Chinese leader Xi Jinping, like many people, may have been surprised by Russia’s failure to conquer Ukraine in a matter of days – owing in large measure to unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance. In addition the Americans and the Europeans – even the Germans – imposing wide-ranging economic and financial sanctions on the Russians, and providing the Ukrainians with massive military aid must have surprised Beijing.
Indeed, some analysts suggested Putin’s difficulties with Ukraine might force Xi to decide an assault on Taiwan was too hard for the foreseeable future.
But now that four months have passed, Xi might look at what has happened in Ukraine, and to the Russians, and think he’s got a reasonable shot at Taiwan – and can absorb whatever punishment the U.S. and allies can apply.
From Beijing’s perspective, the question is whether the benefits are worth the costs. If the PRC conquers Taiwan, it would gain crucial strategic terrain. Taking Taiwan breaks the so-called “first island chain” that hems in Chinese forces, thus allowing China to push out from there and move freely south to the Philippines, Malaysia, and on, perhaps to its new friends in Solomon Islands – allowing Beijing to isolate Australia. To the north and east, China could make life very difficult for Japan, surround South Korea, and displace U.S. presence and influence.
All this would shatter U.S. strategic credibility. It would demonstrate that the United States could not protect 24 million free Taiwanese – despite U.S. military power, financial and economic power, and nuclear weapons. Who in the region (and world) will rely on U.S. promises after that? With the exceptions of Japan and maybe Australia, many countries in the region will try to cut what deals they can with the PRC. A PRC triumph on Taiwan would shift the strategic balance in Asia.
That’s an attractive upside for leaders in Beijing. So, looking at Ukraine from their point of view, how might the Chinese assess the potential U.S.- and Western-imposed costs of an attack on Taiwan?
Despite heavy casualties and equipment losses, Putin will likely end up with more of Ukraine than he started with. So much for him being forced out of office and Russia and the Russian military being “wrecked.”
The threat of being barred from SWIFT – and the inability to carry out U.S. dollar transactions – was supposed to be enough to deter Putin, or else make it impossible for Russia to prosecute the war for very long. That hasn’t happened yet. The Russian ruble is actually doing rather well.
It was a surprise to see how fast EU and many U.S. companies got on board with sanctions. These are making life harder in Russia. But from the start there were huge gaps in the sanctions regime. And Russia could make around $800 million a day just from selling gas and oil – some to Europe and a lot of it to India and China. The oligarchs show no sign of removing Putin.
War in Ukraine is not only benefiting Putin with higher prices for oil and commodities, but he now also controls a large proportion of global wheat production.
While Russia may not be winning, it doesn’t look like it’s losing either. And Beijing perhaps thinks it can handle the Western response even better than Moscow across a range of sectors.
In Ukraine, the sheer military bulk of Russia might be winning out – even if slowly. The People’s Liberation Army has a similar or bigger overmatch on Taiwan.
U.S. aid to Ukraine has been considerable, but ultimately seems limited in quantity and type – and doesn’t include certain weapons that would be helpful. One reported reason was the fear that such weapons will be used over the border into Russia, and further “provoke” Moscow. Taiwan already doesn’t have enough of what it needs to defend itself. Would similar reasons about “not provoking Beijing” be used to keep it constrained, even in the event of a PRC invasion?
Remember, there are still no meaningful joint exercises and training between U.S. and Taiwanese forces. Taiwan remains outside of the RIMPAC exercise, the U.S.-hosted multinational maritime drills. At the end of day, this suggests the United States is not fully committed.
And, even if the United States and others do go “all in” after an attack starts, it might be too late. Unlike Ukraine, there is no land border with Taiwan to make it easy for the United States and others to resupply it and provide it with weapons. If the PRC can isolate Taiwan, it might just run out of missiles, ammo, and hardware, and resupply by the Americans and anyone else could be very difficult.
Also, pressure on the entire global economy from the Russia-Ukraine War is rattling everybody. Many countries are staying “uncommitted” on Ukraine, some are supportive of Russia, and Sri Lanka is even asking it openly for help. The Western bloc is powerful, but it’s also vastly outnumbered. The economic disruptions will be much worse over Taiwan and might make the world even more willing to let the PRC have its way.
Add to that, Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons seems to have restrained the U.S. and EU response to the Ukraine invasion. Why wouldn’t the same be true for Taiwan? China has long claimed Taiwan as a “core interest” and the “bottom line” for its relationships with other countries. There’s every reason to believe nuclear-armed China would be willing to up the ante should its victory be threatened.
Russia’s pre-invasion “sanctions-proofing” might have worked reasonably well. This is something Beijing has been preparing for decades – “sanctions warfare” was even mentioned in 1999 in the book “Unrestricted Warfare” by two PLA Air Force colonels.
Key materials that the West needs from Russia have been exempted from sanctions. There are many more things the West will need from China, including pharmaceuticals. So it’s possible, if not likely, there will be exemptions to any sanctions regime if Taiwan is hit. The West may have no choice given its dependence on China for supply chains and also the importance of specific materials to the U.S. economy – and even the U.S. military.
The PRC has not been seriously sanctioned for the financial, economic, and political support it has given the Russians. Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese military moves in Northeast Asia – aerial and naval circumnavigations of Japan and exercises in close proximity to Japan – have gone off without a hitch, or even much of a response.
This raises more doubts about Western resolve when it comes to Beijing, including in the event of a move against Taiwan.
There is already a strong domestic lobby in most of the West to “go easy” on China. Look at the U.S.-China Business Council and Wall Street responses to the recent proposal for restrictions on outbound investments in China that pose potential national security risks. It is being fiercely opposed. One imagines business leaders might respond the same way if sanctions were proposed in the event Taiwan was assaulted.
As a potential economic bonus, Taiwan manufactures around 90 percent of high-end industrial semiconductors. If the factories remain intact after an invasion, imagine what control China would wield, able to offer discount chips for friends and withhold chips from enemies. And imagine what that will do to the limping Western economies.
The West has options. A couple big-ticket punishments could send a clear message to China: strip it of its seat in the U.N. Security Council and revoke its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) for unprovoked aggression. However, neither has happened to Russia and perhaps Xi Jinping is confident it will not be done to the PRC.
So, What Now?
Can China handle whatever is thrown its way? Xi might think so, and that’s what matters. The Chinese people have demonstrated willingness to absorb a lot of punishment, especially if they think they are in the right – which, after decades of political indoctrination, many do regarding Taiwan – and that the Westerners are bullying them.
It’s a roll of the dice to go after Taiwan, but the PRC wouldn’t be the first authoritarian state to take its chances in this way. Think of the Germans attacking Poland in 1939, or invading Russia in 1941 – even with most Wehrmacht transport being horse-drawn.
And the longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more lessons Beijing will learn.
It’s likely the Russian invasion will slow down to another frozen conflict in autumn and winter. This is just when EU will be pinched off from Russian gas, and temperatures are dropping. The messaging from Paris and Berlin implies that France and Germany may ratchet up pressure on Ukraine to concede territory “for humanitarian relief.” Germany already seems to be wavering. And, if Ukraine resists, then the Europeans may just slow down the ammunition resupply.
Xi has already been sending signals that the time is coming for China to start the push to take Taiwan and drive the United States out of the Pacific. If it looks like Putin gets away with invading Ukraine, the odds of Xi making his move increase considerably.
The obvious lessons for the United States and its partners? Don’t let Putin get away with Ukraine. And get Taiwan ready – now.