Taiwan and Ukraine are far apart, geographically different, and have contrasting geopolitical valuations. One is in Asia, an island, and the world’s largest microchip maker. The other is in Europe, a continental country with a maritime frontage, with a bustling pre-war industrial base, and is one of the world’s breadbaskets. But as a devastating war in Ukraine entered its seventh month with no end in sight, growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait make for stark comparisons. Is Ukraine the present and Taiwan the future?
Ukraine is to Russia what Cuba is to the U.S.
Parallels are being made about the factors that led to the war in Ukraine and brewing tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Russia railed against NATO’s unabashed post-Cold War eastward expansion to absorb former Warsaw Pact countries and ex-Soviet Union republics that brought alliance troops and military infrastructure right at its doorstep. Given the disintegration of the former U.S.S.R. and the economic decline and security challenges of its successor state, Russia, successive waves of NATO enlargement only fuelled enmity.
NATO’s unrelenting eastward push reached a critical juncture when Moscow drew the redline in Ukraine. Due to historical, cultural, security and geopolitical considerations, Russia could not allow Ukraine to fall into NATO’s orbit. The United States went to great lengths to prevent communist Cuba, just a few miles off Florida, from hosting potentially nuclear-tipped missiles, which will present an existential danger to its security. Washington even sponsored attempts to overthrow the Castro government (e.g. 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco) and imposed one of the world’s most enduring and crippling economic embargoes against the island. Against Havana’s demands, the U.S. also kept its military base in Guantanamo.
In a way, Ukraine is to Russia what Cuba is to the U.S.. Kiev’s entry into NATO will undermine Russian security and embolden Moldova and Georgia to likewise consider NATO membership. This will leave Belarus as the only ex-Soviet republic in eastern Europe still sticking it out with Moscow. Should Minsk flip, the encirclement of European Russia will be completed. This probably tied the Kremlin’s hands to take a drastic and forceful response to stem the tide. Indeed, Ukraine is an independent and sovereign country and its alignment is its own choosing. But it does not exist in a vacuum. The same is true for Cuba. This, in no way, endorses the war, especially the assault on non-military targets. This too does not excuse Russian irredentism, weaponization of frozen conflicts as leverage and using referenda to provide cover for annexing a neighbor’s territory.
Viewed from the prism of proxy war and major power competition, the war in Ukraine also presents Washington with an opportunity to degrade a rival – a chance too good to pass. The U.S. bled in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was subdued in Afghanistan, and Russia may be on its way in Ukraine. The ongoing brutal war is also a venue to test weapons, doctrines and concepts in the actual battlefield.
Risks of hollowing the One China Policy
In the Far East, a similar analogy can be made about the U.S.' increased naval and air presence in regional flashpoints like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. While NATO’s bases ring Russia’s western borders, the Cold-War era U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance system that runs north-to-south from Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines to Australia continues to contain and bottle China in its near seas. This so-called First Island Chain and the Malacca dilemma - the vulnerability arising from denial of access through a vital chokepoint - long shaped Chinese strategic thinking. The Belt and Road Initiative’s general westward direction was possibly influenced by this hurdle.
In recent years, the U.S. upped its arms sales and high-level visits to Taiwan, culminating in the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the second highest ranking person in the U.S. government’s hierarchy, last month. The visit - only the second after 25 years - plunged the world’s most important bilateral relations to one of its lowest points in decades. Beijing has long regarded Taiwan as part of China and reunification as integral to the country’s national rejuvenation. A U.S. senator, two governors, and two congressional delegations followed suit after Pelosi, and the guest list may go on. The U.S. also approved a huge $1.1 billion arms deal that includes logistics support for Taipei’s surveillance radars, along with anti-ship and tactical air missiles. Proposed U.S. bills, like the Taiwan Policy Act, that will substantially upgrade Washington-Taipei ties and hollow the One China policy can only further corrode U.S.-China relations already bursting at the seams.
In the same breath, as NATO’s eastward expansion capitalized on Russia’s decline, Taiwan’s separation from the mainland was a legacy of China’s weakness after a series of destructive wars from the Japanese Occupation, World War II, and the Civil War. In the face of what were deemed as provocative moves, Moscow and Beijing lodged stern protests and raised matters in diplomatic and political channels. But such efforts were in vain. Russia eventually snapped in Ukraine. China is still holding the line in Taiwan despite tougher rhetoric and worries that the window for reunification is fast closing. But Beijing’s zealous response to Pelosi’s stop shows how indignant it was.
The U.S. is courting regional allies and partners to host more U.S. troops and arms and stepping up its presence in the vicinity to be able to respond swiftly to any contingency. China, with its ever-growing power projection, is not taking these developments sitting down. The U.S. may apply security pressure to get allies and partners to allow greater strategic access and even support a possible policy shift. China, in turn, may threaten its neighbors with economic sticks should they yield to U.S. demands. Hence, trouble in the Taiwan Strait can put regional countries in a bind.
While Russia does not claim Ukraine as part of its territory, China considers Taiwan as a “core interest” and opposes what it sees as foreign interference in its internal affairs. From this vantage point, Beijing is, in fact, showing more restraint. But for how long it can bear, no one knows. China’s military wherewithal has changed a lot since the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96. Rising domestic pressure and people’s expectations to take a firmer position may also put Chinese leaders in a quandary. Amid growing forays of major naval powers in critical waterways, overconfidence and assertiveness in contested spaces may raise the specter of miscalculation.
While the U.S. and NATO ship ever more sophisticated arms to Ukraine, U.S. defense companies also make a windfall from selling weapons to Taiwan against repeated Chinese objections. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia contributed to the spike in crude, grain and fertilizer prices worldwide. Arms build-up, inflation and recession make for a toxic brew, making external developments and actors expedient scapegoats for misfortunes at home.
Can countries in the region step up?
While traditional European peace brokers like Switzerland and Scandinavian countries are failing to play a role in defusing the Russia-Ukraine War, Asian countries continue to reach out to feuding parties. This is despite the risk of not being able to compel them to honor their commitments, imposing reputational costs to the mediator. Turkey brokered talks between Russia and Ukraine and secured a deal that allowed grain exports from Black Sea ports to be resumed. Indonesian President Joko Widodo travelled to Moscow and Kiev to impress on both sides the far-reaching consequences of the war on the global economy, hoping to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Indonesia, this year’s G20 Summit host, hopes to get both Russian and Ukrainian leaders to join the meeting alongside other leaders of the world’s largest economies.
In Asia, neighbors have a history of hosting talks between bickering disputants. In 2015, Singapore hosted the first-ever meeting of leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950. In 2018 and 2019, Singapore and Vietnam respectively hosted meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Asian countries are all too aware of what is at stake should conflict break out in their backyard. Thus, in light of the searing cross-Strait temperature after Pelosi’s visit, ASEAN called on all sides to show restraint and avoid making further provocative actions - a plea that went unheeded.
Taiwan need not be Asia’s next Ukraine. Such an outcome is not preordained. But parallels and lessons cannot be ignored. If security - more so sovereignty and territorial integrity, although much contested - is on the line, all other calculations become secondary. If the war in Ukraine was a failure of diplomacy, countries in the immediate neighborhood, notably ASEAN, may have to exert greater effort to prevent a repeat.