The parallels are undeniable, but Taiwan is not the next Ukraine. Here are 4 reasons why.

March 5, 2022, 1:00 AM UTC

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated this week, President Joe Biden dispatched a bipartisan delegation of high-powered former U.S. security and defense officials to a crucial geostrategic flashpoint: Taiwan.

The group, led by former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, met Wednesday with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei to reassure her that, as Mullen put it, the United States “stands firm behind its commitments” to the island.

The delegation’s presence provoked outrage in Beijing. “The attempt by the U.S. to show support to Taiwan will be in vain,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin fumed at a Wednesday briefing. “The Chinese people are firmly determined and resolved to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The haste with which Biden moved to demonstrate U.S. support for Taiwan—and the vehemence of China’s objection to it—highlight the complexity of the Ukraine conflict. Taiwan is more than 5,000 miles from Ukraine. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has billed his attack on Russia’s smaller western neighbor as a response to provocations from the U.S. and its European allies.

And yet, because Russia has forged a “strategic partnership” with China, a country increasingly perceived as America’s No. 1 global rival, the sight of Russian tanks rolling towards Kyiv invited anguished speculation that Taiwan—an independently governed island over which Beijing claims sovereignty—might be “next.”

“An attempt by Beijing to claim Taiwan by force has just become more likely,” lamented Michael Schuman in The Atlantic on the day Russia started its invasion. Many Taiwanese voiced alarm on social media: “Today, Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan!” In a Fox News appearance this week, former President Donald Trump argued Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping and warned that Taiwan is “going to be next.

Ukraine and Taiwan face parallel predicaments. Both are mid-sized democracies overshadowed by powerful, authoritarian neighbors run by “strong man” leaders bent on restoring national glory.

Just as Putin deems Russians and Ukrainians “one people” and rails against the West for dismantling “historic Russia” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so Xi sees Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and has proclaimed restoring mainland control over the island a “historic mission” and the “shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation.” China’s leaders say their goal is “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan but, like Putin, they reserve the right to use force to seize control of the island if they deem fit. So it is not surprising that Russia’s invasion inspired an outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine in Taiwan this week, and stirred an anxious debate about the strength of island’s own defenses.

But the comparisons can be misleading. The situations of Ukraine and Taiwan differ in at least four fundamental ways that, if anything, suggest that the Russian attack on Ukraine has made it less likely that China might seek to take control of Taiwan—not more.

1. History

Beijing has balked at characterizing Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an “invasion.” But, at the same time, Chinese officials have categorically dismissed any suggestion that Putin’s use of military force to subdue his western neighbor offers some sort of policy precedent that would justify forcible reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. On the contrary, the Chinese government has acknowledged Ukraine’s status as an independent country—one with which China has enjoyed formal diplomatic relations since 1992—and stressed the importance of respecting national sovereignty. China’s position is that the conflict in Ukraine has no bearing on the Taiwan question.

That’s consistent with the logic of the “one China” policy endorsed by Washington and Beijing. The mainland’s official position is that Ukraine and Taiwan can’t be compared because the former is an independent sovereign entity, while the latter is a renegade province that has always been a part of China.

Taiwan considers itself a self-governing entity, the Republic of China. But Tsai has carefully refrained from explicitly declaring Taiwan’s independence from the mainland. And in the days following Russia’s invasion, she, too, has sought to play down comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine.

David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as “independent states” sets a dangerous precedent that could undermine China’s claims for sovereignty over Taiwan. “In effect, Putin is asserting that a state has the right to declare that portions of another state are independent,” Sacks notes in a recent comment. “Given that China views Taiwan as a renegade province, this would be akin to the United States recognizing Taiwan as an independent country and sending the Seventh Fleet in as ‘peacekeepers’ to ensure its independence. Chinese policymakers are likely deeply uneasy with this sequence of events.” 

2. Geography

Ukraine shares a 1,400-mile land border with Russia enabling Putin to surround the country and roll tanks across it. The Russian leader can call in reinforcements from Russian troops occupying the Crimean peninsula in the south, and enlist the help of Belarusian soldiers in the north and Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. Taiwan, an island roughly the size of the Netherlands with 24 million people, is separated from China’s mainland by 90 miles of ocean. To retake that island, Xi would have to mobilize a far larger force than Putin’s Ukraine assault and lead a perilous amphibious attack.

Harlan Ulman, an advisor to the Atlantic Council, estimates mainland China would need an army of over 1.2 million soldiers, out of a total active force of 2 million, to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. China, he notes, has only a fraction of the thousands of ships that would be necessary to execute a landing of that size. Moreover, where the terrain in Ukraine is mostly flat, Taiwan is mountainous, and the island’s armed forces have been digging caves, bunkers, and tunnels to house troops and weapons for nearly seven decades.

3. Leadership

Putin is a judo master and former KGB agent with a penchant for posing shirtless on horseback; he revels in playing the “tough guy.” Xi is cautious and calculating and has sought to portray himself as a global statesman. Above all, Xi craves stability this year ahead of a key party conference where he will seek an unprecedented third term as China’s president. It can not be lost on the Chinese leader that Putin’s Ukraine invasion is proving far more costly and chaotic than the Russian leader anticipated—and driving the U.S. and its allies closer together. Putin is a reminder to Xi that tough guys who overplay their hands can become global pariahs, undermining their power at home in the bargain.

And just as Xi is not Putin, China is not Russia. China is a rising power whose economy accounted for 17% of global GDP in 2020, versus Russia’s 1.7%, and is expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy early in the next decade. The fact that China is growing while Russia is shrinking creates a very different political calculus for the two leaders. Putin may have concluded that, with each passing year, his leverage over Ukraine diminishes. As Xi contemplates reunifying with Taiwan, he knows that time is on his side.

4. Allies

The most important difference between Ukraine and Taiwan lies in their relative strategic value to the United States.

Proponents of the “Taiwan is next” thesis typically argue that the underlying issue is U.S. credibility. If the U.S. and its allies don’t intervene militarily to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine, they insist, that failure will undermine the credibility of U.S. efforts to deter Beijing from attacking Taiwan.

Schuman warns that “in a world order where authoritarian states are more assertive and democratic allies are on the back foot, the chances of war over Taiwan increase.” Trump faults Biden’s weakness. China’s leaders are “seeing that our leaders are incompetent, and of course, they’re going to do it,” he said in response to a question about whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made it more likely Xi would make a similar move against Taiwan, adding, “President Xi is watching with glee.”

Francis P. Sempa, in an essay for The Diplomat, dismisses such sentiments as a modern version of the “domino theory” that led to the U.S.’s disastrous entanglement in Southeast Asia during the Cold War era. The problem with such reasoning, he argues, is that it fails to recognize that some allies are vital to U.S. strategic interests while others are not.

The U.S. connection to Taiwan dates back to Allied victory over Japan in 1945. Tokyo had ruled Taiwan as a colony, called Japanese Formosa, since defeating the Qing Dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese war in 1894. At a fateful 1945 conference in Potsdam, Germany, leaders of the three largest Allied Powers—Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union—agreed that Japanese troops on Formosa would surrender to a fourth, and far less powerful ally, the Republic of China, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. But in 1949, Chiang and his supporters in the Chinese Nationalist Party were forced to flee China’s mainland to Taiwan after the Nationalist government was overthrown by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party forces.

President Harry Truman had a falling out with Chiang in 1950, but after the outbreak of the Korean War, he ordered the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to protect the island from a communist invasion. General Douglas MacArthur, in a top secret memo to Truman, compared Taiwan to an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of vital importance to U.S. security in the Pacific.

The U.S. and Taiwan have remained allies (more or less) ever since. President Jimmy Carter terminated formal diplomatic ties and a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China in 1979 as part of the U.S. agreement to normalize relations with Beijing. That same year the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests on the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means; considers any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a grave concern to the U.S.; commits the U.S. to supplying Taiwan with the arms needed to “maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities”; and obliges the U.S. to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” that may jeopardize the security or economy of Taiwan.

The Biden administration has not said whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a mainland attack, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” a long-standing pillar of American deterrence.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also traveled to Taiwan this week, argued in a speech Friday that the U.S. should change its Taiwan policy from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity“—and advocated offering Taiwan full diplomatic recognition as a “free and sovereign country.”

The U.S. has sold Taiwan tens of billions of dollars worth of military equipment over the years—much to Beijing’s consternation. The scale of those deals slowed under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. During his years in the White House, Trump sought to reverse that trend. Biden approved $750 million in arms sales to Taiwan last August that including 40 self-propelled howitzers and 1,700 kits to convert missiles into more precise GPS-guided munitions. Last month, the White House approved a $100 million deal to upgrade Taiwan’s Patriot missile defense system.

The U.S. also has a far greater stake in Taiwan’s economy than that of Ukraine. Taiwan is the U.S.’s eighth-largest trade partner, with more than $100 billion in goods exchanged between the two economies in 2021, while Ukraine ranked 67th, with less than $4 billion in two-way trade. More important, however, is Taiwan’s role as manufacturer of advanced semiconductors. One company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) accounts for more than 90% of the global output of the world’s most advanced semiconductors, according to industry estimates. Both the U.S. and China are deeply dependent on the island’s foundries.

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