What the war in Ukraine says about the future of China and Taiwan

It is still too early to determine all of the lessons China and Taiwan can learn from the conflict, but some are starting to become apparent to experts.
china special operations
BEIHAI, CHINA - JANUARY 4, 2022 - Members of special operations forces train in beihai, North China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on January 4, 2022. (Yu Haiyang / Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images) Members of Chinese special operations forces train in Beihai, North China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on January 4, 2022. (Yu Haiyang/Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has delivered China and the world a priceless geopolitical crystal ball.

“This is a test so that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping can see how determined the United States and its allies are going to be to defend other countries,” said Hak Yin Li, an expert on Chinese foreign policy and an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. “Today is about the case of Russia. Tomorrow will be the case of China.”

The democratically governed island of Taiwan is widely seen as one of the hottest flashpoints in the world. While fighting in Ukraine has so far only been between Russian troops and Ukrainian forces peppered with idealistic foreign fighters, tensions in the Taiwan Strait are far more likely to pit the world’s nuclear-armed superpowers against each other. And experts have begun to ponder what lessons may be gleaned for the future of Taiwan as the conflict in Ukraine enters its third week.

China has been quick to push back against comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, with Beijing respecting Ukraine as an independent sovereign nation and even abstaining from voting on a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion. But just as Vladimir Putin views Ukraine as a remnant of the Soviet Union that belongs to Russia, China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that one day will be brought back in line, under Beijing’s control. 

It is still too early to determine all of the lessons China and Taiwan can learn from the conflict, but some are starting to become apparent to experts.

The West isn’t dead

A Polish soldier assigned to the 21st Rifle Brigade looks through the barrel of the improved target acquisition system during a combined training event on Feb. 22 at Nowa Deba, Poland. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett)

One of the most noticeable lessons has been that Western powers and organizations are still capable of closely cooperating in the face of a common crisis. The U.S., EU, and allies like Japan and South Korea have imposed substantial economic pressure on Russia, including cutting its financial institutions from SWIFT and banning Russian oil imports.

NATO has also seen significant mobilization as large contingents of troops reposition across Europe. After years of reluctance, Germany agreed to increase its defense spending. And even traditionally neutral countries like Switzerland and the Vatican have publicly denounced Russia.

“Basically overnight you had an incredible shift in everything from German foreign policy to Finnish foreign policy to SWIFT,” said Carl Minzner, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “That kind of unanimity is something you haven’t seen in a while.”

It’s a response that isn’t going unnoticed by Beijing.

“With a few minor exceptions, the West including, broadly speaking, NATO member states, the U.S., U.K., etcetera have come together to rally around this pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian cause quite explicitly, whether it be in adopting symbolically powerful sanctions and commitments to withdrawing firms and boycotting the markets at work here, or indeed just issuing very emphatic and also vociferous statements with consternation over Russian aggression in Ukraine,” said Richard Wu, a Hong Kong-based researcher who asked to go by an alias due to safety concerns.

But Wu warns that the West’s response should not be overread, noting that NATO has refrained from entering militarily into the conflict. 

“At most, what we’re seeing here is a push for financial decoupling and sanctions, coupled with the provision of indirect military aid,” he noted. “We’re not really seeing a genuine demonstration of the West’s fullest caliber when it comes to military prowess or capacity.”

So far, countries have limited the kind of military aid offered to Ukraine, aware of how certain support could escalate the conflict. On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden rejected Poland’s offer to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets due to such concerns. 

With the throwdown between the West and their nuclear-armed adversary resurrecting buried fears of nuclear armageddon, governments have mainly resorted to economic pressure. 

The response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely look quite different and largely depends on whether the U.S. and other countries commit troops to Taipei’s defense — a move that appears likely but is not actually guaranteed.

Taiwanese army soldiers during a Readiness Enhancement Drill, amid escalating Taiwan-China tensions, in Taiwan, January 2022. (Photo by Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The U.S. does not have a military treaty with Taiwan, nor do the two countries even hold official diplomatic ties. Instead, the U.S. maintains unofficial relations through a de facto embassy in Taipei known as the American Institute in Taiwan. 

Such quasi-official relations and the de facto embassy through which they’re managed are a product of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the U.S. to provide for Taiwan’s security with just enough ambiguity to question whether Washington will actually send troops to Taipei’s defense in the event of an invasion. The act stipulates that the U.S. “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity.” In the event of a threat “to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan, and any danger to the United States interests arising from such threats… the President and the Congress shall determine the appropriate action in response to any such danger.”

But if and when China attacks Taiwan — a scenario that many analysts and officials are divided on — Beijing certainly expects the U.S. to respond, said Raymond Kuo, a Taiwanese-American political scientist and expert on international security, international order and East Asia at the RAND Corporation.

“It’s hard for anyone to argue that China believes that the United States believes that China believes that the United States will not actually show up,” Kuo said with a laugh. “You get into this weird rabbit hole of psychology. The ultimate answer is no, the Chinese [believe] the U.S. will absolutely be there and their plans are based on it.” 

Another difference in the international community’s response may be the extent of economic pressure. As one of the most significant trading partners in the world, Kuo said countries may be less willing to inflict sanctions on China, a scenario that would put a stronger emphasis on military force.

“If your strategy is that you can do really strong economic sanctions, then the military stuff is not as important,” Kuo said. “But if you can’t rely upon it, as in the case with China, then you have to make sure you do more with your military stuff.”

Will China actually invade Taiwan?

Armored assault vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army fire smoke bombs to test new weaponry on November 30, 2021 in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China. (Photo by Huang Yuanli/VCG via Getty Images)

During the years leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin repeatedly expressed concern about NATO expanding closer to its borders.

Similarly, China has consistently warned against Taiwan declaring formal independence. Such a move is Beijing’s redline. If crossed, it would certainly provoke a military response, experts say.

Taiwan is independent in all but formality: It has its own government, military, trade relations and institutions and systems that mirror those found in most countries. But for decades, Taipei and Beijing have abided by an uneasy status quo whereby the former continues with typical state activities without ever officially declaring itself to be an independent state.

Uncertainty about Chinese intentions has called the longevity of this formula into question in recent years.

China continues to publicly state that it prefers a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, but it also hasn’t ruled out the use of military force. An uptick in Chinese exercises and military operations around and near Taiwan has only heightened Western anxieties.

“China has not renounced the use of force to solve what is termed as the ‘Taiwan question,’” said Minzner. “But for decades they’ve been committed to encouraging cross-strait ties … in the hope to eventually bring Taiwan back into the fold.”

Wu believes that China’s decision to continue to carry out military exercises and operations around Taiwan and intrude on its Air Defense Identification Zone is an attempt at deterrence. 

“There’s a vast disparity between being willing to send out symbolically antagonistic signals to the other side” as Beijing is doing now, compared to “going to an all-out full-blown war,” he said. “Beijing might be doing the former, but it’s doing the former to prevent the pressures from building up to the point of the latter.”

Beijing prefers to avoid military force for several reasons, the most important of which is the health of its economy. A conflict would likely harm China’s economy, which is still recovering from the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the list of lessons that experts believe China is learning, or hope that it’s learning in order to avert a China-Taiwan conflict, one of the most pressing is the danger of one-man rule.

“What we’ve seen in Ukraine is a situation where you have an entire country that has been taken in the direction of a fairly poorly thought out war with extremely severe consequences in the long term for Russia, being driven by a single man and a small group of people around him,” said Minzer.

People’s Liberation Army tank regiments are shown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, during a massive military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in its war against Japan in World War II. (Kyodo)

In the same way, some experts see China moving toward single-man rule under Xi. 

“Does [Xi] recognize that Putin was kind of in an information bubble, not getting enough information from outside, that a lot of personalist, psychological things might have driven decision making?” asks Kuo. “Or does he see those things from a similar sort of point of view?”

For the time being, most experts believe Xi does not intend to invade Taiwan.

“The emphasis has always been on preferably doing it peacefully, preferably doing it without military intervention,” said Wu. “And I still think that till this very day, Beijing has stuck to its guns and will continually stick to it.”

Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow with the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noted that Xi and Putin have different approaches toward achieving national interests and how they utilize military forces.

“Vladimir Putin relishes a bad boy image, a grenade-throwing sort of maverick, roguish character that’s not afraid to shake things up,” Scobell said. 

He described Xi as a leader who attempts to present a more professional, statesman-like persona as the head of a nation that he believes will ultimately replace the United States as the global power.

But while Xi currently doesn’t seem inclined to use military force against Taiwan, experts warn that his calculations could change in the future. If they do, China will face a different set of hurdles than Russia has in Ukraine. The chief difference is that the conflict will be maritime in nature rather than being fought on the ground, which will present a host of different issues, according to Richard Bush, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. There are only a few periods during the year and a few locations at which China could successfully conduct an amphibious invasion.

As with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, western intelligence will likely know weeks and months in advance that China is planning an attack due to the number of troops, vessels, systems, and aircraft it will need to mobilize and concentrate. This will give other countries time to prepare and respond.

Once and if Chinese troops are able to make it ashore, it is uncertain what kind of resistance they will encounter. Some experts believe Taiwan’s military is too ill-prepared to put up any kind of fight. 

FILE PHOTO: M60A3 Patton main battle tanks in a line fire during the 36th Han Kung military exercises in Taichung City, central Taiwan, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

“Taiwan administrations have not been honest with the public about the growing danger from a more capable PLA and have not pressed for the kind of sacrifice needed to meet that threat,” said Bush, using the acronym for China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army. “The share of the Taiwan government budget that goes for defense has been basically flat going back into the 2000s, at the very time that PLA capabilities have grown. Moreover, the Taiwan military has a near-monopoly on military strategy, and the strategy it prefers is no longer appropriate for the threat environment. “

Others point to the fierce Ukrainian resistance as another possible scenario, one which China is likely to be studying carefully.

While Taiwan and China share a number of cultural similarities, a distinct belief that Taiwan is politically separate from mainland China has gained traction among Taiwanese in recent years.

“There’s certainly a lot of patriotism,” said Kuo. “Whether that translates into civil defense is an entirely separate question that I’m not sure anyone can really answer.”

These dilemmas and the potential consequences mean Xi will likely avoid using military force against Taiwan as long as it doesn’t move for official independence, experts say.

Bush believes Taiwan will not make such a move because it knows it would trigger an “unnecessarily provoked conflict” that and that the U.S. and other countries would not likely support

“So does China have a ‘Goldilocks option’ between appeasement and war? I believe it does, what I call “coercion without violence,’” Bush said. “This involves an array of diplomatic, economic, political and military actions designed to pressure the [Presidential] Tsai Ing-wen administration and to undermine the confidence of the Taiwan people that the status quo can be preserved and capitulation avoided. Indeed, coercion without violence is what China has been doing since Tsai became president in 2016.”

Bush noted Chinese military operations around Taiwan in recent years as such an example — frequent display of force rather than uses of force “designed to serve that psychological purpose.” 

For now, as China continues with such actions while the question of Taiwan looms perpetually unanswered overhead, Beijing is set to continue to study the Ukraine conflict and glean valuable lessons from it.

“If the United States, if the EU, if they cannot settle the Ukrainian crisis, if they cannot deter Putin, then it means that you have a higher chance for China, or even for North Korea, to create some troubles in East Asia,” said Hak Yin Li. “And vice versa. If somehow they find a way to settle down the problem with Putin, then of course China and North Korea may have less incentive to create some stories or troubles in East Asia.”


Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He writes about the Middle East and Asia.

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