Eerie similarities link the Ukraine and Taiwan situations

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping use the threat of nuclear weapons to safeguard against retaliation for their aggression and to seek strategic advantages.

More than a few commentators recently have drawn connections between the tense situations involving Ukraine and Taiwan, even though these countries are separated by about 5,000 miles.

Retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis recently suggested: “China will be watching U.S. support to Ukraine and it will inform their calculus regarding Taiwan.” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert with the German Marshall Fund, warned: “I think the Chinese would be ill-advised to assume that if the United States did not intervene militarily in a Ukraine crisis that means the United States would not intervene militarily in a Taiwan crisis.” 

It’s an interesting debate and one that’s worth probing more deeply: What are the similarities and differences between these two important foreign policy situations?

A simple glance at the globe offers the first clue that the cases are indeed comparable. Though Ukraine and Taiwan are both located thousands of miles away from the North American landmass, each is extremely proximate to, and faces a grave national security threat from, one of the Eurasian great powers — Russia and China — that wield considerable conventional, and even nuclear, might.  

The Kremlin is prepared to blitz Ukraine with a combination of tanks and paratroopers, along with a lethal set of long-range artillery systems that were used with devastating effect against Ukrainian forces in 2015. Beijing’s military planners have been making ominous threats against Taiwan, and have thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles that could make good on these threats, delivering “shock and awe” in advance of an invasion that appears to be an ever more realistic option.

More to the point, what makes these situations wholly comparable is that the U.S. armed forces lack sufficient firepower assembled near the Black Sea or the Taiwan Strait to decide a military contest on favorable terms. This is not because our military is insufficiently funded or trained; rather, it is a simple fact of geography. Russia and China are more than capable of bringing overwhelming firepower to bear, delivering a knock-out blow well before sufficient U.S. forces could stream into either region. 

But the situation grows even more bleak for Ukraine and Taiwan when one analyzes these potential crises from the perspective of national will. 

If the Pentagon actually sought to engage either Russia or China directly in high-intensity warfare, this generally would mean tens of thousands — or, more likely, hundreds of thousands — of casualties. Such contests would make the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and even the Vietnam War, look like garden parties by comparison. Are Americans prepared to make such sacrifices to save the port cities of Odessa in Ukraine or Kaohsiung in Taiwan? It is doubtful. 

Then, there is the delicate question of potential for nuclear escalation. Would U.S. leaders be willing to risk Honolulu or Houston in order to intervene in these conflicts on the rim of Eurasia? Available evidence suggests that Chinese and Russian leaders would be willing to engage in nuclear brinkmanship because both Ukraine and Taiwan constitute “core interests” of these two powers.

Nor is it an accident that the U.S. does not have defense treaties with either Ukraine or Taiwan. These two domains are similar in that they are well beyond the power of the United States to defend. It should not take the Washington elite decades of rivalry, trillions of dollars in defense expenditures, a series of nuclear crises, or even a catastrophic war to figure that out. They need only glance at a map.

Those concerned that failing to defend Ukraine and Taiwan would sully America’s reputation ought to read carefully the ruminations of Harvard professor Stephen Walt on credibility. He warned starkly a few years ago that Americans “can’t stop fighting other people’s wars” and counseled that the Pentagon should cease picking fights in “obscure locations.” Instead, Walt recommended that American credibility will remain rock solid only when U.S. “interests are obvious to all.” 

As has become clear over the past few weeks, such criteria do not apply to Ukraine. Only a few of the most radical hawks have advocated for dispatching NATO military forces into this volatile conflict. A consensus wisely appears to grasp this would be “mission impossible.” As has been observed, it is the Kremlin that has “escalation control” in this conflict, so the U.S. and Europe will have to hope that economic instruments are sufficient to restrain the Kremlin.  

True, Taiwan has a moat that seemingly protects it, but anyone watching the rapid pace of Beijing’s military development, not to mention its revolutionary developments generally in the use of drones for precision strike warfare, should realize that Taiwan is actually no more secure than Ukraine, and perhaps even less so. 

The sooner that the D.C. establishment grasps the inherent similarities of these two cases, and stops fantasizing about alliance partners coming to the rescue or military-technical solutions, the better off everyone will be — including the people of Taiwan and Ukraine. There are indeed diplomatic solutions to these complex disputes, but that involves taking a serious interest in two words rarely spoken in recent American foreign policy discourse: “diplomatic compromise.” 

Lyle J. Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities. He previously served as research professor at the U.S. Naval War College for 20 years, where he was awarded the Superior Civilian Service Medal for founding and leading the China Maritime Studies Institute.

Tags China National security Russia Taiwan Ukraine

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