Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked a pivotal moment in the collapse of the post-Cold War global security environment. The ongoing war in Ukraine is now easily the deadliest conflict on the European continent since the Second World War, and has shattered assumptions about the looming possibility of future great power conflicts, whether they might occur in Europe or in Asia.
Taiwan is now front and center of the policy debate on whether a revanchist China will follow Russia’s lead in invading a smaller democratic neighbor, whether Beijing can still be deterred, and what the West – led by the United States – will do in response.
Lessons for deterrence
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has so far been an undeniable failure for President Vladimir Putin. Dimitri Simes, former president of the Center for the National Interest and a Kremlin insider, wrote that the Russian invasion failed in the early stages because “it was a last-minute decision based on the perception of a threat to Russian security and dignity.” This assertion runs counter to the conclusions of US intelligence, who warned for months that Putin had made up his mind to invade Ukraine, with the intention of violently overthrowing the democratically elected Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The determined and organized Ukrainian resistance -unexpected by both the Russian and even Western governments – put an end to any assumption of a quick Russian victory and even turned the tide back toward Ukraine’s favor.
The Russo-Ukrainian war is now a bloody war of attrition that is not expected to end anytime soon. However, the Western military support for Ukraine and wide-ranging sanctions against Russia have fundamentally transformed the conflict into an unprecedented, long-term standoff between Russia and the West. In fact, some prominent scholars have argued that the conflict has closed Russia’s “window to Europe” that has been open in one way or another since the time of Peter the Great. Whatever the military outcome in Ukraine, Russia will bear a high price for a long time to come.
The West, however, clearly failed to deter Putin from launching a bloody invasion that has destabilized the European continent and cost thousands of lives. Despite Ukraine’s determined resistance and the belated Western military aid program, the restoration of even the pre-February 2022 status quo is not assured.
Some worry that the escalation ladder could lead all the way to nuclear conflict if Ukraine is successful in re-taking Crimea.
Scholars have ascribed the West’s failure to adequately react to Russia’s previous wars and invasions in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Crimea and Donbas in 2014 as a key factor in emboldening Putin to launch his full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022. US military leaders have also argued that the disastrous US pullout in Afghanistan and the quick collapse of the US-trained Afghan armed forces may have been an immediate contributing factor to Putin’s decision.
The lessons for Taiwan
From the very first days of Russia’s invasion, Taiwan’s leaders have firmly stood with the Ukrainians, while carefully avoiding drawing the obvious parallels to their own situation vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As has been the case for generations, the lesson for Taiwan and its Western supporters is Si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you want peace, be prepared for war”), and the Ukraine conflict is no exception. In August 2022, Taiwan announced a sharp increase in military spending. In December 2022, President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) reinstated mandatory one-year military service for eligible males on the island.
The United States has likewise remained committed to providing Taiwan with the tools necessary to defend itself. The fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized an additional US$10 billion for Taiwan. In March 2023, the State Department approved a USD $619 million sale of new weapons to Taipei. Meanwhile, regular US military transits in the Taiwan Strait have continued apace, despite China’s provocations.
On the diplomatic front, president Tsai met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April, continuing Taiwan’s high-level engagement with US legislative officials. This practice has infuriated the Chinese, but strengthened Congressional support for Taiwan and is fully consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Despite these necessary, stabilizing efforts, the possibility of a “Taiwan contingency” modeled on the Ukraine war has split the US policy community. Some conservative commentators have argued that it is now a question of “tradeoffs” between supporting Ukraine and maximizing US support for Taiwan. Others, including this author, have countered that the United States can and must support both fights, should China decide to launch a full-scale invasion modelled on the Kremlin’s and that successful Western support for Ukraine could serve as a deterrent factor for Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平).
Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election in January 2024 will also likely influence the course of action Beijing will choose to pursue, as well as how the United States will react. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) candidate and current vice president Lai Ching-te (賴清德) is seen by some as even more hawkish on China than President Tsai. In contrast, the traditionally Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) and its candidate, the Mayor of New Taipei City Hou You-yi (侯友宜), have portrayed the election as a vote between war and peace.
The lessons for China
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine likely caught Beijing off-guard, as evidenced by the thousands of Chinese citizens that were caught in the crossfire at the early stages of the war. Nevertheless, China has since not only failed to condemn Russia’s actions, but has instead used the war as an opportunity to transform the Sino-Russian relationship into an anti-United States diplomatic alliance and deepen Russia’s economic dependence on China, capped by Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to Moscow in March 2023. China’s support for its junior partner will continue for the foreseeable future, though likely only in the economic and diplomatic spheres.
It remains unclear what China’s actions toward Ukraine portend for Taiwan. In August 2022, the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室) released a white paper on the PRC’s Taiwan policy, the first such paper in over 20 years. In a decisive shift in tone from previous years, the paper described in no uncertain terms that “anti-China forces” are intent on using Taiwan to prevent “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” More ominously, the document stated that “we should not allow this problem to be passed down from one generation to the next.” The paper does not reject the use of force as a means of solving these goals. And yet, US Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) William Burns has stated that Xi Jinping has already ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be ready to do so by 2027.
Burns has also contended that Beijing has been “surprised and unsettled” by Russia’s weakness in Ukraine, as well as the West’s cohesion in forming and holding together, an anti-Russia coalition to support Ukraine. Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed his belief that the Ukraine war “massively increased strategic ambiguity” for China in a Taiwan invasion scenario.
Experts agree that Beijing’s calculus on Taiwan is going to be impacted by what it perceives would be the US military response, and whether Beijing would be able to withstand the withering Western sanctions that would undoubtedly follow. Unlike the hefty, but manageable, economic costs borne by Europe from its break with Russia, the cost of a Taiwan invasion would be much higher for all sides. Unlike in Ukraine, direct involvement by US forces in the early stages of any Taiwan fight would be highly likely, as confirmed by President Joseph Biden himself.
From there, the war-planning scenarios range in outcomes, but most experts agree that all sides would bear incredibly high costs, both military and economic. A January 2023 wargame conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded that the best course of action is for the United States to “strengthen deterrence immediately” in order to prevent these potentially disastrous outcomes.
The lessons for the United States
Faced with a prospect of a two-front confrontation with Russia and China, the Biden Administration is attempting to tamp down any loose talk of a Taiwan contingency, or any change in the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taipei. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just completed a high-profile visit to Beijing, where he received an audience with Xi Jinping, and has pledged to “stabilize” the US-China relationship.
However, the broad bipartisan consensus in the United States is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) under Xi Jinping’s leadership represents a clear and present danger to US interests. During the first hearing of the newly formed Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party in the House of Representatives, Chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) said that the United States and China are now in “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century, and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” This stark formulation leaves little room for the administration to manoeuvre.
In the long term, deterrence against Beijing will only work if the United States is able to maximize every economic, diplomatic, and military tool at its disposal. To start, Washington needs a comprehensive new policy aimed at strengthening the US defense industrial base, so that the US is able to help Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time, if need be. From the standpoint of the technologies of the future, the United States needs to urgently implement the recommendations of bodies such as the Congressionally mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which found that China “possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States” as the global leader if current trends are not reversed.
Finally, the United States needs to build resiliency in its own democracy, a task of vital and immediate importance if it is to remain a “shining city on the Hill” and project global power to withstand the long-term ideological challenge from Beijing.
The main point: The Russo-Ukrainian War has already provided a host of lessons for Taiwan, China, and the United States. In order to prevent a similar catastrophe from unfolding in the Taiwan Strait, the United States must do more to meet the challenge posed by the PRC.