Russia’s war in Ukraine is a stark warning to China

Beijing is all too aware that overstepping in Taiwan would further unite nations in a trade conflict

American defense strategists warn that China may use the distraction of the war in Ukraine to launch military action against Taiwan. 

They believe Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to gain control over what he sees as a breakaway province before he leaves office. So far, it has been beyond Beijing’s control since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In response to these concerns, the United States announced last month a US$345 million military aid package for Taiwan.

For the first time, arms are being delivered to the island democracy from US stockpiles under presidential drawdown authority, which does not require congressional approval.

Such fears have been heightened by the fact that China has stepped up its probes of Taiwan’s defenses during the past year. 

Last month saw the release of an eight-part docuseries by state media broadcaster CCTV titled Chasing Dreams about the Chinese military’s readiness to attack Taiwan.

Military action

But opinion remains divided over just how likely it is that Xi will launch a military action to occupy Taiwan, and whether the war in Ukraine makes such a move more or less likely.

The main argument centers on the failure of the threat of Washington sanctions to deter Russia from invading the Eastern European nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that American power, weakened by the Trump presidency, was in decline. He also knew – because President Joe Biden said so – that the US was unwilling to commit its own troops in combat against the nuclear-armed foe.

Putin saw the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 as a sign that Washington had lost its appetite for military intervention overseas. The US relies on economic tactics to pressure adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. 

Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Pacific Ocean. Photo: US Navy

But Putin was confident that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would prevent it from imposing serious sanctions on Moscow.

He was also emboldened by the lackluster Western response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

It turned out that Putin was wrong about Europeans’ unwillingness to stop buying Russian energy. But he was right about the United States aversion to committing its own forces to defend Kyiv.

As with Ukraine, American policy regarding Taiwan is built around using the threat of economic sanctions to deter China from attacking the island. But there is also the possibility – absent in Ukraine – that the US would commit its forces to defend Taiwan.

The official policy is one of “strategic ambiguity”. Furthermore, there is the simple geographical fact that Taiwan is an island, and thus easier to defend than Ukraine.

Political autonomy

For the Taiwanese, Putin’s invasion shows that an authoritarian leader can wage war at any time, for no good reason. Ukraine has so far managed to prevent a Russian victory, but it is paying a heavy price in terms of lost lives and a shattered economy

According to some Taiwanese observers, the island’s people would be unwilling to pay such a heavy price to preserve its political autonomy.

There is also the concern that Washington is so tied up with the Ukraine crisis that it does not have the political bandwidth to deal with Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Arms that could have been sold have been sent to Ukraine. Xi may see this as an opportunity that he can exploit.

There are, however, several factors that make conflict less probable. Russia’s failure to achieve victory in Ukraine makes it less likely that Xi would gamble on the use of military force to occupy Taiwan.

A Russian tank destroyed in the Ukraine invasion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov argues that “the Ukrainian war has focused minds in Beijing on the inherent unpredictability of a military conflict.” 

Meanwhile, Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative in the US, has said that Kyiv’s success will deter China from attacking the island. One reason is advances in weaponry. 

The latest generation of drones and missiles capable of destroying aircraft, ships, and tanks favors the defense.

This makes the invasion of Taiwan more risky for China. Moreover, Russia’s weapons seem to be generally less effective than those of its NATO counterparts – and China’s arsenal relies heavily on their designs.

Also, the Ukraine war has unified European allies behind US leadership. In 2019, French President Emanuel Macron was talking about NATO being “brain dead.” 

Russia’s invasion

After Russia’s invasion, the alliance stepped up defense spending and both Sweden and Finland applied for membership. Finland officially joined NATO in April while Sweden awaits final ratification.

The European Union was previously reluctant to join the US trade war with China. But Beijing’s support for Moscow’s attack on Ukraine has made Brussels more willing to push back against China’s efforts to dominate key sectors of global trade. 

EU Commission President Ursula van der Leyen said in March that “China is becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” Beijing is all too aware that overstepping in Taiwan would further unite nations in a trade war.

The Ukraine conflict has also unified core Asian allies behind Washington’s leadership. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea joined the sanctions on Russia, and Tokyo plans to increase defense spending by 60% by 2027. 

Last year, Moscow added Taiwan to its Unfriendly Countries and Territories List, while Taipei canceled visa-free travel for Russians, which had been introduced in 2018.

Chinese exports have been the main driver of growth. Image: Shutterstock

It is difficult to assess how these sanctions affect China’s decision calculus. They have seriously hurt Russia’s economy, but have not prevented the country from waging the war. 

Given China’s high level of trade with Europe and the US, it is likely that such a move in retaliation for an attack on Taiwan would be severely damaging to the Chinese economy.

In launching the abortive war, Russia has shown itself to be weak and unstable, and therefore less useful as an ally to Xi. Besides the failure to take Kyiv, developments such as the Wagner mutiny illustrate the fragility of the regime and must have rung alarm bells in Beijing

Last year, Xi called for an end to threats to use nuclear weapons in an implicit rebuke to Russia.

The peace plan that China released in February, Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis, insisted on the importance of respecting sovereignty while ignoring Russia’s violation. It was arguably more about Taiwan than Ukraine.

Peace broker

China seemingly wants to see an end to the conflict but on terms acceptable to its ally, Moscow. 

Beijing has accepted Russia’s narrative that NATO is to blame for the war but still pays lip service to the importance of respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Those principles are central to the “One China” policy and China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Its failure to condemn the Russian invasion puts it in a position that is riven with contradictions and makes it hard to play a role as a broker for peace.

There is no simple answer to the question of how the war in Ukraine has impacted Beijing’s intentions regarding Taiwan. But it has starkly illustrated to all sides that the stakes are high, and the costs of miscalculation are punitive.

Peter Rutland is a Professor of Government at the Wesleyan University in the United States.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.