotspots prove that this analogy is far from convincing.

As tensions between the West and Russia are mounting, China is watching Washington’s response to the Ukraine crisis closely. Some international relations analysts and commentators also consider this security impasse a proxy for Beijing’s aggressive actions against Taiwan, not excluding launching military attacks against the island. However, this analogy is misleading as it failed to comprehensively look into the nature of security in Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait.

There are fundamental differences with regard to Ukraine’s and Taiwan’s security. Russia’s massive military build-up along Ukraine’s borders has raised concerns among the West, leaving the crisis on the verge of brinkmanship. While Moscow’s possibility of launching a full-scale invasion should not be undermined, the security in the Taiwan Strait is far from moving towards a dramatic acceleration of military actions conducted by China against Taiwan.

China may capitalize on the ongoing crisis in Europe to step up its aerial incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). However, for an invasion to occur, it is not the priority of China at this juncture, especially when it had been focused on the Winter Olympics. At this point, Chinese President Xi Jinping is also prioritizing stability, which “is needed to pull off a smooth party congress.” China would have much to lose if a crisis were to happen at this critical time. The threat of a quick invasion from China is on the table, but not to a greater extent than what is happening in Ukraine.

The US commitment to the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan

Even in the midst of conflict in Ukraine, the US has sought to solidify its commitments with Indo-Pacific partners. To be more concrete, Washington has stepped up its political capital in the region. As the Ukraine crisis simmers, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his three counterparts from Japan, Australia, and India this February to forge cooperation among Indo-Pacific liberal democracies. Foreign ministers of Quad countries share the common notion that China is a growing coercive power, and they must join hands to counter China’s regional assertiveness effectively.

In a joint statement on the US-Japan-Republic of Korea trilateral ministerial meeting released on February 12, the three allies underscored “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. In essence, Washington’s efforts to bring Taiwan into multilateral discussions aimed to deter Beijing’s adventurous actions against Taiwan and strengthen the post-Cold War rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific.

Additionally, the Biden administration’s long-promised Indo-Pacific Strategy released this month underscored Washington’s determination to support Taiwan, stating the US would enhance ties with both inside and outside partners in the Indo-Pacific region “to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, including by supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, to ensure an environment in which Taiwan’s future is determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes and best interests of Taiwan’s people.” Biden’s vow has been in line with American support for Taiwan, including its recent approval of a possible US$100 million sale of equipment and services to the island amid Beijing’s continuation of military provocations.

How Europe and the Indo-Pacific differs

In the European continent, there are concerns about differences with regard to strategies utilized to deter Russia among the US and its NATO allies. The three European leading powers Germany, Britain, and France “are pursuing sharply divergent approaches while also confronting domestic political distractions,” and there is virtually no consensus among NATO and European officials on “what measures to take in the event of an attack on Ukraine.” Washington’s strategic approach lies in diplomacy and deterrence in hope of keeping the crisis under the threshold of a full-scale war. The US has further decided to withdraw about 150 US military trainers of the Florida National Guard stationed in western Ukraine and threatened to impose harsh economic penalties should Russia invade Ukraine.

In contrast, in the Indo-Pacific like-minded powers are heading towards a shared vision of a prosperous and secure region characterized by non-coercion and a rules-based approach embraced to solve differences and disagreements. The need to support Taiwan has been shared among the Quad partners, comprising the US, Japan, Australia, and India. Even European major powers like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have underscored their long-term interest among concerns over the security in the Taiwan Strait, and called for the compliance of international law and peaceful measures when coming to issues concerning China-Taiwan relations.

As economic and political gravity has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region, the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” released in April 2021, underlined that increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait “may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.” The important role of Taiwan’s semiconductors has been recognized among European countries, and for that reason, the EU would “pursue its deep trade investment relationships with whom it does not have trade and investment relations, such as Taiwan”. Intertwined interests between Taiwan and those countries, including ensuring the freedom of navigation and maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, would likely produce a pragmatic thrust that pushes European countries’ support for Taiwan.

China has no legitimacy to attack Taiwan

The reason for launching a war is of utmost importance when comparing the cases of Ukraine and Taiwan. Russia has long expressed its discontent for NATO’s expansion of military presence near Russia’s and warned actions to facilitate the participation of Ukraine as a new member of NATO would draw Western countries into a military conflict with Russia. This crisis has fallen into disarray when Sergii Nykyforov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, affirmed that the country’s desire to join NATO and the European Union remains an absolute priority.

To foster its strategic autonomy, Taiwan has been forging economic ties with the US, and regional middle powers, such as Japan, Australia, and India, while eying ties with Central and Eastern Europe countries, especially on trade and economic issues. But President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has made clear that Taiwan opposes unification but will not attempt to pursue formal changes to the status quo, China does not have a legitimate reason to kick off an invasion against Taiwan. Though the cross-Strait relations have been tense, the incumbent Taiwanese government has been astute in not seeking to provoke China by declaring “formal independence”.

The alignment between Taiwan and like-minded countries has helped enhance Taiwan’s political status and made it less certain for China to invade Taiwan without facing severe costs. The key factor for Taiwan’s security is the degree of engagement from the US. In coping with contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, America has cemented its partnership with Quad countries and supported Taiwan via deepening ties on both economic and military domains.

But as Washington could not afford to spread its military on both European and Asian fronts, the wise choice would be to focus on the Indo-Pacific. And this is what the US has been doing under the Trump and Biden administration. As pointed out by Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor Hal Brands, one reason the Biden Administration “has explicitly rejected the possibility of defending Ukraine militarily” is to focus more on China. But Washington should work harder to successfully have South Korea on board with America’s commitment to supporting Taiwan, especially when the ROK might “stay out of any Taiwan scuffle,” said Sean King, senior vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy based in New York.

So far, the possibility of China taking advantage of the Ukraine crisis to attack Taiwan is not likely. When coming to considerations like the security landscape, pragmatic commitments of the US, and the trajectory of countries getting involved in worrisome hotspots, Taiwan is currently in a safer mode compared with Ukraine. The US may not respond militarily to an invasion of Ukraine. However, strategic calculations could likely prompt Washington’s embrace of military measures when coming to the Taiwan Strait. And Chinese leaders must be wise enough to separate the US’s response to the Ukraine crisis and Washington’s interests and military capability in Asia.