Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Equating the Threats Facing Taiwan and Ukraine

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

On February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, worldwide Google searches for “Taiwan” increased five-fold over the previous day, smashing existing records. Comparisons between the situations facing Taiwan and Ukraine have since become commonplace, with pundits questioning whether Taiwan may be “next” after Ukraine. The instinct to compare Ukraine and Taiwan is understandable, and there are critical lessons to be drawn from the war in Ukraine, but the parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan should not be overdrawn.

The deterrence dynamics between the two are fundamentally different. The monumental costs of a large-scale invasion of Taiwan—both economically and militarily—potentially deter China from taking major military action in ways that Russia was not deterred from invading Ukraine. However, while Beijing has thus far been deterred from a full-scale invasion, evolving cross-Strait dynamics may compel China to take dangerous military actions short of war to achieve its objectives in Taiwan. Understanding the intricacies of deterrence is key to avoiding conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

At face value, the deterrence dynamics surrounding Ukraine and Taiwan appear similar. Both are democracies facing existential threats from much larger, more powerful authoritarian neighbors in Russia and China. Crucially, those authoritarian states also both possess nuclear weapons, which drastically increases the costs of escalation and complicates efforts to deter acts of aggression.

Beyond that, however, there are fundamental divergences—chief among them the potential for U.S. intervention. The United States’ significant military capabilities make its involvement among the most important determinants of a conflict’s outcome. In the runup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden unequivocally stated, “The idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not… in the cards right now.” He firmly reiterated his stance on the day of the invasion. This effectively removed a major deterrent to invading Ukraine since Moscow could be relatively confident that the U.S. military would not directly deploy its own forces directly on the battlefield.

U.S. willingness to intervene in a potential Taiwan scenario is much less cut-and-dry. For decades, the United States has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” wherein Washington does not officially state whether it will get involved in the event of an attack on Taiwan. The objective of strategic ambiguity is “dual deterrence”: Washington seeks to deter Beijing from unilaterally shifting the status quo through force while simultaneously deterring Taipei from adopting policies—such as a formal declaration of independence—that would cross Beijing’s red lines and provoke an attack.

President Biden’s recent statements on Taiwan likely contribute to Beijing’s concerns that the United States would intervene. On four different occasions since August 2021, President Biden has stated—to varying degrees—that the United States would assist Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. When questioned most recently whether U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in a September 2022 interview, President Biden bluntly answered, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” Administration officials later walked back the president’s statements with clarifications that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has not changed, but many, including officials in some U.S. allies, believe that the United States would indeed become involved in a Taiwan scenario.

Deterrence, however, exists in the mind of the adversary, and what Chinese leaders believe matters more than what U.S. leaders say. Beijing has long assumed that the U.S. military would join a conflict to defend Taiwan. In a fall 2022 China Power Project survey of senior experts and former U.S. government officials, 100 percent of respondents believed that Chinese leaders assume the United States would deploy forces to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion (though they differed in their assessments of exactly how far Beijing thinks the United States would be willing to go). In short, Beijing likely already factors U.S. involvement in its planning, cost-benefit calculations, and decision-making regarding a Taiwan scenario.

The economic costs of invading Taiwan also serve as a greater deterrent to China than the economic ramifications of invading Ukraine posed to Russia. In 2021, Ukraine was Russia’s 16th largest trading partner. Total trade between the two countries stood at just over $12 billion, or about 1.5 percent of Russia’s global trade. By comparison, in 2022, Taiwan’s total trade with mainland China stood at an enormous $320 billion—over 5 percent of China’s total trade—making Taiwan China’s fourth-largest trading partner after the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Moreover, Taiwan plays a far more integral role in the global economy than Ukraine. In 2022, Taiwan’s total exports reached a record $480 billion, with about 38 percent of this coming from exports of semiconductors alone. Taiwan’s chip firms, especially Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, produce the lion’s share of the world’s most advanced chips that power the modern digital economy. A major conflict over Taiwan could bring this to a screeching halt. The economic blowback for China would therefore not be isolated to cross-Strait trade; China would also face enormous secondary shocks from a broader global slowdown. Studies suggest that the international economic costs would likely be well over $2 trillion and inflict lasting damage to the international economy.

Crucially, however, this does not mean that Chinese aggression will be deterred at all levels. While there are significant deterrents against launching a full-scale invasion, China will likely be less deterred from taking major actions below the threshold of an invasion.

Beijing has dramatically ratchetted up military pressure against Taiwan in recent years. In 2022, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flew 1,737 aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), a 79 percent increase over the previous year. China also mounted a large-scale military response to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 trip to Taiwan, which included unprecedented exercises around the island of Taiwan, firing multiple missiles over the island, and ramping up incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ and across the Taiwan Strait median line. These activities helped to shift the status quo in Beijing’s favor by normalizing a higher tempo of more aggressive PLA activity around Taiwan—and Beijing achieved this at relatively little cost without provoking a conflict.

Going forward, China may considerably ramp up military pressure on Taiwan. In a future crisis, Beijing could impose a blockade or quarantine on key Taiwan ports and airports, and it could do so in ways which let it raise or lower the level of intensity as needed. Doing so would inflict pain on Taiwan and put unprecedented political pressure on Taipei. Such a move would still be risky and would likely generate blowback for China, but this approach could potentially allow Beijing to achieve progress toward its objectives while avoiding the level of severe military and economic repercussions that would come from an all-out attack. Many experts believe that actions along these lines are possible in the coming years. The 2022 China Power Project survey found that 52 percent of expert respondents believe China is likely or very likely to deliberately escalate its use of force short of invasion against Taiwan (e.g., implement some form of quarantine or blockade) in the next decade.

This does not mean that China will definitely be deterred against launching a large-scale invasion in the future. If Chinese leaders believe that their red lines have been crossed, they could assess that the strategic and political necessities of a large-scale attack outweigh the costs. Yet it is more likely that Beijing will rely on lower levels of military pressure—in conjunction with political and economic tools—to achieve its objectives.

There are fundamental differences between the security situation facing Taiwan today and Ukraine in the leadup to its war with Russia. Buoyed by the assurance that the U.S. military would not intervene directly and the reality that the economic costs would not be devastating, Moscow determined that a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would be worth the cost. Beijing, on the other hand, potentially faces far more dire consequences if it chooses to invade Taiwan. Comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan have obfuscated these realities. The United States and its partners must understand the differences between the two scenarios. Failing to do so risks making dangerous policy choices that ignore the most pressing challenges in the Taiwan Strait.

(Photo Credit: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP via Getty Images)

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