China Is Not Russia -But Taiwan Could Be Ukraine

“You didn’t get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved [militarily] to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” a reporter asked Mr. Biden at a news conference during his recent visit to Tokyo. Evidently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred this intriguing debate in policy circles and think tanks. Despite warnings and stringent measures by the West, Russia invaded Ukraine and is still at war. More than 600 international brands have pulled out of Russia and Moscow is struggling to meet its foreign debt obligations. Europe is even actively convening to impose a joint embargo on Russian energy supplies. As a result of the West’s united actions, the Russian economy is reeling. As per the World Bank, Russia’s GDP will shrink by 11.2% in 2022.

Regardless, negotiations are at an impasse and Putin seems committed to the prospect of a reunified Russian motherland. Meanwhile, Biden is relocating US focus to Asia with the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – a long-awaited Asia-Pacific economic strategy to counter China’s clout in the region. The Russian invasion — the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War II — raises a parallel scenario in Asia: could China similarly invade Taiwan? While Biden’s desperate attempt to muster an Indo-Pacific alliance – symbolically named as the “Asian NATO” – to dilute China’s influence poses a supplementary question: would the West (alongside Asia) evince the same level of solidarity towards Taiwan?

The intricate relationship between China and Taiwan dates back to the 1940s. Then, China was experiencing a brutal civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. In 1949, the Communists won and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan, an island in the southeast where they set up the Republic of China (ROC). Although both sides claim to be the rightful ruler of Greater China, Taiwan is not internationally recognized as an independent state. Nonetheless, Taiwan is a self-governing democracy with its own constitution, legislature and military. While the Nationalists – predominantly the Kuomintang party (KMT) – are still an important political party in Taiwan, the leftists have been on the ascendant power in Taiwanese democracy.

For decades, Taiwan enjoyed a largely harmonious relationship with China. In 2014, the KMT even passed a trade pact that opened Taiwanese industries to Chinese investments. However, the Taiwanese public revolted against the idea of dependency on China. Protests spiraled in Taipei as many feared that China would gain a controlling influence in Taiwan. As a result, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the rival of the KMT, was voted into power in 2016. President Tsai Ing-wen – who was re-elected in 2020 – pushed back against China and the “One Country, Two Systems” policy of the past. This change incensed China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intensified its campaign to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

In 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared: “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland [China] can be and must be fulfilled.” Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin is harking back to the past glory of Mother Russia, Xi is spouting a desire to reunify China. However, the modus operandi of the two superpowers is drastically different. Russia has a rich history of military invasions, long-term warfare and sponsoring rebellious proxies. The bloody history of the Russian interventions ranges from Afghanistan and Syria to Chechnya and Georgia. China lacks that history of force projection. So, a simple question arises: can China follow in the footsteps of Russia and invade Taiwan?

Militarily, China can dominate and decimate Taiwan in a fortnight. Beijing has demonstrated its military might via a diverse array of coercive instruments around its periphery. In the past three decades, China has shaped the world’s largest navy with about 355 vessels, according to the estimates of Pentagon’s annual China military report. China has even brazenly engaged its military installations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to declare its dominance over the peninsula. And the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to modernize its highly sophisticated counterspace and cyber capabilities. Thus, it is not surprising that China would be a Goliath to Taiwan’s David  in military combat.

But would China invade Taiwan? Seems unlikely! While cross-strait incursions and military drills have sharply increased since 2021, China has not resorted to military interventions since it invaded Vietnam in 1979. While a nationalist sentiment predominantly prevails in the communist fractions of the mainland, China has a vested interest in regional prosperity. China has a reputation to uphold, especially after the notorious failure of the United States in Afghanistan. An invasion would destabilize the region and disrupt the blooming development of Asian emerging markets. The World Bank report estimates that a prolonged war in Ukraine would lead to a contraction of 9% in European and Central Asian markets, more than double the drop in baseline forecast. China would likely prefer avoiding similar chaos in Asia. Then how exactly can China maneuver its interests in Taiwan without an invasion?

Over the past few years, China has woven itself into the Taiwanese economy. Taiwan is one of the largest investors in China. In 2021, the total value of cross-strait investments in China totaled $4.79 billion. In turn, China is the biggest trading partner of Taiwan. More than 40% of all exports of Taiwan go to the mainland. In 2021, Taiwanese exports to Mainland China and Hong Kong hit an all-time high of $188.9 billion. Such extensive trade is due to an unusual degree of relaxation in tariffs and low freight costs to the mainland. Fruit exports to China have already created a bubble of dependency around Taiwan. Since farmers exclusively export to China, Beijing now holds power over the sustainability of a sizable portion of the Taiwanese economy. A ban could immediately decrease the farmers’ earnings, who may subsequently blame the government for worsening relations with China. That is the ultimate alternate route to an active invasion. Inward pressure on the government of Taiwan could be more lethal, coupled with intimidatory tactics in the strait.

In 2021, China imposed a complete ban on imports of Taiwan-produced wax apples, pineapples, and sugar apples. The official reason cited was pests. However, the actual reason was to spark a cross-strait fruit war to pressure Taiwan. According to unofficial reports, the incomes of farmers dropped by more than 50% after the imposition of the fruit ban by China. According to the ROC Council of Agriculture Report 2019, pineapples, sugar apples, and wax apples contributed over $148 million in export revenue from China. Despite diversification to Japan and Hong Kong, the profit margins suffered due to increased transportation costs and preservation issues. Ultimately, the farmers had to shift to other crops to make a living. Such an economic sway of China over Taiwan makes military warfare redundant. China can control policies in Taiwan without resorting to an armed invasion. And even though the United States is committed to Taiwan, the flagrant limitations to that relationship make it all the more convenient for China.

In response to the reporter’s inquiry in Tokyo, Biden answered rather unequivocally in the affirmative. He stated: “Yes…That is the commitment we made [to Taiwan].” However, the White House rapidly backtracked to offer an alternate clarification, stating: “As the president said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China Policy and commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” This sophomoric effort to redress Biden’s blunder regarding Taiwan perfectly embodies the ruse of an alliance between Washington and Taipei. Even Biden swiftly backpedaled to reassure the US policy of “Strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan.

The US-Taiwan relationship has remained unofficial due to the One China Policy. Despite subliminal cues of commitment – like occasionally parading warships in the Taiwanese Strait – there is no formal military alliance between the US and Taiwan. Despite Biden’s gaffe regarding Taiwan at the Quad Summit, Taipei is not even part of the launched economic framework. Nonetheless, the United States has continued to supply $2.2 billion worth of artillery and defense systems to Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act to bolster its ability to defend against an invasion by China. However, the fundamental question stands: would the US – and allies – defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese incursion? The answer is a blatant NO!

According to a recent poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), 53.8% Taiwanese somewhat (or completely) disbelief that Washington would come to Taiwan’s rescue. The same poll also shows that only 38.6% respondents actually suspect a Chinese invasion at all! Moreover, US allies in Eurasia are economically fused with China. From raw materials and production to supply chains and logistics – China is pivotal to their economic survival and prosperity. Also, the United States has learned a painful lesson from its embarrassing military failure abroad. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. As a result, the US rhetoric around the Russian invasion has been stark: no direct military conflict with Russia. China stands as a dominant nuclear power with hypersonic capabilities beyond the defensive scope of the Pentagon. Hence, engaging in combat with China could not only wreck the United States across the Atlantic; it could also decimate the global economy.

Additionally, China is more integrated into the global economic apparatus than Russia. China currently controls 18.33% of the Global GDP – even surpassing the US share of 15.83%. Russia holds barely 3.11% of the Global GDP. China is also a global manufacturing hub and the largest export market to most of the world, including the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Beijing is currently the world’s single largest creditor, with outstanding loans to other countries worth $5 trillion (over 6% of the global GDP). It is inane to assume that a coalition of powerful nations would join forces against China, similar to how it has risen in opposition to Russia.

Even after five decades of Chinese membership, Taiwan is still not a member of the United Nations (UN). Even the US steers clear from recognizing the legitimacy of the ROC. That is a power statement in itself. Ukraine enjoys formal diplomatic ties with more than 180 countries around the globe. In spite of that, Russia still brazenly invaded Ukraine. Taiwan has informal relations with a dozen countries – none of which are major world powers. It is highly ambitious (verging on fantasy) to argue that the US could assemble NATO – or Quad – alliance against China. The European Union (EU), for instance, could only agree on a partial embargo on Russian energy supplies to eastern and central Europe – after months of deliberations. And even India – a core member of the Quad alliance – is leveraging cheaper oil supplies from Russia despite sharp western reservations. How can the United States possibly advance a view that China – one of the biggest trading partners of Europe and Asia – could be economically isolated as a retribution for invading Taiwan?

China’s ambitions in the Pacific are neither veiled nor catastrophic, unlike the United States. The recent “Policing Agreement” between China and the Solomon Islands is a testament to this reality. Mere days apart from the Quad meeting in Tokyo, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit a slew of island countries in the Indo-Pacific to advance Beijing’s role in regional cooperation. The move is much more than a power gimmick: it is a tacit reply that – contrary to western allegations – China prefers to proffer security deals, vocational training programs, and infrastructure plans instead of invading with military might. And while the underpinning motivation of global influence is still China’s ultimate vision, violent incursions would not be a part of that scheme.

However, the urgency to acquire Taiwan has noticeably surged under Xi’s leadership. While an invasion reeks of desperation, China might be willing to pay the price to extend its ancient legacy. The ongoing suppression of democracy in Hong Kong is a prime example of China’s obsession. Taiwan might be no different. Thus, in the long run, the China-Taiwan relationship stands as a conundrum. I believe Taiwan would not dare to push for sovereign recognition and forge ties –  diplomatic or military – with Western countries. And China would probably not stage an invasion unless Taiwan attempts to steer away from the dominance of the Communist Party. The strategy of the CCP is to intimidate and sow economic dependency instead of mass aggression and destruction.

China deems itself a successor to US hegemony over the world. Therefore, it is subjective to presume that China would invade Taiwan simply to assert its dominance, disrupting its own growing economy in the process. However, it is equally simplistic to assert China’s aversion to an intervention in order to prevent Taiwan’s westernization. As far as the US defense commitments are concerned, China is in a completely different category from Russia. Hence, I believe the idea of severing China from the global economy is as impossible as secluding the United States from global diplomacy. Simply wishful thinking!

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.