Autocratic Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine raises many questions about Taiwan, whose independence is also under existential threat from its larger and more powerful neighbor.
Neither Russia nor China sees Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively, as independent states. China thinks it is completely consistent that it: (a) “respects and safeguards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” including Ukraine, while (b) considering Taiwan a mere province and an “inseparable” part of China, one that can be seized by force, despite China’s questionable historical claims and its utter lack of normative legitimacy over Taiwan’s territory. China certainly has not hidden its desire to appropriate its neighbor: it reiterates its claim on the island at every opportunity, and its friendship/alliance treaties with Russia and North Korea require its partners to recognize that claim as well.
It may seem irrational for China to invade Taiwan. After all, the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act (1979) requires maintaining America’s capacity to resist a coercive takeover of Taiwan’s territory or political or economic systems. While the legislation is ambiguous about the extent of American resistance, President Biden has recently said the U.S. has a “commitment” to defend Taiwan and would honor that, so an invasion of Taiwan may have to contend with U.S. military forces. The U.S. pledge is, of course, one reason for China’s critique of America’s “hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs,” such as in Hong Kong. China’s president Xi Jinping himself has said, “The biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States.”
Domestically, the CCP has used what it calls a “wandering” Taiwan to help forge Chinese nationalist identity. China’s forays into the East and South China Seas are also part of an ongoing strategy to promote domestic cohesion. After the ashes of Mao’s continuous revolutions and the seeming chaos of economic and political experimentation in the 1980’s, the CCP sought to consolidate a unifying Chinese identity, and nationalism is a quick way to do it. As William Graham Sumner said, “The great force for forging a society into a solid mass has always been war.” While the Chinese military has only recently become formidable enough to think about challenging a great power, the prospect of nationalistic war mobilizes “national unity” in the meantime.
War also distracts from rampant corruption and deep-seated social and economic problems at home. It is fairly certain that the CCP has spent more money on domestic security than on the military, every year in the past decade. This indicates a certain amount of domestic instability and pressure that must be alleviated, and what better way than with military victory? This is a timeless phenomenon: “What this country needs is a short, victorious war to stem the tide of revolution,” said Russian interior minister Vyacheslav von Phleve, shortly before provoking the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).
Taiwan is only useful as a domestic cudgel so long as it remains unattained, however, and it would be irrational for the CCP to give up this valuable issue just yet. There is a risk, however small, that China would not win a war to seize Taiwan. Crucial to von Phleve’s idea was that the war be both quick and successful, and in 1905 Russia failed at the latter, which only fed the ongoing unrest that ultimately culminated in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
In holding Taiwan as a key factor in China’s restoration to its “rightful” standing in the world, the CCP has unwittingly made unification a benchmark for CCP legitimacy, insofar as it can deliver on the nationalist flames that it fans. Risking a failed or even prolonged invasion that might ultimately topple the CCP seems irrational, especially since the Party’s primary interest is its own survival.
Yet the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine in a bid to restore Russian imperial glory was similarly irrational, so much so that many people assumed that Putin would not do it. This assumption was, we now know, wrong. In this respect, the only “rationality” that matters is a narrow one: the ability to identify a goal and to devise a way to pursue it. Prospects for success do not have to be great, and to equate “irrationality” with “impossibility” leaves us blind to what others consider to be viable courses of action.
What lessons is China most likely to take from the current situation in Ukraine? How might Taiwan and the U.S., as its defensive ally, in turn deter China in light of those recalculations? China and Taiwan should be learning valuable military lessons from Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s resistance. The Russia/Ukraine analogy also reveals key differences with the China/Taiwan dilemma, particularly the efficacy of sanctions against China and how Taiwan’s geography constrains all parties.
Lessons from Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine
The CCP is paying attention to how Putin’s war is unfolding. There are, of course, military lessons. Putin seems to have expected quick victory and sent a military that was operationally unprepared for the combination of weather, terrain, and fierce Ukrainian resistance, and Russian forces are performing far worse than expected. In comparison, China’s military will be better prepared, and would fight a target with far less military capability.
In addition, combat experience matters. Despite its Chechen wars, military involvement in the Syrian civil war, and invasions of Crimea, Georgia, and Ukraine’s Donbas, the Russian military has not fought at this scale in recent decades, and this shows in its intelligence failures, unpreparedness for this type of asymmetric warfare, disorganized command and control, poor logistics and joint operations, and inadequate and ill-maintained equipment for the mission.
Similarly, China is in the midst of multi-pronged reforms to modernize and professionalize its military: trimming deadweight from its over two million personnel (including political officers), streamlining its military command regions, placing various agencies directly under the CCP’s Central Military Commission authority, enabling more jointness and better integration of its military branches, establishing overseas military bases, and developing blue-water naval capacity. China is now the world’s third-largest weapons exporter, behind the U.S. and Russia; selling weapons is not only a source of revenue, but also a sign of military influence and global leadership, and can bolster valuable political alliances.
It is hard to know how effective these recent reforms are and how proficient the Chinese military with its new weaponry would be until it fights a war, and the People’s Liberation Army & Navy (PLAN) is not battle-tested. China has not fought a war since 1979, against Vietnam, well before this modernization effort. Like the Russian military, whose technological improvements are now revealed to have been sabotaged by rampant corruption, the PLAN suffers from endemic corruption, which surely limits its capabilities.
Ukraine has received over $2 billion worth of military aid (weapons and other matériel) in the past year—including commitments since the Russian invasion—that have been essential to its continued resistance. Such military aid could also flow to Taiwan in the event of an invasion, with similar effect.
The widespread sanctions regime against Russia is noteworthy, imposed not only by the U.S. and many European countries (including neutral Switzerland) but also Asia-Pacific countries such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. These sanctions target a variety of Russian exports. More significantly, they prevent many much-needed imports (including Western-made replacement parts for airplanes) and Russian central banking transactions on its foreign currency reserves, which is devastating the Ruble’s legitimacy and has helped shut Russia’s stock market for the past three weeks.
The resolute, coordinated liberal democratic response to punish Russia has surprised everyone—not least the leadership of those sanctioning countries themselves, who still had to be persuaded by Ukraine to take action after the invasion began. It will also have surprised the CCP, which has enjoyed little resistance over the years to its transgressions, from oppressing domestic minorities and political dissidents to claiming and militarizing islands in the South China Sea. The Russian sanctions are showing the international community what resistance it is capable of, and this will cause the CCP to recalculate.
Taiwan’s unique situation and the China context
Many consider the strong response of liberal democracies to Russia despite considerable risks and costs to themselves to be a great awakening in the struggle against autocracies. Yet while this would be a welcome development in the global order, it is too early to say for sure that this will be sustained and consolidated.
The U.S., for example, reacted surprisingly quickly and definitively at least in part because its heart is eastward oriented, understandably so, because of its historical and cultural affinities with Europe. Although Asia is more strategically important for the U.S. than Europe in the long run, passions matter, and it is not clear that the U.S. and Europe would respond with the same vigor to threats to the global order that originate in Asia, even if they should.
China is more embedded in the global economy, which cuts both ways. Compared to Russia’s ≈$640 billion in foreign currency reserves, China holds ≈$3.2 trillion, as of February 2022, which makes it even more vulnerable to foreign currency reserve restrictions.
But China is also a more important global supplier than Russia. In 2019, Russia was the U.S.’ 20th largest supplier of goods imports, at a value of $22.3 billion. In contrast, China has been the largest exporter of goods in the world since 2009. In 2013, China overtook the U.S. as the largest trading nation in the world. China is currently the U.S.’ largest goods trading partner, with $559.2 billion in total (two-way) goods trade, and its largest supplier of goods imports in 2020. The U.S. also provides a significant amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) to China, primarily in manufacturing, wholesale trade, and finance and insurance, totaling $123.9 billion in 2020, a 9.4 percent increase from 2019.
China’s greater embeddedness in the American and global economy makes it both more and less vulnerable than Russia to a widespread and unified sanctions regime, because the costs would be much higher for everyone involved. The question about sanctions would be which side is willing to pay those costs and for how long.
Perhaps the most intractable difference between Taiwan and Ukraine is geography. Ukraine is a large country (233,062 sq. mi.; 43 million people) with mostly land borders. This makes it easier to invade Ukraine but also easier for allies to supply it with weapons and other matériel. Taiwan, in contrast, is much smaller (13,974 sq. mi.; 23 million people) and comprised of one large and numerous smaller islands, including a small holding (Kinmen) just off the Asian mainland. For the most part, it is separated from China by a 130km strait, which makes it harder for China to invade, but also harder for Taiwanese to evacuate or flee, and much harder for weapons and matériel to be supplied to the Taiwanese military.
The over four million refugees who have thus far fled Ukraine represent a real human tragedy, but they also represent lives saved. The bulk of the refugees have taken trains, driven, and even walked to the border, then crossed to safety in an adjoining country. There would be very few refugees out of Taiwan, and therefore many more civilian casualties, because there are few viable paths to safety off an island under massive aerial bombardment and amphibious invasion.
To exploit the international community’s inertial reluctance to overturn even new status quos, China, like Russia, would want to win a war of conquest quickly. And like Ukraine, Taiwan does not have to repel an invasion immediately. So long as it can sustain an extended defense, it could eventually win by not losing, as the examples of Vietnam and Afghanistan show. But both Taiwan and the U.S. would have to respond equally quickly to a Chinese attack, because Taiwan would not be able to prolong a war for nearly as long as Ukraine conceivably could, because it would be enormously difficult for allies to supply matériel to an island nation close to China’s shores. (And if the war drags on, there will be similar concerns about the invader using tactical nuclear weapons.)
As a committed defensive partner, the U.S. must lay the groundwork now for Taiwan to realistically resist Chinese invasion. Liberating Taiwan after conquest would be a significantly different proposition than defending it from conquest.
Taiwan probably does not need to fear imminent invasion while the U.S. is distracted with Ukraine, because China itself is still unprepared. Every authoritarian ruler is primarily concerned with his own survival, and Xi Jinping most likely wants to secure his third term as CCP general secretary at the next Party Congress, which will take place in the latter half of this year. China’s military is not ready for a potential war with the U.S., but it probably will be ready within the next five years. China is still working to insulate itself from global economic sanctions. It is more focused on economic decoupling than the U.S. is, perhaps because China is actually the more vulnerable of the two right now because it lacks control over core computing systems and lags behind the U.S. in key areas such as operating systems, semiconductors, and aerospace. China is hard at work changing that: its 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) emphasizes scientific and technological self-sufficiency, including everything from agriculture (seeds, chickens), agrochemicals, vaccines, computer operating systems, payments networks, and semiconductors, to civilian aerospace. The economic decoupling of China and the U.S., so that each side can more credibly threaten the other, will take decades, however, if not longer. (Notably, Taiwan makes over 90% of the most advanced semiconductors, globally; this is simultaneously a deterrent and an enticement to China, and an incentive behind U.S. support.)
Accidents happen, and China could easily get pulled into an undesired conflict with Taiwan. The situation in Hong Kong is a case in point. The CCP is unlikely to have wanted the timing and nature of Hong Kong’s crackdown to unfold the way it did, but it also could not risk showing weakness once it was backed into a corner. Unanticipated misunderstandings or conflicts could spin out of control in ways that no one intends.
Both Taiwan and the U.S. Need to be Prepared
Taiwan needs more American tactical military training of its professional forces to build capacity, more operational staff exchanges to assist planning and integration, and more intelligence sharing. Taiwan’s largely mountainous terrain would be conducive to prolonged guerrilla resistance, and its general population needs short, intense Finnish-style military training and refresher courses, which teach territorial defense and guerrilla tactics for harassing and killing invaders, in order to augment professional fighting forces. (Think of this as reappropriating the term “Finlandization!”) Instead of teaching military discipline or tackling the impossible task of generating a disciplined fighting force from four short months of mandatory military service, military-age Taiwanese would learn how to set up barriers and obstacles, evade the enemy and survive in harsh terrain, throw Molotov cocktails, set traps, shoot, and fire anti-tank missiles, for example. This scheme would be a tough sell politically in Taiwan, but it would pay enormous dividends. Reports of Ukrainian grannies getting weapons training are inspiring, but it is too little too late, and the Taiwanese need to be trained before an invasion.
Along these lines, Taiwan should invest in, and the U.S. should help supply, certain counter-force armaments in order to sustain asymmetric warfare. Such arms include naval mines, coastal-defense cruise missiles on mobile launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, radar-jamming systems, counter-battery radar, portable air-defense systems, and drones, as well as ammunition, fuel, food, and medical supplies.
Such measures can be managed as “grey zone” activity, which deliberately challenges the status quo in such small increments that it seems unjustified and imprudent for others to become the aggressor with a kinetic military response, all while the activity steadily chips away at the existing order. China will see all these defensive preparations as provocations, of course, but just as the world has been reluctant to escalate against much of China’s grey zone activities in the South China Sea, China would be wary of starting a war over similarly incremental enhancements in Taiwanese defenses, especially while China is still reforming its own military.
Moving Beyond U.S. Strategic Ambiguity
The U.S. has long maintained a posture of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan, retaining the Taiwan Relations Act while refusing to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty or publicly commit to coming to Taiwan’s defense in case of attack, and pressuring Taiwan to maintain the status quo. Given overwhelming U.S. interest in maintaining the liberal global political and economic order, strategic ambiguity has outlived its purpose. Material circumstances have changed: there is already an arms race in Asia, one that China is rather lopsidedly winning; there are already sharp hostilities between China and the U.S.; and China is currently being deterred not by American strategic ambiguity but rather American military capacity and China’s own domestic considerations, as above.
Meanwhile, the CCP increasingly exploits the U.S.’ strategic ambiguity with escalating physical threats, e.g., more than doubling the number of PLA incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ last year from the previous year, as well as continued economic coercion and information warfare. China also does not neglect the diplomatic front: under continual Chinese pressure, international organizations (including the United Nations) and all save 13 countries, plus the Vatican, acknowledge Taiwan’s existence but reject its sovereignty. Many argue that lack of official recognition is inconsequential given its de facto independence, but Taiwan suffers severe consequences, e.g., when China limited Taiwan’s access to WHO assistance during the SARS pandemic. The rest of the world suffers for this, too: the WHO downplayed Taiwan’s Dec. 31, 2019 warning about a new type of “pneumonia” that it noticed spreading in Wuhan, China.
The international community’s acceptance of Taiwan’s ambiguous status means no one knows how to proceed with respect to Taiwan. It leaves Taiwan vulnerable to the kind of coercion and intimidation that Ukraine suffered in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion. It also means that neither Taiwan nor the U.S. will be adequately and appropriate prepared for China’s coercive force. Strategic clarity does not preclude engagement with China and neither does it require public support for Taiwanese independence—rather, it only requires commitment to defend Taiwan, in the face of decidedly unambiguous Chinese intentions to seize Taiwan eventually.
Legitimate governance and sovereignty
It is true that the Kuomintang (KMT), which ruled Taiwan in a one-party dictatorship for nearly five decades, never renounced its claim to Chinese territory after it lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949. But Taiwan, a liberal democracy since 1996, has no interest in ruling China. Ironically, it is the CCP that keeps the KMT from renouncing its vestigial claim, because China would consider that a declaration of Taiwanese independence and worthy of invasion.
In the absence of normative legitimacy as a standard for statehood, widespread recognition of sovereignty matters, not least when it comes to international law that accords rights of self-defense only to sovereign states. Medieval governments like Saudi Arabia and brutal dictatorships like Syria and China are considered to have sovereign rights of self-defense—why should free and diverse liberal democracies Taiwan not have the same rights?
Taiwan cannot win a conventional conflict against China, and the odds that it would eventually win an asymmetric war are still exceedingly long. Deterrence always carries risk—it can bring about precisely what it seeks to prevent—but the more likely it is that Taiwan could resist invasion, the less likely it is that China will invade. Because Ukraine has no formal treaty alliance with the U.S. or NATO, the U.S. have been able to oppose Russia’s invasion while refraining from direct confrontation. But the Taiwan Relations Act means the U.S. cannot avoid direct conflict with China over Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, so the U.S. would also be directly endangered by a Chinese invasion. It would suffer casualties if it were to implement a naval blockade, for example, and if confrontation escalated from there—so all the more need for both Taiwan and the U.S. to prepare properly now to bolster Taiwan’s capabilities.
Long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month, Russia made it crystal clear that it regarded Ukrainian independence as an unfortunate historical anomaly that needed to be reversed. China has been even more explicit, telegraphing its intent toward Taiwan along every diplomatic and military dimension. Like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping has been transparent about this aim. While sustained preparation over time is not the strong suit of U.S. security policy, Ukraine’s example should not go to waste.
The U.S.’ security challenge in Asia is more complex, and more dangerous, than what it currently faces in Eastern Europe, but the interests at stake carry across regions: tyrannical disregard for the sovereign independence of democracies threatens everyone. The fate of liberal democratic Taiwan, perhaps even more so than Ukraine, will test whether the global liberal democratic community can sustain its post-Cold War awakening.
Yvonne Chiu is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Conspiring with the Enemy: The Ethic of Cooperation in Warfare. All views are her own and do not represent the U.S. government.