As war rages on between Russia and Ukraine, there is a burgeoning geopolitical crisis simmering in the background that has major implications for the future of the international world order. It has become increasingly clear that China is observing the world’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and setting up a potential blueprint for an invasion of Taiwan. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the international community is nowhere near prepared to adequately deal with an invasion if it were to occur today.
In a July meeting in London with his U.K. counterpart, U.S. FBI Director Christopher Wray indicated that China is currently putting in defensive measures to protect their economy should they be on the receiving end of future sanctions. Wray referred to China’s activities as a “clue” as to what they might be thinking and planning. U.S. CIA Director Bill Burns followed up Wray’s comments by saying that China is gleaning insights from Russia’s invasion and seeking to ascertain what they would do differently from a military perspective as it relates to the use of “decisive or overwhelming force” and “how and when” to act on Taiwan.
In Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s opening remarks in the ongoing 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, he did not mince words when he stated that “complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can, without doubt, be realized!” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken subsequently noted that China’s plans for Taiwan have accelerated and that the timeframe for action could be realized much sooner than previously expected.
These comments from Wray, Blinken, Burns, and Xi should have been the leading story in newsrooms across the globe, but the war in Ukraine – including Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling – coupled with global economic worries have sidelined this very pressing and challenging issue from the crowded news cycle.
Observing the Global Response
While the drivers behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan have their own historical, political, and strategic connotations, the most important link is that China is observing how the world is responding to the current crisis. They are specifically looking at the sanctions placed on Russia, including the energy carve outs and how unified the rest of the world is in their response. The response has largely been led by the United States and European allies through a combination of financial sanctions and arms deliveries to the Ukrainians.
While the sanctions have isolated Russia from the international financial community, it is unclear how similar sanctions would impact China. China is so heavily intertwined in the global economy that a robust set of sanctions would inevitably be highly punitive to the countries doing the sanctioning. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a significant impact on global energy markets and food supply, the reality is a potential military confrontation between the U.S. and China would have a much bigger impact on the global economy. The supply chain issues that we are seeing now pale in comparison to what we would see in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan has over 20 percent of the global market share for semiconductors, and an invasion would cause immediate disruptions throughout the global economy.
Additionally, China would be able to protect its currency valuations by forcing importers and exporters to process their transactions in renminbi as opposed to U.S. dollars. They could use their coercive power to mitigate potential economic consequences from their smaller ASEAN neighbors and economically dependent countries in Africa and South America. While Russia has a stranglehold on European energy, China’s economic influence is omnipotent and touches all corners of the world. Furthermore, China is observing the U.N. Security Council’s continued impotence when it comes to policing bad behavior from member states.
This then begs the question, is China too big and too powerful to meaningfully sanction and punish for invading Taiwan?
The United States does not have a formal defense treaty with Taiwan. Washington’s approach to the Taiwan-U.S. relationship is governed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which ushered in an era of “strategic ambiguity” by avoiding a direct commitment to defend Taiwan.
The United States and China have been tiptoeing around this opaque policy ever since it was put into place. Tensions were elevated during the Trump administration as the U.S. sold $5 billion in arms to Taiwan to counteract continued military harassment on the part of China. Additionally, the Trump administration passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allowed for high-level delegations from the U.S. to travel to Taiwan. These visits have been a source of consternation for the Chinese, who routinely fly military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace before and after these visits.
Tensions have not subsided under the Biden administration. In fact, tensions have grown due to a couple of presidential gaffes expressing a stronger commitment that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense. In August, China conducted large-scale military exercises while U.S. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which was clearly meant to send a signal to both Taipei and Washington.
A Distracted Superpower?
Unlike U.S. President Joe Biden, Xi doesn’t have to worry about upcoming elections. Biden is polling well below historical averages for U.S. presidents at the same point in their time in office, and the U.S. is becoming increasingly polarized along state and cultural lines. Whether or not Biden runs again in 2024, the Taiwan question will still be looming large, no matter who the U.S. president is. The important question will be what sort of appetite the American public has for supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. While recent polling has indicated over 50 percent of Americans support coming to Taiwan’s defense if an invasion were to occur, the stakes will be much higher if the two largest superpowers are actually on the precipice of a military confrontation.
Additionally, even though Europe has provided a mostly unified front against Russia it is hard to see Europeans willing to be fully engaged financially and militarily if China were to invade Taiwan. The Ukraine invasion is hitting Europeans close to home, and they are seeing the horrors of war up close and personal. However, would an increasingly fragmented European Union be willing to put aside its own commercial interests with its largest trading partner because of a war that is thousands of miles away? Accusations of genocidal activity in China’s Xinjiang region have hardly moved the needle on bustling Sino-European economic cooperation.
Additionally, China is observing countries like India and Israel and the Gulf states, allies and strategic partners of the United States, hedging their positions on Ukraine. This does not bode well for a unified global response to an invasion of Taiwan.
There is no doubt that a response to an invasion of Taiwan would be led by the United States and its allies in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia. However, even Japan and South Korea, who do have binding defense treaties with the U.S., have strong economic ties with China and would have a deep aversion to a military conflict.
It is unclear what the immediate response would be to an invasion, but it is becoming increasingly clear the U.S. and its allies have to adequately prepare for all contingencies even while managing the existing crisis in Ukraine. The current diplomatic challenge is to not raise tensions too much with China, while at the same time showing China there would be severe repercussions if they were to act on Taiwan. While the United States has done an admirable job of rallying the world against the Russia invasion, have they really shown China that the costs will outweigh the benefits of “unifying” China once and for all?
Domestic and Global Factors
Whether or not China decides to invade Taiwan will be due to a combination of domestic and global factors. At home, Xi faced a summer of discontent with citizens becoming increasingly upset with the draconian zero-COVID policy and continued lockdowns. Additionally, economists are predicting GDP growth of less than 3 percent for China in 2022, which is a much slower pace than it has seen for many years. An invasion of Taiwan could serve as a nationalist call to action, helping to distract from some of the systemic economic challenges the country is likely to face in the coming years.
Xi is a Chinese nationalist and he views Taiwan purely from a territorial and sovereignty perspective. There would be no greater crowning achievement than unifying China. However, Xi’s calculations will ultimately depend on the confidence he has in his armed forces. U.S. defense leaders are convinced that China’s military buildup is at the very least giving them the option and preparedness to invade Taiwan if they so choose.
However, the last thing Xi wants is a humiliating defeat at the hands of the United States exposing the fraudulence of his military and the Communist Party, and potentially impacting his own personal legacy. The stakes are extremely high for a potential invasion of Taiwan, and Xi might not prove to be the risk taker that Putin is. But we also must weigh the possibility that Xi might see a confluence of events that allow China a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reorient Asia hegemony away from the United States and finally unify all of China.
The question remains as to how the world would respond if and when China invades Taiwan. Can the international community see through the fog of its current crises and adequately prepare for an even bigger crisis further down the road?