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The Link that Isn’t

Jan 19, 2023
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Since the Ukraine crisis began early last year, the United States — which was busy trying to fathom China and attempting to come up with a more efficient China strategy — had to readjust its focus toward Russia.

As time has gone by, the U.S. is learning how important and urgent it is to match strategies and policies on China and Russia, not only because of the tight relationship between the two makes it worry but also because it thinks lessons learned from Ukraine may serve as a model for dealing with China on Taiwan. The island issue is haunting the U.S. these days, and it seeks answers.

Triggered by the U.S., the Western world has begun to fabricate a narrative that alleges parallels between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland similar to those between Ukraine and Russia. The narrative begins by labeling China and Russia as “authoritarian” countries that are “increasingly repressive at home and aggressive abroad” and that “menace the smaller democracies next door.” Therefore, the West’s sees its mission as learning the right lessons from the war in Ukraine to prevent one in the Taiwan Strait.

In the Western narrative, four lessons can be drawn from Ukraine and Russia when considering the Taiwan issue.

First, is the notion that the Ukrainian people’s “willingness to die” has been decisive in their successes so far. By extension, any “victim country” must be prepared to fight. Applying this logic to Taiwan, the U.S. has been busy pushing the island to beef up its resolve to counter an invasion regardless of cost. America is happy to see military service extended from four months to one year, starting in 2024, saying this signals a level of   seriousness about self-defense and fighting for its future.

Second, the supply of superior weapons really counts. Ukraine managed to stop the Russian “invasion” and turn the tide of war thanks to the equipment provided by its allies, particularly the United States. The lesson is that if the West had provided them much earlier, Russia may have thought twice before starting the war.

U.S. officials are pointing to Ukraine’s Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as its “spirited” corps of civilian volunteers, as main reason for success on ground. Considering Taiwan’s island geography, which would pose resupply difficulties in a war, the U.S. thinks it should give needed weapons immediately to effectively alter China’s alleged calculus.

Third, the West sees a need for unity in confronting a prospective invasion by a big power. In Ukraine’s case, apart from supplying weapons, the West also imposed unified economic sanctions on Russia. The thinking goes that if a similar unity of purpose had been shown after Russia entered Crimea in 2014, it might have deterred a full-scale takeover. Therefore, the West feels it should caution China, showing its resolve to impose a high cost if China attempts to “forcibly change the status quo.”

Fourth, the West believes it must ultimately prevail in Ukraine, otherwise a dangerous precedent will be set, revealing weakness to China and “other autocratic powers,” which would then exploit the opportunity to commit more aggression. On the other hand, the West also thinks an adamant stance on safeguarding Taiwan will reinforce its efforts in Ukraine. In fact, it’s a matter of maintaining the rule-based international order rather than anything else.

But the West’s effort to link Ukraine with Taiwan is both groundless and futile. First, Ukraine is a sovereign state, while Taiwan is part of China. The West has never acknowledged Taiwan as an independent state, and successive U.S. governments have often reaffirmed their “one China” policy. Therefore, if anything happens across the Taiwan Strait, any U.S. involvement would lack clear legitimacy. Further, a Western bloc providing military support and economic sanctions would be hard to form, especially considering China’s deep interdependence with the world economy and the prohibitively high cost for U.S. allies.

Second, the position of the U.S. government on Taiwan is unclear, which may reduce its credibility in managing the issue. The U.S. has long promoted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” — raising questions about whether and how the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a military move by Beijing. Although U.S. President Joe Biden twice said that America will help defend Taiwan, this has not been officially interpreted as a formal U.S. policy and has been shunned by other senior U.S. officials.

In the case of Ukraine, the U.S. — together with a resolute Europe and avoiding direct involvement on the ground — has developed a pattern of combining military aid, NATO deterrence and economic sanctions that has seemed to work so far. However, Europe will find less common interest on Taiwan because of the vast distance and the fact that it feels no direct threat from China, as is has felt from Russia. Ambiguity on Taiwan by the U.S. only hampers their interests.

Third, the Western style of deterrence before the crisis has never worked well. Before the Ukraine war broke out, the West voiced many warnings and threats of sanctions, but it failed. Currently this tactic is being tried on China, yet it is virtually impossible to inflict any economic cost on China if China sticks to the status quo.

Moreover, there are disputes in the U.S. over the types of weaponry sold to Taiwan because, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s vulnerable geographical condition as a small island cannot be effectively armed, and the trajectory of development will be very different if hostilities break out.

Last but not least, likening Ukraine and Taiwan means the U.S. has to deal with both China and Russia harshly and simultaneously. This is really an impossible mission, considering the risks of fighting two major wars, the divisions among Western allies and their vulnerabilities from within. Finally, the outcome in Ukraine remains uncertain, which weakens the case in persuading the whole West to take a risk in Asia.

China’s way of dealing with Taiwan is clear. It will try its utmost to resolve the issue peacefully, but at the same time will not renounce the use of force for reunification if necessary. In short, to “Ukrainize” Taiwan is to provoke war rather than foster peace across the strait. 

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