By William Tucker
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, discussions arose in foreign affairs circles, suggesting that the Ukraine invasion would inspire China to make a similar attempt on Taiwan. China’s motivation, in part, would come from the decision of the U.S. and NATO not to intervene in Ukraine.
Now that Russia has been in Ukraine for more than a month, NATO members have maintained their decision to avoid direct combat with Russian forces. Since it appears to the world that the West lacked the appetite to fight a war, then Beijing could potentially seize the initiative and take Taiwan.
With both Russia and China flaunting international norms and cooperating economically, the thinking is that these two nations could manage any subsequent Western sanctions that would follow an invasion. However, this argument is an illusion. While both Ukraine and Taiwan face threats from their larger, authoritarian neighbors, their situations are distinctly different for several reasons.
Reason #1: Taiwan Would Be More Difficult to Invade
As an island, Taiwan enjoys a bit more security, compared to Ukraine. While Ukraine is physically joined to Russia over a large, open plain, Taiwan has a large body of water and an unfriendly coastline that would help to dissuade ocean-based invaders.
An invasion of Taiwan by China is technically feasible. But with weapons systems procured from the U.S. and a capable military, Taiwan should be able to hold out against a Chinese attack, at least temporarily.
Russia, however, has attacked Ukraine in a very Russian way. For example, Moscow is not the least bit concerned about the level of destruction Ukraine suffers as a means to achieving its goals.
The same cannot be said of China. Beijing learned a poignant lesson after its crackdown on Hong Kong; economic sanctions can really bite a nation like China, which is highly dependent on exports.
Compared to Russia, the sanctions levied against China were rather tame, but they were still problematic. Destroying Taiwan in order to occupy it would remove a high-functioning economy and bring economic pain to the mainland – something China would like to avoid at this juncture.
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Reason #2: Unlike Russia, China Can Afford to Be Patient
Another aspect to consider is patience. China can afford to be patient because Taiwan has been under Western tutelage for decades and does not pose an immediate threat to the Chinese mainland. China does not need to engage in this war of choice when it can rely on coercion in the interim.
Russia sees its situation with Ukraine differently and judging by the performance of Russian military forces so far, Putin has made a poor choice. The decision to rely on siege tactics against civilians demonstrates how difficult it is to occupy hostile territory, and patience is again a consideration. China is very much an economically motivated nation and though it would like to have a more secure environment to protect its interests, Beijing may not feel that seizing new territory would be beneficial in the short term.
Patience can also have a negative effect on future invasion planning as hostility by Western nations to authoritarian regimes may then become more pronounced. As North America, Europe and some nations of East Asia look to diversify their economic interests in China, Beijing may decide to use an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
Reason #3: The Level of US Involvement
Another difference in the fight over Ukraine and Taiwan is the United States. Washington has been trying, sometimes in vain, to shift to a higher focus on East Asia to counteract Chinese expansionism. This tactic suggests that the U.S. may actively engage in combat to help Taiwan defend itself, while Washington has only supplied arms and training to the Ukrainian military so far.
Ukraine is important to U.S. interests because it provides a buffer between Russia and NATO’s eastern flank, but that doesn’t require the U.S. to use military force to accomplish that goal. Ukraine is a large nation that has demonstrated its ability to defend itself. By contrast, Taiwan may be capable of self-defense, but the U.S. wants to dissuade China from even trying to take back the island.
The important takeaway from the difference in Ukraine and Taiwan is that while there may be similarities between their respective situations, they are not identical. We can note the similarities as we analyze current events concerning these countries, but we should not be consumed by them.