War and worries: Ukraine’s looming shadow over Taiwan

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The unintended consequences of war are often underwritten by its executors. Ironically, in a globalised world, the outcome of one war can steer the portents of another, thousands of miles away.

On 4 February this year, Russia and China came together to ink a joint statement that reaffirmed their mutual support, opposed external interference and declared their partnership to be one of ‘no limits’. The fine-print was unmissable: While Xi Jinping backed Russia’s suspicions on NATO’s aims, Vladimir Putin reciprocated with support to China on the Taiwan issue. Were Russia and China in concert regarding Russia’s invasion plans on Ukraine?

File image of Russian president Vladimir Putin meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Moscow. AP

A few weeks later, Russia went to war with Ukraine, bringing along with it tacit Chinese support, American approbation, collateral damage via sanctions and the entire global attention. Ever since, China has been observing the evolving situation in the Ukraine war as a guide for its plans on Taiwan. Interestingly, in two successive recent conflicts, China has backed the attacker while the US has backed the defender. In both cases, China has prevailed over the US. In the first instance, in Afghanistan, the US lost the surrogate tussle. In the second instance, the US hasn’t managed to protect Ukraine. A third such instance involving Taiwan will bode even more serious consequences for American hegemony.

Since the war began, China has followed its progress and even tested the West’s keenness and appetite on Taiwan, timing its sorties over the island and sending signals to its adversaries in the region. As if on cue, a US delegation led by a hardboiled former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Taiwan and met local officials. Incidentally, Pompeo was sanctioned by China earlier after he left office, and so his arrival is a signal of US seriousness on Taiwan. While much of the global media and armies of experts continue to deliberate over a war that is underway, there is a discreet, understated but consistent build-up of stances in a region that was expected to be the original flashpoint.

At the outset, comparisons abound. Like Ukraine, Taiwan’s nuclear capability was dismantled at the behest of the US. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. Unlike Ukraine that has diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries, Taiwan maintains ties with a handful. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan isn’t in the NATO neighbourhood. Like Russia’s view on Ukraine, China considers Taiwan a non-negotiable issue. Like Ukraine’s opinion on Russia, Taiwan finds the idea of integration into China a revolting one. It goes on. But the most important question is whether the Ukraine war is a template for Taiwan?

Impact of the Ukraine war on Taiwan

After Xi took over, he has pursued the goal of achieving historic greatness for China by 2049 — a hundred years after Mao’s China was born. Like Putin’s pursuit of restoring Russia to its greatness, Xi is driven by the spirit of ‘qiang zhongguo meng’ — the dream of a strong nation. The big Chinese dream is about unifying the country. Xi has craftily used both territorial and economic domination in his pursuit.

Unlike India, with whom China has territorial disputes, Taiwan is considered by the Chinese government as an unfinished agenda of such unification. For the ambitious Xi Jinping, a post-war scenario of a weakened American influence helps him build pressure and coerce Taiwan. Given that Xi emphatically has voiced his goal of one China, one system, a unification with Taiwan can only be an outcome of invasion and occupation. Given Xi’s megalomaniac ambitions of etching a grander legacy than Mao Zedong, Taiwan instead of India is the bigger objective Xi fancies post the Ukraine war.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Image Courtesy Twitter

The Japanese island of Yonaguni is about 100 km from Taiwan’s east coast. This means that if China were to attack Taiwan, it would need to establish air superiority which involves violating Japanese air space. Does that then bring Japan into the conflict? Japanese strategic analysts believe that China might attack Yonaguni and nearby Japanese islands to control approaches to Taiwan. Rand Corp’s Hornung says that Japanese could be co-opted by the US to assist in intelligence, reconnaissance, defence of choke points in Japanese waters or defending airspace.

The thought on building credible nuclear deterrence split opinion in Japan. But interestingly, the number of hawks advocating Japan’s active thoughts on deterrence have increased. Such discussions have caused consternation amongst the Chinese who enjoy traditional supremacy in the region. Given China’s archetypal approach of intimidating nations in the Indo-Pacific using superior military means, any talk of Japanese nuclear empowerment will worry China.

The Chinese army has intensified its military exercises around Taiwan in recent times. In January this year, 34 Chinese fighters plus four electronic warfare aircraft and a single bomber flew close to the air defence zone prompting Taiwan to scramble its fighter jets. Taiwan fears some of its islands that are separated from the mainland, such as Dongyin and Penghu could be vulnerable to Chinese excursions. The island of Kinme is barely a couple of kilometres away from the closest Chinese-controlled outpost. The PLA could capture some of the vulnerable offshore islands and coerce Taiwan into concessions, if it feels that a full-scale invasion of Taiwan might bring the US and China into a direct conflict.

Over the last few years, American complacency has resulted in an ambiguous attitude towards Taiwan, much like they had towards Ukraine. There is a clamour to increase the protection umbrella to Taiwan in the event of Chinese threats. Former Japanese President Shinzo Abe has urged the US to shed its ambiguity and arm Taiwan. But, does the US have the will to do so? Will China be allowed to follow through with its threat to invade Taiwan? China is waiting to assess the extent of America’s willingness to protect its allies. Hence, the US is on the front foot to make Russia a pariah state through economic sanctions and set an example.

Is America more interested in protecting Taiwan? 

Conventional logic will indicate that since Biden and team have stayed away in Ukraine, they are likely to repeat such an action in Taiwan. Biden has acquired an unenvious reputation as a result of the messy American divorce in Afghanistan and a blunder of announcing too early that America was not going to be involved in Ukraine.

American interests in Ukraine were recent and not deep. On the other hand, it was President Truman who intervened in June 1950 and ensured that China didn’t capture Taiwan. Seven decades of America’s political, economic and military support to Taiwan has nurtured its democratic credentials. The US also granted Taiwanese exporters access to American markets, enabling a smoother transition to a successful market economy. Taiwan, more than most states in Asia, reflects Western liberal value systems which make it appealing to American businessmen and politicians alike.
File image of US President Joe Biden. AP
Taiwan is America's 9th largest good trading partner with trade worth $90.6 billion. Taiwan is the world's biggest manufacturer of semi conductor chips, which are essential components in smartphones, vehicles and increasingly in artificial intelligence. It supplies these chips to all top companies such as Apple and others in the US. American business interests are linked at the hip to Taiwan's supply of the most advanced chips, as the country holds a 90% share of the global market.  The US unequivocally prefers to link security priorities to its business interests. In a sense, Taiwan serves as America’s alter ego in the region.

The Biden Administration recently invited a Taiwan representative to his inauguration. The American ambiguity on Taiwan, as I mentioned earlier, thus could have been due to an assumption of its influence as a major deterrent of hostility towards Taiwan. That assumption of American hegemony lies ruptured after Afghanistan and Ukraine. Geographically, Taiwan is close to two US allies — Japan and Philippines: An invasion of Taiwan will directly prove America’s inability to protect its other allies against China. A capture of Taiwan can provide a staging ground for China to advance nearer to US allies such as Japan and control them. Xi and China will then move closer to their civilisational dream of achieving 'tian xia' or 'heaven under the skies' which was China's pivotal powerful position in the 15th century. Those are key reasons why the future of Taiwan is the future of the world.

What does the world need to guard against?

Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry to be remembered as greater than Mao. Would he like to be remembered as more ruthless than Mao? Frankly, he may not care much about Western descriptions. The point being that Xi and China will take away lessons from Ukraine for Taiwan. Among those are the effect and levels of sanctions on Russia. Where does this leave Russia? Will China lose steam and economic influence over its vassal states if it is drawn into a conflict on Taiwan? The Chinese economy is far stronger than the Russian one, but a sanction of the kind inflicted on Russia will set China back in its quest to be a superpower.

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The Chinese would be happy if Russia prolongs the Ukraine war and becomes a threat to the entire Baltics. A weakened Russia will be economically more dependent on China while America's focus is consumed by the extended conflict in Europe. Such a situation takes the attention away from China and helps them build up consistent harassment of Taiwan with the option of slowly bleeding them rather than carry out an immediate invasion.

Beijing’s Mission 2022 includes the integration of Taiwan with Mainland China. The Indo-Pacific stands at a precipice of critical choices while much attention is riveted on Ukraine. China’s grand unification ambition needs to be backed by a confidence to wage its first successful military campaign in 60 years. It will require a greater American desire to be proactive and ensure effective security guarantee for Taiwan and its neighbourhood to ensure the island's survival, and also that of American hegemony.

This article is Part 2 of the three-part series. Click here to read the first part.

The writer is the author of ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’, writes on military history and international affairs. Views expressed are personal.

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War and worries: Ukraine’s looming shadow over Taiwan
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