Lessons from Ukraine: Beijing should think twice about attacking Taiwan

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

This article is republished from Taipei Times with a different title. Read the original article here.

Image credit: 05.26 總統視導「憲兵指揮部」 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

The brutal, unprovoked and unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine is having serious repercussions around the world. It is a major breach of a rules-based, liberal international order that was built up after World War II, which brought stability to most — although not all — parts of the world.

The unimaginable suffering that Ukrainians are experiencing — through the bombings of cities such as Mariupol, and the butchering of unarmed civilians by Russian soldiers in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha — is there for the world to see.

However, the world is also witnessing the incredible courage and determination displayed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his people, as well as a very determined and unified Western Europe, US and other like-minded countries, which want to ensure that such violent aggression against a peaceful neighbor does not succeed.

It is understandable that the invasion is causing anxiety in Taiwan, as the country is similarly threatened by an aggressive and totalitarian neighboring country, China, which unjustly sees Taiwan as part of its territory.

History shows very clearly that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China, and that Chinese claims from before 1895 — the beginning of the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan — are tenuous at best.

However, Taiwanese can take comfort in a number of facts that are in their favor.

The first is that the determined and courageous resistance by Zelenskiy and his people has slowed down and even stopped the advance of the aggressor. This lesson should be clear to China.

Ukraine’s spirited defense is a shining example for Taiwan, and that is what is driving the discussion in Taiwan right now.

Representative to the US Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) put that very neatly into words in a Washington Post opinion article on March 24.

That spirit of defiance is also driving the reassessment of Taiwan’s arms purchases and indigenous manufacturing, so that the country can better defend itself.

Second, there is an important geostrategic difference. It was relatively easy for Russia to roll its tanks across the 2,000km land border with Ukraine, while Taiwan is separated from China by the 180km wide Taiwan Strait.

The Strait forms a formidable natural barrier that is highly difficult to cross under normal circumstances, let alone during a war, when invading ships can be picked off easily by well-positioned defense batteries along Taiwan’s rocky shores.

A third important point is that the joint reaction from the US, EU and other like-minded countries was much stronger than expected, particularly in the area of economic and financial sanctions.

Until recently, the EU was particularly hesitant to even talk about such sanctions, but they were decided on and implemented with lightning speed.

Having developed those tools, the EU is now much more ready and able to use them.

That should give China pause, as it is extremely dependent on exports. If these are halted, it would have immediate and major effects on its economy.

Then there is the fourth factor, which is much discussed in Taiwan: the willingness of the US to become directly involved in the defense of Taiwan if China invades.

As Ukraine is not a NATO member, the US and other allies stopped short of a direct involvement in the fighting, but did go all-out in providing Ukraine with many of the weapons it needed against invading Russians troops.

While there is no NATO-like treaty alliance with Taiwan, the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) forms a solid basis not only for arms sales — which have increased significantly in the past few years — but also for a direct role for the US military.

The TRA is clear in this regard. It not only states that the US would ensure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself, but also that it would “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Thus, if China tried to replicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of a peaceful neighbor, and, as the TRA states, there is “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes” or “any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom,” the US has ample legal basis to come to Taiwan’s defense.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief editor of the Taiwan Communique. He teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and East Asian issues at George Washington University.

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

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