Russia’s war on Ukraine makes China’s attack on Taiwan more likely
World leaders were universally shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with two exceptions. President Biden said U.S. intelligence gave him plenty of advance notice. China’s Xi Jinping met with Vladimir Putin at the Beijing Olympics, where they jointly issued a “no-limits strategic partnership” statement that included opposition to NATO expansion — Putin’s initial rationale for invading Ukraine — and to Eastern Europe’s color revolutions that started with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.
Putin’s two months of savagery, which Biden has labeled war crimes and genocide, are consistent with his 23-year record in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Together with political assassinations in Russia, his actions should have surprised no one.
Western governments and business interests chose to look the other way, including successive Democratic and Republican administrations, during Putin’s tenure. Deceived and/or intimidated, they were wary of challenging the man who has now exceeded the depredations of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milošević and whose inhuman aggression has made him in the world’s eyes a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Even his mistress, accused of hiding his wealth, goes unsanctioned for fear of offending Putin.
As Xi observes Putin’s costly but incremental territorial gains in Ukraine, he is certainly drawing lessons for his own plan to attack Taiwan. Positive and negative signals will either embolden or inhibit him.
The surprisingly poor performance of the Russian army in the face of valiant and skilled Ukrainian resistance could cause Xi to question the wisdom of launching a Taiwan invasion scenario. Whether the Chinese and Taiwanese will play the same respective roles as incompetent Russians and battle-hardened Ukrainians, however, cannot be assumed. The minimal level of training for Taiwan’s reserve forces — four months — does not bode well for a ground defense against a well-trained, professional invasion force of the People’s Liberation Army after a relentless air and missile bombardment campaign.
Geographical factors also would influence the course of a cross-Strait conflict, in opposite directions. China would have to cross 100 miles of water to occupy Taiwan, no matter how much long-range destruction and havoc its planes, missiles and navy might wreak on the island. Ukraine’s sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship is a sobering forecast of what the PLA Navy would confront.
Yet, the fact that Taiwan is a modestly-sized island, compared to Ukraine’s vast land expanse, enables Beijing to concentrate its attack on a much smaller target area and utilize its fires more efficiently — and for a longer duration.
China also may be tempted to adopt Russia’s barbaric siege tactic on Mariupol: batter the place into near-submission, and then encircle the trapped population to prevent either escape or life-saving replenishments of food, water and weaponry. As Putin said, the cordon around the city to starve out its defenders is so tight that “not even a fly could get through.”
A blockade of the entire island of Taiwan, especially its main ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung, is feasible. During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China’s missile firings twice closed the Strait to all ocean and air-borne commerce, sending shipping and insurance rates soaring for the duration of the crisis.
For those still inclined to trust Beijing’s assurances — e.g., Xi’s personal promise to President Obama that China would not militarize its artificial islands in the South China Sea — the language in its 2005 Anti-Secession Law (ASL) offers false comfort. After threatening to use “non-peaceful means” to conquer Taiwan, the ASL goes on to say that “the state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan.” Would Xi carry out a more humane war of aggression than Putin is waging?
More persuasive in limiting a scorched-earth campaign on Taiwan is the island’s indispensable economic value, especially its unique status as a global semiconductor power.
Beijing also must consider the costs Putin’s war is inflicting on Russia’s economy. Though China is far stronger and wealthier, its interconnectedness with the world economy makes it both more and less vulnerable to the type of punishing economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
Then there are the reputational costs that Russia is enduring because of its Nazi-like performance in Ukraine. Beijing has had extensive experience in deflecting condemnation for its own crimes against the international order, including aggression against the sovereignty of South Korea, Tibet and East Turkestan; the Tiananmen Square massacre; and the Uyghur genocide. The Chinese Communist Party operates on the cardinal principle of tyranny: It is better to be feared than loved.
That is not to say that public opinion is irrelevant, especially at home where it impinges on regime legitimacy. But here, the Russia-Ukraine example actually provides encouragement for Beijing. Despite some disenchantment with Putin’s war, especially among younger Russians, a recent poll showed a significant majority of the overall population supports Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Soviet-style disinformation and propaganda so far appear to have succeeded in denying Russians the truth and stoking aggressive nationalism.
Chinese leaders have demonstrated their proficiency at information warfare against their own people, especially in the face of tepid Western countermeasures reluctant to call into question the very legitimacy of the communist regime.
The still-open question is whether the West will continue the delusional policies on China and Taiwan that have proved so self-defeating in the weak, decades-long response to the Putin problem.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recognized the linkage between the two situations in remarks last week: “We understand that when this international system is undermined anywhere and done so with impunity, without challenge, that it is degraded everywhere. And so that is why not only have we stood up for these principles in Ukraine, in the context of Ukraine, but also in the Indo-Pacific as well.”
The West’s greatest error was in failing to address Putin’s threats to the international order early enough with both economic and military responses, despite all the multilateral commitments to the security of Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
To date, despite the horrors that have transpired, the Biden administration and the NATO alliance it leads refuse not only to become directly involved, but even to provide all the weapons systems Ukraine desperately needs to defend itself, such as fighter aircraft. They fear provoking the same presumed escalatory Russian response they would get anyway in defending NATO itself. Biden called that a “sacred obligation” to distinguish it from the West’s non-treaty commitment to Ukraine.
Strategic ambiguity failed catastrophically for Ukraine. Biden must immediately replace it with strategic clarity for Taiwan if it is not to suffer the same tragic fate.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.