While the West helps Ukraine save what it can, it must avoid mistakes with Taiwan

Associated Press

The savage, criminal war that Russian President Vladimir Putin has inflicted on the people of Ukraine has reverberated across Europe, which last experienced such barbarism during the onslaughts, decades apart, of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević.  

It also has sent disturbing messages to the Indo-Pacific region, where China is another expansionist power seeking to destroy a young democracy. The concern about Putin’s aggression serving as a model for Chinese leader Xi Jinping is nowhere greater than in Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened for decades. Taiwan’s successful transformation from tyranny to democracy is a living challenge to the authoritarianism of China’s communist system — just as Ukraine’s is to Putin’s Russia.

Taiwan’s concerns were intensified when Xi and Putin met in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics and released a joint statement pledging their mutual support for each other’s expansionist ambitions.  

While the 5,300-word document did not explicitly mention Ukraine, Xi offered this support for Putin: “The sides oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches.” That means keeping not only Ukraine out of NATO but also Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Finland, Sweden and other potential aspirants to the defensive alliance. Their accession, like Ukraine’s, would be a cause of war by Putin’s perverted reasoning.

Further, the document stated, “Russia and China … oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004 prevented a Kremlin-backed dictator from overturning its democratic election. It was one of the color revolutions that swept Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union and so terrified China’s communist leaders earlier that Deng Xiaoping, China’s “great reformer,” unleashed the People’s Liberation Army to slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

Reciprocating for Xi’s stated opposition to democratic advances in Eastern Europe, Putin agreed to this language in the statement: “The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.”

But now that the world has seen what Putin’s Russia has wrought, Xi may regret being so closely associated with it — apparently, the international community’s condemnation of China’s Uyghur genocide and crushing of democracy in Hong Kong did not cause the same second thoughts. Some, particularly in China, have suggested that Xi was caught by surprise when Putin actually invaded Ukraine a week after the Olympics.  

That seems highly implausible, since Putin had been menacingly clear for months that NATO’s failure to provide an explicit, even written, guarantee against any future admission of Ukraine would constitute an ongoing mortal threat to Russia justifying imminent “defensive” action, which he called “special military operations.”  

More likely, Beijing is engaged in reputational damage control and what really surprised Xi probably was the unified Western and global condemnation of Russia’s aggression. Beijing’s abstention at the United Nations, together with its joint statement with Russia, placed it firmly on the side of Putin, the war criminal.

Conceivably, even indirectly sharing Putin’s infamy could make Beijing less inclined to emulate his aggression by invading Taiwan, at least in the near future. But Beijing has learned well in its dealings with the international community that moral outrage is a passing condition and can be effectively eroded by economic incentives — consider Tiananmen Square and the Olympics in 2008 and 2022, held despite China’s genocide against the Uyghurs.

More telling than Western criticism in Xi’s calculations over whether and how to attack Taiwan will be how effective Putin is in achieving his goals of (a) bending Ukraine to his will and (b) upending the European order. The latter objective is a subpart of the larger global vision Xi and Putin shared in their statement — that of entirely defeating and replacing the rules-based, values-laden international order established after World War II by the United States and Western nations.

The document asserts: “There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy. … It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.” In other words, the tyrants and criminals get to judge themselves.

Despite their moral and political similarities, Ukraine and Taiwan are situated differently geographically, which affects their relative vulnerability to invasion. Although Ukraine has impressed the world with its remarkable skill and courage in resisting Russian aggression in the ground warfare phase, Putin has had greater success on the maritime front, which is more relevant to Taiwan’s exposure.   

Russian amphibious operations and sea-based shelling from its Black Sea navy have been effective in establishing a beachhead from which Russia can move inland to link up with ground forces moving from other directions.

Much of the reason for Russia’s relative maritime success is Ukraine’s weakness in that realm and the failure of Western nations to provide it with anti-ship missiles, naval mines and other more cost-effective means of coastal defense. Taiwan, by contrast, is surrounded by water and, with American help, has built a respectable, though not decisive, capacity to address sea-going challenges from across the Taiwan Strait.

Yet, the most important thing that America and the West can provide Taiwan is strategic clarity — that its population and cities will not be left to defend themselves alone against an overwhelmingly powerful and utterly ruthless enemy, with — as in Ukraine’s case — Western weapons delivered too late to prevent the onslaught. 

The Biden administration could serve the security interests of Taiwan and the West with less strategic ambiguity — just as it could have served the shared security interests with Ukraine with greater ambiguity, instead of emphatically declaring that under no circumstances would we intervene directly to stop the ongoing slaughter of civilians and the wanton destruction of European cities.

Critics of proposals for a no-fly zone or other more overt Western military assistance to Ukraine argue that such measures could lead to direct U.S.-Russian conflict that could escalate to a major, even nuclear, war. Yet, they also assert that Putin would not use nuclear weapons or attack a NATO country because he is “not suicidal.” 

The Ukrainian people continue to bear the horrible consequences of the logical inconsistency. The West deserves credit for what it has done belatedly for Ukraine, but history will also judge what it long failed to do. Hopefully, as it struggles to salvage what it can for the Ukrainian people it will not repeat the mistakes with China and Taiwan.

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags China Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Taiwan Uyghur genocide Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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