How Ukraine is the Clearest Way to Protect Taiwan

If you have been even loosely following the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, it would be difficult for you to miss the increasingly sharp rhetoric from the leadership regarding the international playing field revolving around Taiwan. The US has publicly said it now appears evident China is accelerating its plans for Taiwanese unification, and importantly did not rule out using force to do this. It is similarly impossible not to follow developments in Ukraine. There are some crucial lessons to be learned in recognising the prescient parallels between the Ukrainian and Taiwanese predicaments, which could help deter another conflict. 

Democratic Ukraine has found itself attacked by a larger authoritarian neighbour of which it was once a part of in a different system. Ukraine was never part of the Russian Federation nor Taiwan in the People’s Republic. 

The strength of Chinese feelings regarding Taiwan is unrelenting, and aptly encapsulated at this month’s Communist Party Congress in Beijing. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told The Economistpodcast there will be modifications to the CCP’s strategic goals alongside the amendment opposing Taiwanese independence, to reflect President Xi’s hawkish and uncompromising approach. This is all preceded by the steady political backsliding under him since 2012. 

This signaling is particularly consequential when coinciding with the further consolidation of power around Xi Jinping and his loyalist Politburo Standing Committee, which have concentrated power into the General Secretary’s hands unprecedented since the days of Mao Zedong and just handed him a norm-breaking third term in office. 

This is evidently concerning for Taiwan’s freedom. President Xi has made no secret of the fact he believes Taiwan must be back under control by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. 

The US does not need to recognise Taiwanese independence, incompatible with its ‘One China’ policy, in order to support its ability to defend itself from mainland infringement in whatever form. It is already stepping up doing this, including with the recent $1.1 billion arms deal in September. The US policy of strategic ambiguity, despite President Biden’s since walked-backed hiccups, means American involvement is not guaranteed (especially with its political tumult at home and divides on interventionism). As such, deterrence predicated on military strength alone is not plausible. 

Taiwan and Ukraine are obviously never going to be able to quantitatively match the People’s Liberation and Russian armies respectively. 

Deterring Chinese aggression must be based on credible strength of conviction. 

President Xi must be made to understand clearly that the people of Taiwan will never accept the mainland stamping out their freedoms; of expression, speech, assembly, representation and more. Most Taiwanese say they would take up arms to defend their island in such an event. 

US military involvement and ambiguous threats can only go so far: Taiwan must show Xi that its people will not give in. Military assets can be disabled, but it is far harder to destroy popular sentiment by force. Xi Jinping will eventually have to decide, what price he is willing to stomach to bring Taiwan under his thumb? 

It is incredibly unlikely that had Vladimir Putin known prior to his decision to launch the invasion in Ukraine just how steadfast and unbreakable the Ukrainian spirit in defending their country and its values has proven to be, he would have done it anyway. Innumerable academics and commentators have agreed on this and questioned the quality of the intelligence Putin received. 

It is important also not to overlook the political parallels: the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is a backdrop to both in the wider context of countering US hegemony. 

There were expansive and crippling sanctions placed on Russia following their illegal invasion of Ukraine in February. Its removal from international payment systems led to the mass withdrawal of key businesses. This ought to be another warning to Xi. 

There is however a notable distinction between Russia and China economically. Greater global economic interdependence renders the latter more vulnerable to sanctions (China generates 37.4% of its GDP from trade – equating to approximately 5.5 trillion dollars annually). This interdependence has two sides to the coin: it would hurt the West too significantly more than those on Russia. Skyrocketing prices and good shortages could be among the many major problems, and China’s leadership will undoubtedly know this. 

Consequently, the best path is for Europe to call Putin’s bluff and not give in to his energy warfare, however tempting Russian natural gas this winter may be to put a lid on spiraling energy costs. The cost to Ukraine and potentially Taiwan would be greater. If Europe can withstand Russian energy extortion even at notable personal cost, it is the best chance the free world has in demonstrating it is truly willing to defend its values come what may. It is evident at this point that the parallels between the war in Ukraine and the flaring tensions around Taiwan are something to be noted and serious lessons can be learnt. If the West wields the lessons from Ukraine against China, it may just help to convince the Chinese leadership a forceful acquisition of Taiwan is not worth the cost.

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