‘Today’s Ukraine is Tomorrow’s Taiwan’?

Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.

Image credit: Vladimir Putin met with Xi Jinping in advance of 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics by Presidential Executive Office of Russia/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 4.0.

It has been more than one month since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shattered peace and stability in Europe by invading Ukraine this February. Considering there are certain similarities between Russia’s war aggression and cross-strait tensions insofar as political and historical context, political system, power disparities of concerned stakeholders, international and local media outlets as well as opinion leaders have attempted to make the comparison between the two relations. Consequently, this has contributed to the emergence of the catchphrase ‘today’s Ukraine is tomorrow’s Taiwan.’ The catchphrase has become more plausible after Russian intelligence allegedly leaked a document that suggested China President Xi Jinping is considering invading Taiwan this autumn. However, can one really argue that Taiwan is in imminent danger from China’s coercive actions regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

Grounds for the Comparison

Before responding to the main enquiry and leaping to conclusions, one must evaluate if such a comparison can be drawn. On the surface, there certainly are stark resemblances.

For one, both China and Russia are authoritarian governments ruled by political strongmen. Until the Soviet Union faced its eventual demise in 1991, the two countries were under the communist political system. Moreover, given Russia’s current war aggression toward Ukraine, one could assert that lack of checks and balances within Russia’s political system has enabled Putin to instigate war. Hence by the same token, the probability of China’s coercive actions against Taiwan would also be high.

In addition, Putin’s aspiration of saving Russia and restoring the country’s superpower status bears a resemblance to the rationale of Xi’s vow to achieve ‘peaceful reunification with Taiwan. The power disparity between Russia and Ukraine vis-à-vis China and Taiwan is another identical factor. For example, the 2021 Annual Asia Power Index published by the Lowy Institute ranks China and Russia’s comprehensive powers in second and fifth places, respectively: a metric based on eight thematic measures of power (e.g. military capability, economic capability, defence networks’ etc.). Similarly, recent research conducted by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies shows China has the second-highest defence budget (i.e. 207.3 billion US dollars), whilst Russia is in fifth place (i.e. 62.2 billion US dollars) in the world in 2021. Although the 2021 Asia Power Index ranks Taiwan fourteenth in comprehensive power, it would be difficult to disagree that both Taiwan and Ukraine share similar asymmetrical power relations with their counterparts. Thus, the prevailing power capacities of both China and Russia may warrant adopting coercive actions, especially under the Machiavellian rationale of ‘the end justifying the means.’

Finally, there is also the factor of US presence in both cases. A recent public opinion survey conducted after Putin ordered a military invasion of Ukraine shows that merely 34.5% of Taiwan’s general public are confident that the US government will defend Taiwan if China attacks the country. Compared to two other surveys published last October, there is a staggering plunge in the confidence of 24.3% and 30.5%. Much of this is attributed to President Biden’s decision not to send US troops to Ukraine.

A Flawed Approach

Yes, one cannot deny there are seemingly identical variables that may suggest a dim prospect for cross-strait relations. Yet, I would like to underscore that making such a comparison and attempting to generate predictions on Xi’s next move based on recent developments would be a flawed approach.

The most important reason for this is that it is too early to assess why Xi and Putin arrived at different decisions. The obvious point is that although Taiwan abolished the Emergency Decree in April 1991, which symbolically ended the Chinese civil war between the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1949, this was merely a unilateral decision. In other words, from the perspective of Xi and the CCP, the war has yet to end, and a ‘cold’ conflict may swiftly turn ‘hot.’ For the simple reason that one cannot analyse events that have yet occurred; hence this invalidates the research question regarding Xi and Putin’s varying foreign policy decisions. In addition, if one entertains the idea that a peace agreement between Taiwan and China will be reached in the future, the comparison between the two relations can only be attentively attempted by utilising selective research methods such as qualitative counterfactual analysis. In this case, this opens the floor for analysing various aspects (e.g., roles of multilateral regimes and the US government in diffusing conflicts) that may have contributed to the development. Another method to bypass the issue is by asking a pertinent question: Why did China not invade Taiwan before the Russia-Ukraine war? Again, this would entail adopting selective research methods to compare the two relations.

Hence although it is understandably easy for many politicians to put forward their arguments on ‘what may happen’ (e.g. President Trump on China’s next move), it is important to underscore that the majority of these claims, if not all, are ill-grounded and unscientific.

Rephrasing the Question

Instead of making the analogy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to cross-strait relations, one should rephrase the question and ask whether the current conflict will create conditions that ‘rationalise’ the option of invading Taiwan. The nuance between the two is that the rephrased question treats the ongoing conflict as one of the various factors shaping outcomes rather than two independent case studies. Accordingly, assessing the political dynamics that have occurred in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I believe Taiwan is not in imminent danger.

In a previous article, I mentioned two factors that may prompt China to instigate war against Taiwan: a ‘better now than later’ mentality and political instability within Taiwan. Arguably, the ongoing conflict dampens this mentality and increases political stability in Taiwan.

In terms of increased political stability, although local residents have expressed increased fear of the actuality of China’s invasion of Taiwan in their personal interviews with international news agencies (e.g. Nikkei, The Washington Post), the aspect of ‘fear’ has to a certain extent increased national solidarity. For instance, a public poll released by the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society (TISSS) shows that 70.2% of respondents are willing to defend Taiwan in the wake of the Ukraine war. Two interesting aspects are also shown in the same survey: 1) a substantial increase (i.e. almost 30%) in willingness to self-defend compared to a previous poll conducted by the TISSS last December (i.e. 40.3%); 2) a decrease in confidence in the US government’s intervention in cross-strait conflict from 55.1% to 47.3%. The preceding suggests that the fear of external threats has enhanced the perception of ‘self’ against the ‘other’ amongst Taiwan’s general public. One instance to show the manifestation of national solidarity is the surging public support (i.e. almost 80%) to lengthen the country’s conscription service from four months to one year or more, based on a public poll recently released by Taiwan Strategy Research Association and TVBS. With the backing of local residents, this has enabled the government to deliberately consider reverting back to longer conscription length: an aspect that was previously regarded as a complicated political hassle by both the ruling and opposition parties.

One can argue that increased national solidarity may enhance the ‘better now than later’ mentality. However, the strong international condemnation of Russia’s war aggression would likely neutralise the mindset. In particular, with the Russia-Ukraine war in the limelight, any attempts to invade Taiwan would undoubtedly receive similar levels of international media coverage. Moreover, international society is already scrutinising China’s responses to the Russia-Ukraine conflict to a certain extent. This is after Beijing abstained from a UN Security Council vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine in February. Furthermore,  sources indicate that senior Chinese officials already had some knowledge about Putin’s war plans during the Olympics.

In addition, one must also consider that Xi is attempting to sustain his supreme control in the upcoming 20th Party Congress of the CCP later this year. In theory, this indicates that drastic changes to China’s existing policies would be too risky for Xi. For example, although China has always considered reunifying Taiwan as the country’s core strategic interest, coercive actions toward Taiwan would inevitably shatter its long endeavour to mitigate the ‘China threat’ sentiment. As a consequence, China would have to readjust its existing foreign policy doctrines (e.g. Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence), which have shaped its bilateral (e.g. Sino-India relations) and regional relations (e.g. ASEAN Plus framework). Furthermore, seeing the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the US government, the potential economic costs of military actions may overwhelm Xi.

In sum, there is no reason to believe that imminent conflict in the Taiwan strait would occur after the Russia-Ukraine war outbreak. However, it is imperative to underscore that the proposition is not formed based on comparing Taiwan’s relative advantages over Ukraine. Instead, it is underlined by how the ongoing war has been perceived by not only Taiwan’s general public and government but also Xi and the CCP.

Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy from the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter @DrHsiehCC.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Ukraine and Russia-Taiwan and China.

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