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War in Ukraine is a warning to China of the risks of an attack on Taiwan

US defense strategists warn China could use the distraction from the war in Ukraine to launch military action against Taiwan. They believe Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to take control of the breakaway province — which has been out of Beijing’s control since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — before he leaves office.

In response to these concerns, the US announced a US$345 million military aid package for Taiwan in July 2023. For the first time, arms are being delivered to Taiwan from US stockpiles under presidential withdrawal authority, which does not require congressional authorization.

Such fears have been heightened by the fact that China has intensified its investigation into Taiwan’s defenses in the past year. Last month, state media outlet CCTV released an eight-part docuseries titled “Chasing Dreams” about the Chinese military’s readiness to attack Taiwan.

But opinions remain divided on how likely Xi is to launch a military move to occupy Taiwan, and whether the war in Ukraine makes such a move more or less likely.

Factors that make war more likely

The main argument that the war in Ukraine makes a Chinese attack on Taiwan more likely is the failure of the threat of US sanctions to deter Russia from invading.

Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that American power, weakened by the Trump presidency, was waning. He also knew – because President Joe Biden said so – that the US was not willing to commit its own troops to the fight against the nuclear-armed enemy.

Putin saw the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 as a sign that the US has lost its appetite for military intervention abroad. The US relies on economic sanctions to put pressure on adversaries like Iran, Russia and China. But Putin was convinced that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would prevent it from imposing severe sanctions on Russia. He was also encouraged by the lackluster Western response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

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As it turns out, Putin was wrong about Europeans’ unwillingness to stop buying Russian energy. But he was right about the US’s reluctance to use its own troops to defend Ukraine.

As with Ukraine, US policy on Taiwan is based on using the threat of economic sanctions to deter China from attacking the province. However, there is also the possibility – absent in Ukraine – that the US will deploy its troops to defend Taiwan. Official US policy is one of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. There is also the simple geographic fact that Taiwan is an island, and therefore easier to defend than Ukraine.

For the people of Taiwan, Putin’s invasion shows that an authoritarian leader can go to war at any time, for no good reason. Ukraine has so far managed to avoid a Russian victory, but is paying a high price in terms of lives lost and a disrupted economy. According to some Taiwanese observers, the people of Taiwan would not be willing to pay such a high price to maintain their political autonomy.

There is also concern that the US is so caught up in the Ukraine crisis that it doesn’t have the political bandwidth to deal with Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Weapons that could have been sold to Taiwan have been sent to Ukraine. Xi may see this as an opportunity he can exploit.

Chinese inwoners in Portugal protesteren tegen het bezoek van de Amerikaanse huisvoorzitter Nancy Pelosi aan Taiwan in augustus 2022. Pelosi bezocht ondanks het bezwaar van Peking tegen alle officiële contacten tussen Taipei en Washington.  <a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/demonstrators-hold-chinese-flags-and-stand-behind-banners-news-photo/1417048089" rel="nofollow noopener" doel="_blanco" data-ylk="slk:Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0" klasse="koppeling ">Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images</a>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RgxSKQOy5_qhqcNPtlYCcA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU5NA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/a1deac63545664 2e2d3f762616bbd152″/><noscript><img alt=Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RgxSKQOy5_qhqcNPtlYCcA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU5NA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/a1deac635456642 e2d3f762616bbd152″ class=”caas -img”/>
Chinese residents in Portugal are protesting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Pelosi visited despite Beijing’s objection to any official contact between Taipei and Washington. Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Factors that make war less likely

However, there are several factors that make conflict over Taiwan less likely. Russia’s failure to secure victory in Ukraine makes it less likely that Xi would gamble on using military force to occupy Taiwan.

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Yaroslav Trofimov of The Wall Street Journal argues that “the Ukrainian war has focused Beijing’s minds on the inherent unpredictability of military conflict.” Meanwhile, Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative to the US, has said Ukraine’s success in defending China will deter China from attacking Taiwan.

One of the reasons is advancements in weapons. The latest generation of drones and missiles that can destroy planes, ships and tanks favor the defense. This makes an invasion of Taiwan more risky for China. In addition, Russia’s weapons generally appear to be less effective than those of its NATO counterparts – and China’s arsenal relies heavily on Russian designs.

Also, the war in Ukraine has united European allies behind US leadership. In 2019, French President Emanuel Macron talked about NATO being “brain dead”. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the alliance increased defense spending and both Sweden and Finland applied for membership. Finland officially joined NATO in April 2023, while Sweden awaits final ratification.

The European Union has previously been reluctant to participate in the US trade war with China. However, China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Brussels more willing to join the US in pushing back China’s attempts to dominate key sectors of world trade. Ursula van der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said in March 2023 that “China is becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” China is all too aware that overrunning Taiwan would further unite the nations in a trade war against Beijing.

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The war in Ukraine has also united key Asian allies behind the US leadership. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea joined the sanctions against Russia, and Japan plans to increase defense spending by 60% by 2027. In March 2022, Russia added Taiwan to its list of unfriendly countries and territories, and in August 2022, Taiwan canceled visa-free travel for Russians, which had been introduced in 2018.

It is difficult to estimate how sanctions against Russia affect China’s decision calculus. The sanctions have seriously damaged the Russian economy, but have not stopped the country from going to war. Given China’s high level of trade with Europe and the US, it is likely that sanctions in retaliation for an attack on Taiwan would seriously damage the Chinese economy.

By launching the failed war against Ukraine, Russia has shown itself to be weak and unstable, and therefore less useful as an ally to China. Besides the initial failure to take Kiev, developments such as the Wagner mutiny illustrate the vulnerability of Putin’s regime and should have set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. In November 2022, Xi called for an end to threats to use nuclear weapons in an implicit rebuke to Russia.

China’s peace plan released in February 2023, “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, stressed the importance of respecting sovereignty and ignoring Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. It was probably more about Taiwan than Ukraine.

China seemingly wants to see an end to the war in Ukraine, but on terms acceptable to its ally Moscow. China has accepted Russia’s narrative that NATO is responsible for the war, but still pays lip service to the importance of respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Those principles are central to the “One China” policy and Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. China’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion puts it in a contradictory position and makes it difficult to play a role as a mediator for peace.

There is no easy answer to the question of how the war in Ukraine has affected Beijing’s intentions regarding Taiwan. But it has clearly shown to all parties that the stakes are high and the cost of miscalculation is high.

This article was republished on The Conversation, an independent, not-for-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. Do you like this article? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

It was written by: Peter Rutland, Wesleyan University.

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Peter Rutland does not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that could benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation outside of their academic tenure.

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