Biden must not apply the wrong Ukraine lessons to Taiwan’s situation

Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine reportedly has caused the Biden administration to reassess Taiwan’s national defense posture against similar aggression from China — Vladimir Putin’s “no-limits strategic partner.” 

Ukraine’s success at employing asymmetrical defenses and counter-measures has reinforced a decades-old call for Taiwan to adopt a “porcupine” strategy that would make it an unappealing target for an invading force. Mines, obstacles, bunkers and other hardened defenses would be supplemented by a robust citizen defense and insurgency capability, increasing the costs of an invasion and making Taiwan an indigestible target. Presumably, Beijing would be dissuaded from attacking to avoid repeating Russia’s disastrous mistake.

Ukraine’s experienced, battle-hardened military has fought Russia’s protracted aggression in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 and was prepared to confront the new escalation — albeit at great human and material cost — even before President Biden and NATO began providing substantial weapons

Taiwan, on the other hand, last engaged in combat with China after the communists took over the mainland in 1949, when it successfully repulsed an amphibious assault by elements of the People’s Liberation Army on the island of Kinmen, then known as Quemoy.  

The fighting resembled the initial phase of the Ukraine war. Chinese forces invaded, confidently expecting an easy conquest that would serve as the launching-point for an attack on Taiwan’s main island. But, within days, all 9,000 PLA soldiers who landed on Kinmen were killed or captured by the tenacious defenders.

Taiwan’s military has had no direct combat experience in the decades since, while China has been involved in aggressive wars in South Korea, South Vietnam, India, the Soviet border, and unified Vietnam.

China may well try again to seize Kinmen on the way to attacking Taiwan proper. But it likely will come with an exponentially larger naval, air and amphibious force — and only after days of extensive bombing, missile and cyber attacks.

Given China’s demonstrated willingness in past conflicts to expend the lives of thousands of its soldiers to achieve its political ends, Washington’s strategy of Taiwan asymmetry, while appropriate for defensive purposes, falls short of what is needed to deter an attempted Chinese invasion.

The expectation of such tactics by more-seasoned Ukrainian forces did not prevent fellow totalitarian Putin from launching his campaign of death and destruction on Ukrainians and his own forces. Neither did the West’s threats of punishing economic sanctions. The objective must be to help Taiwan avoid such a fate altogether, not just to survive a devastating attack.

Putin would have had to reconsider his plans if a direct U.S.-NATO role seemed a likely prospect, instead of the assurance President Biden gave him that it would not happen. That nonintervention declaration reinforced Putin’s experience with U.S. passivity after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine, seizure of Crimea, and horrific actions in Syria. 

U.S. reluctance to establish a no-fly zone over sovereign Ukrainian territory or to provide Kyiv with the jet fighters and heavy weapons that Putin might see as “offensive” also encouraged him to think his war in Ukraine would be a cake-walk. A similarly constricted view of “arms of a defensive character” — which Washington is obligated to provide Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — unnecessarily limits its ability to defeat a Chinese attack, not simply to weather it until the next wave. 

The less Taiwan is allowed to do to defend itself, the greater the need for a direct U.S. role. Just as the U.S. Navy is uniquely suited to break Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and allow its grain to feed the world, the U.S. is the only power that could thwart a full-fledged Chinese air and sea attack across the Taiwan Strait. 

In contrast to his refusal to intervene directly against what he has called Putin’s war crimes and genocide, Biden twice has stated that America will defend Taiwan — only to have his aides rush to deny any change in official U.S. policy, which includes an unwillingness to dispense with strategic ambiguity on the question. The TRA obligates America to “maintain the capacity to resist” Chinese aggression or coercion against Taiwan but does not commit it to do so.

Many Americans, including majorities in both houses of Congress, not only favor U.S. intervention in a Taiwan crisis, but fully expect it to happen. But the critical audience — Chinese leader Xi Jinping — apparently remains unconvinced and continues to prepare for Washington to blink in a showdown. His confidence can only have been bolstered by the dynamic of Putin threatening nuclear war and Biden echoing the danger of “World War III” as the basis for staying out of the conflict. Xi’s subordinates already have flashed the nuclear threat card, and more can be expected.

Despite Russia’s own renewed apocalyptic threats, Biden and NATO are gradually shaking off their inhibition on the volume and lethality of the weapons systems they are willing to provide Ukraine. That prompted Putin’s former presidential placeholder, Dmitry Medvedev, to warn last week that the actions threaten “open conflict between NATO and Russia [and] the risk of turning into a full-fledged nuclear war … a disastrous scenario for everyone.”

Fiery rhetoric aside, Putin has failed to accomplish his military or political objectives in Ukraine — toppling Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, dividing NATO, or constraining its expansion.  Instead, he has made Zelensky a heroic figure domestically and internationally, united NATO, and motivated Finland and Sweden to join the alliance. 

Biden must make clear that an attack by China on Taiwan likewise would fail and would achieve the reverse of Xi’s objectives — by permanently separating the Taiwanese population from China, isolating Beijing from the world, precipitating war with the United States, and causing immediate U.S. recognition of Taiwan.  

It also would bring about further security cohesion among regional countries, leading potentially to an Asia-Pacific version of NATO, perhaps a new version of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that disbanded after the Vietnam War.  

If China commits the threshold war crime of aggression against Taiwan, on top of its ongoing Uyghur genocide that goes largely unseen, unlike Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Biden could react as dramatically as he has with Putin. He could proclaim that Xi, like Putin, “cannot remain in power.” His “personal” view, along with a robust sanctions program, could encourage the same kind of domestic opposition in China that Putin now reportedly faces.   

As the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrated, regime change can happen unpredictably. The scenario is yet to play out in both Russia and China.

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.

Tags Biden China aggression China-Taiwan tension Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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