Picture : Protests in Tapei, March 13th, in support of Ukrainians © AFP / Jose Lopes Amaral / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP
Western political pundits ranging from news reporters to think tank leaders have sounded alarm bells over the effects Russia’s invasion of Ukraine imposes on Taiwan. As Derek Grossman from the RAND Corporation explains, “if Russia takes over Ukraine with no problem, maybe that’s a nod to China being able to conquer Taiwan much more easily than previously thought.”
While it is true that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen created a task force to study how the Ukrainian crisis could affect Taiwan’s standing with China, Putin’s estranged invasion of Ukraine does not necessarily set a precedent for Xi Jinping.
Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan has multiple security guarantees with the US. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1997, which once promised collective defense measures, now commits US arms to maintain the island’s self-defense capabilities. US President Joe Biden extended such guarantees in his 2021 public statement committing US defense of Taiwan if China were to further aggressive acts on the island. In fact, the issue of defending Taiwan is one of the few bipartisan issues in the United States with the Republican Party stating in a 2016 Republican National Convention that they would sell defensive weapons to the island and provide military expertise to Taiwan’s military. The Democratic Party Leader, as President of the United States, continues to prioritize Taiwan relations in his foreign relations policies. In his ever-evolving strategy with the US’ unofficial partner, President Biden sent a group of former US military and security diplomats, led by Michael Mullen, a US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman under the Bush and Obama administrations, to visit Taiwanese diplomats on March 1st to assure “rock-solid US support” amidst the Ukrainian conflict.
This all seemingly points to US military alignment alongside Taiwan in the event of an invasion, yet nothing is ever so black-and-white. When asked on NBC News in February in what scenario he would send US troops to Ukraine, the President responded with, “There’s not. That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.” Unlike Russia, China is a superpower with the second largest economy and the second largest military capacity in the world – second only to the US. If, to prevent World War 3, the US is not willing to fight Russia, they would certainly think twice about fighting their rival superpower.
Taiwan is also not Ukraine because the dispute along the Taiwan Strait is regarded by all sides as national. When the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the Chinese civil war, they retreated to the island and established the government of Taiwan. Unwilling to admit their defeat, however, they established the Taiwanese government as the rightful sovereign of the whole of China (Republic of China), simply in retreat. Thus, both the governments of Taiwan and China (People’s Republic of China) claim to be the legitimate government of the territories of China and claim that the territories under the jurisdiction of the Taiwanese and the Beijing government belong to one Chinese state. The two simply differ in their definitions of China. Working off this One China Principle, foreign states must have official ties with only one or the other China, which they must recognize as the official and sole representative. In the UN, only 14 countries have diplomatic ties with Taiwan while the rest choose to have official relations with the PRC. This is not to say that Taiwan does not have any relationship with other countries of the world because the US does not officially have ties with Taiwan but obviously is a staunch ally; instead, it shows that any tertiary state involving themselves in a potential conflict with Taiwan and the PRC would find it difficult in a legal sense since they most likely do not recognize Taiwan as a legitimate country. Thus, international law precedents such as the right to collective self-defense that allow tertiary states to legally use force in defending Ukraine’s sovereignty for Ukrainian self-defense, as the US had done to protect Kuwait in the face of an Iraqi invasion in the First Gulf War, is inapplicable to Taiwan because China’s invasion of Taiwan would not qualify as an interstate conflict.
Seeing as US national security advisors such as Lieutenant General Mark Hertling have warned that sending NATO or US troops into Ukraine to “help them fight the Russians [would shift] the dynamic to a multinational conflict with potential global implications due to the nuclear power status of both the US and Russia,” it is highly unlikely then that the US would fight alongside Taiwan in the case of an invasion because their addition into the national conflict would de facto make it a multinational conflict with the same global implications with regards to nuclear warfare. In fact, the international aftermath of any conflict between the two superpowers of the world is sure to affect every facet of society in every country on Earth in a drastic sense. We have already had a small taste of such repercussions during the Trade War.
On the other hand, the inherent threat that China already poses might encourage the US to toe the international law line and push their robust security guarantees in Taiwan just a little bit further. As described in the US National Intelligence Community’s 2021 Annual Threat Assessment China poses, “[a challenge to] the United States in multiple arenas – especially economically, military and technologically – and is pushing to change global norms,” whereas Russia is described by Representative Adam B. Schiff who oversaw the report and served as the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as “a dying power [that] poses the threat of a kind of wounded animal”. Given the much more significant threat that China poses to the Western order, and the world order as a whole, the US might believe that engaging in Taiwan to preserve the world order is a risk they are willing to take. From President Biden’s comments that “the United States would defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power”, it is quite clear that the US is still committed to defending a Western world order.
At the very least, President Biden’s actions and comments towards Russia’s war in Ukraine have demonstrated that he and his Western allies would apply unprecedented economic pressure on China in the event of an invasion of Taiwan. Like Ukraine’s historical and current relationship with Russia, Taiwan’s historical founding was strongly tied to China, but the society and government today have adopted a strong Taiwanese identity independent of China and contrary to China. In fact, Taiwanese President Tsai has said in an interview with BBC that “[they] don’t need to declare [themselves] an independent state, [as they] are [an] independent country.” Taiwan has also been leaning West-ward in the past few decades, similar to Ukraine. Thus, we can assume that Western attitudes would be similar towards Taiwan as they are with Ukraine and even more so due to the threat that China poses. China, on the other hand, would probably be hit harder economically than Russia because of its hyper-connected status with the world economy. With the Chinese government’s legitimacy largely tied to its roaring economy and their ability, economic sanctions could severely deter the Chinese government from reclaiming Taiwan.
To conclude with, I, myself, have no concrete take on the US’ on-the-ground military support alongside Taiwanese soldiers in the event of a Chinese invasion. On the one hand, Taiwan enjoys several security guarantees from the US that are astonishingly bipartisan and updated in every administration, yet on the other, the US, especially under President Biden, has been retreating its troops worldwide and appears wary of multinational conflicts with nuclear superpowers. This piece simply argues, instead, that Taiwan is not Ukraine. Academics and pundits worldwide should stop attempting to compare the two because their histories, state statuses, and implications as pawns for the international world are totally different.
**Author’s Note: The author is not conveying any political statement in regards to the One China Principle through her use of “Taiwan” and “China”. In this piece, “Taiwan” refers to the Republic of China while “China” refers to the People’s Republic of China. The author’s choice follows that of popular parlance.**