Written by Raian Hossain.
Image credit: Northrop F-5E Tiger II ‘61638 / 5243’ by Alan Wilson/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises a serious concern over international peace, security, and stability. This led to numerous debates among analysts, academics, and journalists over the possibility of Beijing’s aggregation toward Taipei. There are good reasons why such concerns are in discussion. Chinese fighters’ incursion of Taiwan’s Air Defence Zone has become a regular practice in recent times. Hence, these lead toward analysing the possibility of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) invasion of the Republic of China (ROC), often known as Taiwan, using the lens of security, political economy, and diplomacy.
The nature of contemporary warfare is mainly based on cyber, proxy, hybrid, and the use of private military companies. Still, the Russia-Ukraine crisis reminds us that the days of classical warfare are not over yet. The threat of PRC invasion to ROC is not new. Indeed, US Admiral Philip Davidson (Asia Pacific commander) in 2021 warned about the possibility of Beijing’s invasion by 2027. Taking account of the severe threat, Taiwan has decided to add $8.7 billion in addition to its $17 billion for its defence budget in 2022. However, the question arises to what extent will it be enough in front of the PRC’s $229.5 billion defence expenditure and modernised People’s Liberation Army. This reflects the military invasion of Beijing without the assistance of the US, and its likely minded partners can be an easy home run for PRC. Along with the gap in the defence budget figures, there are numerous factors for Taipei to worry about, such as the lack of significant diplomatic allies. As per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ROC, the island currently has only 14 diplomatic allies, among which non are defence or economic powerhouse. The Russian aggression in Ukraine has received significant attention in world politics and led to a solid diplomatic response and economic sanctions against Putin’s ill-minded plan. However, as Taiwan is not recognised as an independent state by most of the world and the United Nations(UN) under the ‘One China’ policy, the island might not receive much world attention and assistance compared to Ukraine. Taiwan even does not hold a seat in the UN to voice its concerns like the State of Palestine. Neither can it expect to receive any soft corner from the developing world who look toward Beijing’s infrastructural development initiatives. However, this has not stopped President Tsai’s government to strengthen its relationship with its most significant security guarantor, the United States, and its likely minded partners such as Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and even reaching out to Southeast and South Asia via New South Bound Policy.
Taiwan is only 100 miles from the Chinese coast, which provides the PRC with a strategic advantage of using missiles that mostly have capabilities of reaching 1500-200 miles range. On the other hand, as Taiwan is an Island, it would be much more difficult for the PRC force to ambush, unlike Russia-Ukraine, which mainly was a land invasion. Even though Russia is also believed to have one of the strongest militaries, they face a hard time with strong resistance provided by Ukraine’s defence and civilian volunteers. China must not miss calculation as almost 90 per cent of the population of Taiwan considers themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese; any invasion would likely face mass resistance led by the military and civilians. As Taiwan has a full-time military potential force of 450,000, using the three-to-one ratio often preached at defence colleges would require China around 1.2 million soldiers to be transported using thousands of ships. These factors have put president Tsai’s government to reconsider its internal defence architecture with plans of extending mandatory military training for younger citizens to one year from four months. One of the primary reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe and consideration of the inclusion of Ukraine, which is on Moscow’s doorstep. A similar argument can be made against the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy and Quad while calculating the case of Taiwan. As the PRC believes Taiwan is a breakaway province, US or UK ships sailing along the Taiwan Strait allow Beijing to make a similar claim to Moscow. The PRC’s vice- Foreign minister has already softly reminded US-led Indo-Pacific strategy is as risky as NATO expansion in Europe. This might be the initiation of Beijing’s official warning against the US and its likely-minded partner’s diplomatic and navy presence in its backyard. Even though China has continued to call for reunification rather than aggression against Taiwan, the possibility of China’s use of force cannot be entirely ignored, provided it has shown military demonstration in the last decade, especially in the South China Sea.
One of the main reasons the West still shows interest is its dependency on the chip manufacturing industry in Taiwan. Companies such as Apple, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and many others depend on Taiwan’s cheap manufacturing industry, mainly on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Despite PRC desperately trying to set up its semiconductor industry over the last two decades, it still has a particular dependency on the Taiwan chip manufacturing industry, making Beijing reassess any plans for invasion. Taiwan should always keep its feet ahead in the industry to continue such dependence, which also adds a bonus to its national security. Even if China invades Taiwan, it would be challenging for the US, UK and EU to decouple with China. Not only does the West have a significant trade dependency on China, but Beijing’s trade and commerce are very well diverse even among non-western countries, unlike Russia. Therefore, any economic sanctions would not affect as much as they did with Russia. PRC is observing and monitoring the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, as the aftermath might lead Beijing to calculate the cost-benefit analysis for the case of Taiwan. Hence, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West and its likely minded partners have far more implications beyond the particular crisis itself.
Another thing Beijing will be very cautious about is its citizen’s sentiments and views about any military confrontation against Taiwan. Russia is facing big public protests countrywide for its invasion of Ukraine, which challenges the legitimacy of Putin’s government and hampers its international reputation. Chinese Communist Party surely would not like to put itself in the same shoe again as the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 (domestically) and come out from China’s peaceful rise narrative (internationally). Taiwan also has the threat of being an economic hostage from the danger of being in a territorial locked exclusion, as made to Qatar by its Arab neighbouring countries in 2017. While there are some similarities between the case of Taiwan and Ukraine, the equation is not directly proportional to each other; hence, it requires continuous evaluation of the PRC’s attitude toward the ongoing conflict between Russian-Ukraine and the question of Taiwan.
Raian Hossain is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Politics and International Relations of the University of Nottingham. He holds a MA in International Relations from the University of Nottingham and a BA in International Studies from Monash University. Mr Hossain is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Global Studies & Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh. His research interest includes China & International Affairs, Cross-Strait Relations, Indo-Pacific Affairs, Terrorism & Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Ukraine and Russia-Taiwan and China’.
Welcome to join the online roundtable on ‘Ukraine-Russia; Taiwan-China’ co-chaired by TSP and SUIT at University of Nottingham, on 5th of April, 12 noon-13:30 UK time, eventbrite registration link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/roundtable-on-ukraine-and-russia-taiwan-and-china-tickets-303468240677.
Well reasoned and well presented. I’m mystified, though, by the accompanying photo. What did a 1950s level technological wonder like an F-5 have to do with the article?