Ukraine Today, Taiwan Tomorrow?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 serves as a powerful reminder that geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations remain critical, indeed indispensable, factors for comprehensive geostrategic assessments. In an evolving 21st century international system that is increasingly defined by a seemingly irreversible shift of the global economic center of gravity to the East as well as an obvious attempt by the likes of China and Russia to usher in a new era of great power relations, such considerations may yet become more relevant than ever before.
The war in Ukraine has already prompted debates as to whether Russia’s actions might just embolden China to take more concerted steps to reclaim Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. As thought-provoking as such armchair analyses might appear, however, they are also misguided. Extrapolating from Moscow’s decision to attack Ukraine to speculating about the possibility of Beijing perceiving the Ukraine crisis as a strategic window of opportunity to move against Taiwan is an analytical exercise that is a decontextualized as it is simplistic. Taiwan is NOT Ukraine!
Taiwan is NOT Ukraine!
To be sure, from a geopolitical and geostrategic perspective, Beijing and Moscow appear to share similar security concerns and strategic calculations when it comes to Taiwan and Ukraine, respectively. In the eyes of Vladimir Putin, the continuing post-Cold War eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presents a clear and present danger to Russia’s national security. He had pointedly laid out this argument in a speech at the 2007 Munich Security conference where he reminded the audience that in 1990, the NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had declared in a speech that “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” In the run-up to the war in Ukraine, Putin returned to this ongoing threat perception when, on 1 December 2021, he called for “legal guarantees” that NATO would not proceed with further eastward expansion; guarantees that NATO was not prepared to make.
Taiwan, meanwhile, is poised to be a central pawn in the 21st century U.S.-China great power rivalry. In a speech celebrating the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping invoked his hallmark “China Dream” by declaring that “China’s national rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability.” Viewed against the backdrop of rising Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea as well as expanding military modernization, which has already resulted in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) becoming the world’s largest naval force, the probability of a move against Taiwan certainly appears to have grown. Effective control of Taiwan would be a major strategic advantage for China. Not only would it constitute a successful breach of what Beijing views as the “first island containment chain”, which includes the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, and the Philippines, but it would also dramatically increase China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.
The invasion of Ukraine is the canary in the 21st century geopolitical coal mine.
Further prompting initial knee-jerk comparisons of Ukraine and Taiwan may be the fact that China and Russia have also drawn closer on geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic fronts in recent years. Efforts to deepen the Eurasia-Asia Pacific interconnectedness through cooperative development between Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and large-scale joint military exercises reinforce this evolving power alignment. Meanwhile, the Joint Statement issued on 4 February 2022 following the latest meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, has further reinforced speculation of a deepening alliance between the two powers. The reaffirmation in the Joint Statement of “their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs…” and “…their intention to strengthen foreign policy coordination, pursue true multilateralism, strengthen cooperation on multilateral platforms, defend common interests, support the international and regional balance of power, and improve global governance” sounds ominously like a concerted effort by Beijing and Moscow to usher in a new era of great power relations and to secure regional spheres of influence. Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is thus understandable that such statements may increase security concerns across the Taiwan Strait. At the same time, however, it does not justify a rush towards overly alarmist predictions about the inevitability or imminence of an aggressive Chinese move against Taiwan in the near future.
The unfolding economic and financial blowback that Russia has been facing in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine is most definitely not lost on Beijing. And while Beijing is well positioned to alleviate the full effect of Western sanctions against Russia—although there are growing indications that it is reluctant to do so—Moscow, as a junior partner in the Sino-Russian economic relationship, would be largely unable to do the same for China in the event that Beijing were to attempt an invasion of Taiwan. Second, the logistical problems facing the Russian military at the early stage of the invasion of Ukraine pale in comparison to the complexities that a full-blown amphibious attack on Taiwan would entail. Third, the costs and consequences for Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and, by association, China’s larger geostrategic calculus, are difficult to predict at best. Finally, the impact of a tight sanctions regime and the seemingly inevitable outflow of foreign direct investment––as has been evident in Russia––on the Chinese economy would not only exacerbate the prevailing socio-economic inequalities, but also erode the CCP’s performance legitimacy at a time of slowing economic growth.
Seen in a larger context, the invasion of Ukraine is the canary in the 21st century geopolitical coal mine. For the sake of continued regional peace and security, it is imperative that the international community carefully assess and address the geopolitics of not only hope, but more importantly fear and humiliation expressed by rising or revanchist powers, whether such geopolitical emotions be borne out of longstanding historical or more contemporary developments.