Russia-Ukraine Crisis | The Taiwan Connection | August 2, 2022
The Taiwan Connection
The shock waves from Russia’s war in Ukraine have forced capitals around the world to adjust to new alliances and divides.
Tensions between China and the U.S. spiked as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began a high-profile trip to Taiwan on Tuesday. Aligning firmly with China, the Kremlin said Pelosi’s visit was “provocative.” Some analysts are wondering whether Taiwan could become the next Ukraine.
For more insight on the parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, I spoke to Edward Wong, a diplomatic correspondent for The Times who reports on foreign policy from Washington.
How closely is China watching what’s going on in Ukraine?
U.S. officials who study China do think the leaders in Beijing are closely watching the war and the strategies from Russia and Ukraine. We don’t know what exactly China is learning, and analysts within the U.S. government have different opinions on that question.
As recently as July, Bill Burns, the C.I.A. director, said that China might have been taken aback by the difficulties that Russia has had in Ukraine and that China’s conclusion, for now, might be that if it were to try an invasion of Taiwan, then it might decide that it needs to have a massive, overwhelming force before it goes forward, meaning that it would want to improve its military capabilities. It would want to modernize its military, especially its navy and air force, and that would take some time if it has intentions like that. That’s a big if. No one knows whether the Chinese leadership has any intention of forcefully taking Taiwan.
There are some other analysts in the U.S. government who have recently said that maybe China thinks that it has to act sooner rather than later on Taiwan because maybe China thinks that, right now, Taiwan is less heavily armed than it could be in the coming years and that the U.S. military is still not fully oriented toward the Asia Pacific region and toward defending Taiwan. And so, according to these analysts, China’s thinking is to take advantage of this opportunity instead of waiting many years down the road, when the U.S., Taiwan and American allies in the region might have built up their capabilities.
Has China taken any actions toward Taiwan that indicate there’s a link to what it’s seeing in Ukraine?
No, we haven’t seen that. Over the recent years, China has steadily taken more belligerent actions against Taiwan.
It’s done more fighter jet sorties across the median line and put more pressure on the few countries that diplomatically recognize Taiwan to break their ties to Taiwan and recognize China instead. But those were already in progress before the war in Ukraine.
What are some of the similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan?
Both of them have large powers as neighbors. Putin has long viewed Ukraine as something that should be under the rule of Moscow, and we know that ever since 1949, the Communist Party in China has viewed Taiwan as a territory that should be under its rule, even though the party has never ruled Taiwan before. Both Russia and China have much larger militaries. Both are nuclear powers, which creates a nuclear deterrent, which then makes other powers want to limit their military actions.
Neither Ukraine nor Taiwan is a full treaty ally of the U.S. The U.S. is not obligated to defend them with its own military. Both are partners of the U.S., and the U.S. is defending Ukraine with sanctions and weapons. The U.S. does have an obligation to provide weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan. That’s in a congressional resolution.
And how are the stakes different in both cases?
One could argue that there would be much more economically at stake if a conflict were to erupt over Taiwan because China’s place in the world economy is much greater than Russia’s. It’s the world’s second-largest economy. It has very integrated ties economically with countries all over the world, including the U.S. If China were to try something with Taiwan and if the U.S. were able to form a sanctions coalition like it did against Russia, China’s growth and development would be harmed to a much greater degree. Taiwan itself economically is also much more integrated into the world economy. It’s a critical origin point for semiconductors. If there were conflict in Taiwan, that fact in itself tells us there would be much more disruption to the world economy.
The other big difference, militarily, is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a land invasion. Russia was able to deploy its conventional land forces, and even then, it didn’t fare very well. In Taiwan, if the Chinese were to try to invade, it would have to undertake mainly a seaborne invasion with air support and that would be very complicated to pull off. It requires a lot more in terms of planning, resources and training. And on the other side, because Taiwan is an island, it would be harder for the U.S. and its allies to supply Taiwan with weapons in the way that it is doing to Ukraine, across the border from Poland.
How would the outcome of the war in Ukraine affect the situation in Taiwan?
It’s hard to say because I don’t see a medium-term victory for either side in Ukraine right now. I think it’s going to be a dragged-out war. Most analysts think that’s the case. In this situation, where it’s a war of attrition, that might give China pause because they might see that the war has not been going as quickly or smoothly as Russia had anticipated. If the war dragged out, that would affect the calculus in Beijing and also in Taiwan, giving people more incentive to prepare themselves.
How worried are U.S. officials about the ramifications of the Ukraine war for Taiwan?
It’s more than a source of worry. It was a wake-up call in that it showed that a large power that is part of the world system could put everything at risk to take over a territory that it believes it should rule. Now there’s a debate about the lessons. Some U.S. officials think the U.S. needs to accelerate efforts to get proper weapons and proper training to Taiwan. Because of the wake-up call, it has changed the momentum for these actions in the State Department and the U.S. military.
From Opinion: Thomas Friedman writes that Pelosi’s Taiwan trip is “utterly reckless” and that the timing could not be worse, because of the war in Ukraine.
From The Morning: With tensions rising in Taiwan, we look at the shared interests of China, Russia and Iran.
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