As the war in Ukraine heads into its second week, the bodies are piling higher. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry for the first time acknowledged Russian casualties from their February 24 invasion. The top Ukrainian newspaper in Kyiv recently reported that 9,000 Russian troops have been killed, although the Ukrainian government reports more than 11,000. Regardless of the exact numbers, the human toll cannot be understated. After 20 years in Afghanistan, just short of 2,500 American troops were killed. The Russians lost almost 15,000 over ten years. At this rate, Russia’s military operation in Ukraine looks set to well exceed those figures.
Whether or not the current tragedy in Ukraine was avoidable or who is to blame gives little comfort to those who have lost loved ones or seen their lives shattered by the Russian invasion. But the trilogy of regrets – the would have, could have, and should have of the crisis – can serve a useful purpose: to save Taiwan from a bloody invasion and occupation by the People’s Republic of China. On this question, there are two positions one can take: that current events in Ukraine do not presage an assault on Taiwan, or the opposite, which we argue here.
It has quickly become clear that no country in Europe is willing to intervene militarily in Ukraine. While Sweden and Denmark are sending military aid and Germany reversed decades of defense policy with a 100 billion Euro fund designed to revitalize its armed forces, they are not willing to spill “blood and treasure” in a country on Europe’s periphery. U.S. President Joe Biden, while contributing $350 million in military aid, has ruled out sending U.S. forces across the border. In doing so, Biden has effectively given Putin a free hand in Ukraine. Even a “no-fly zone,” as requested by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been dismissed given that Russia would likely consider it an act of war. While it is unclear whether Putin will survive his miscalculations, he can rest assured that the convoys en route to Kyiv are not at risk from an American airstrike.
If the West will not defend Ukraine, a population of 40 million people and the breadbasket of Europe, will it defend Taiwan? This is an important question because unlike in Ukraine, a sanctions-only deterrence policy, which has yet to stop Putin’s westward march, cannot be repeated in the Taiwan Strait. While NATO has the capacity to deal with a Russian threat to its members and the EU as a whole, evidenced by its ramped up defense budgets and the deployment of the NATO Response Force, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose a greater danger to the post-war international order.
First, the fall of Taiwanese democracy, a creation of an ethnic Chinese people, would be a catastrophic loss. The U.S., although it has historically undermined Taiwan’s attempts to obtain external recognition as a sovereign state, would have to defend the island along with its Indo-Pacific partners or face the crushing penalty of hypocrisy and diminished reputation as a reliable regional partner. Second, Taiwan has significant economic value. Buoyed by growth in the semiconductor sector, most notably Taiwan Semiconductor, the world’s largest chip manufacturer, Taiwan was Asia’s top performing economy in 2020, outpacing even mainland China.
Taiwan’s high-value goods, including its advanced chip foundries, are integral parts of what drives technological enterprise around the world. Its application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) along with China makes American reluctance to join seem absurd. Although tethered somewhat to China – the PRC received almost 44 percent of the island’s exports in 2020, making it Taiwan’s most important trade partner – the future capacity of Taiwan’s tech-powered economy is of vital importance to the region, and by default should be considered a major national security concern for the Indo-Pacific.
Third, and most important, is the immediate danger of China emerging as a hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific. A conquest of Taiwan would dramatically impact all of Southeast and East Asia, handing China control of vital sea lanes that are paramount to the free flow of commerce. While Taiwan is only a part of Beijing’s strategic plan to control the waters in the South China Sea and beyond, its fall would have far-reaching implications for the occupation of the Paracel Islands, disputes over the Senkaku Islands near to Japan, the contest over Scarborough Shoal, and more. Taiwan’s geographic location is critical to China, which fears an “independent” state with a growing Western presence would threaten China’s sea access in all directions. Conversely, should China move on Taiwan, it would be able to control the seas against any regional rival, particularly Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The defense of Taiwan would reassure the Indo-Pacific region that the U.S. is a reliable security partner.
The question is whether the U.S. and its partners should better position naval vessels close to Taiwan, particularly another carrier group in Japan, ending the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, in which the U.S. has refused to commit to whether it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack. When Biden said the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense at a town hall event last October, he was later forced to walk back the comments. But strategic ambiguity becomes a less than ideal policy if the deterrence to Beijing is less than formidable. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a relic of the Carter administration, reiterates the vagueness of American support for Taiwan, by providing a means to boost Taiwan’s defensive capacity, but fails to note if the U.S. would come to its aid when faced with a Chinese threat. While Ukraine is a legitimate motivator to change direction with regard to America’s Taiwan policy, the latter has been in flux for some time. Blinken has been pushing for greater standing for Taiwan in the halls of the United Nations and Biden in August approved a $750 million arms sale, which includes 40 self-propelled howitzer artillery systems. Prior to that, the Trump administration lifted rules for contact between senior American and Taiwanese officials.
Taiwan clearly lives in the shadow of Chinese threats, evidenced by the Taiwan parliament in January passing an $8.6 billion supplementary defense bill, to boost its defense capacity. This is on top of a record $17 billion defense budget for 2022. The supplementary bill aims to equip the military with precision missiles and the acquisition of high-efficiency naval ships to boost sea and air capabilities. While these defense measures are being done at breakneck speeds, Taipei is still reliant on U.S. support and Ukraine obviously exacerbates a fear of abandonment. This is not only a gap of assurance but a chasm of logistics and armaments. Whether it happens in the wake of the war in Ukraine or not, Taiwan seems to be willing to adopt the necessary authority and organizational structures to wage a war of resistance. While learning from Russian missteps in the execution of the Ukraine invasion will ratchet up Chinese preparations, abandoning strategic ambiguity would give much-needed cohesion to preparedness efforts and allow Taiwan to better examine its own defense capabilities.
The lessons of Ukraine for Taiwan are clear. China has been explicit in its intention to use of force if necessary to achieve unification, similar to Putin’s dreams of reclaiming the former Russian Empire. While sanctioning the world’s second largest economy would do much more harm than good, Taiwan can only be saved by an American commitment to defend it at all costs. In turn, Taiwan must also take the necessary steps to defend itself, which requires political skill, budgetary commitments, bureaucratic streamlining, and clear command and communication structures. While it does not guarantee success, ending strategic ambiguity would prove that the U.S is willing to act more than just on rhetoric. Coordination with Indo-Pacific partners such as Japan and India would contribute added value.
Winning this conflict, which also has the potential to widen into a greater war in Asia, unseen for quite some time, makes the stakes for Taiwan’s defense even more complicated, more problematic, and more dangerous than the situation in Ukraine. If Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to follow Putin by invading and reclaiming “lost” territory, he must be deterred and this can only happen if the lessons of Ukraine are learned. If not, the consequences will be grave.