For the second instalment of our Beyond Ukraine series, where we analyse the wider, international impact of the invasion of Ukraine, we have assessed the influence this conflict could have on the geopolitics and stability of Taiwan. Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan to be a breakaway Chinese province that must be taken back, by force if necessary.
As the invasion of Ukraine continues, and its impact is beginning to be felt across the world, it is useful to determine what are the intersections with Taiwan and in saying so, with China too. Tensions between China and Taiwan, have been escalating over the past 18 months, leading many to consider Taiwan to be one of the world’s most likely potential flashpoints for a multination war.
With the advent of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many are theorising whether it will give the former's ally, China, the confidence to do the same in officially annexing Taiwan. As China watches the international community’s reaction to the invasion, it is also possible China could exploit the world’s focus on Ukraine to carry out a swift Taiwanese takeover.
Taiwanese officials have seen many parallels with the Ukraine conflict and their own situation, including having their own giant neighbour with expansionist territorial ambitions. And so in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan was quick to show its solidarity with the latter as Taiwan’s vice-president, Lai Ching-te stated "The principle of self-determination cannot be erased by brute force.”
And also in an act of preparedness, Taiwan’s military and national security apparatus has sought to boost and strengthen its defences, surveillance, and early warning systems with even more momentum since the start of Russia’s invasion in February. New debates over weapons, military tactics and even whether to extend their four-month mandatory military conscription are also circling amongst the Taiwanese political elite and broadcast on television.
In addition, Ukraine’s experience showcases the importance of stockpiled weapons because the country quickly burned through its inventory of mobile weapons and had to rely on further supplies from Western countries brought in over its land border. If a conflict in Taiwan were to ensue providing weapons during that time would be more challenging due to it being an island – and so more US arms deals coupled with accelerated internal missile production has been announced for this year.
It was also reported on 31 March, Taiwan's defence ministry has set up a working group to study the tactics of the war in Ukraine, including how the country has been able to keep Russian forces from taking control, Russia's poor military performance and Ukrainian resistance, including guerrilla-style warfare tactics. Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said they have been discussing this too with the US and “other countries that have regular contacts with Taiwan”.
Though, if and when the time comes, it is expected Taiwan will need the help of its international allies to counter a Chinese attack. The EU, especially over the past year, has stepped up its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, also with freedom of navigation exercises in the Taiwan Strait becoming fairly routine, and leveraging namely security and health to protect its interests and act as a bulwark to China's rising power, but can, will and how might they rise to protect Taiwan further?
While, the US’s actions in Ukraine are also being seen as a possible prelude to how they may also act in Taiwan. And with the US’s continued lack of direct action, this has understandably led to heightened anxieties on the ground during the past six weeks.
However, on 30 March, Chen Ming-tong, the head of Taiwan’s national security bureau, stated that China would not attack in the remainder of the Chinese president, Tsai Ing-wen’s, term, which ends in 2026. Chen said that, “The lesson of Ukraine for Beijing is that it should not easily wage a war”. Highlighting a shift in perspective after Taiwan’s officials have been meticulously monitoring the situation in both Ukraine and China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has offered cryptic signals about his stance on the invasion since it began. It is indeed interesting that contrary to what many believed China has, at least verbally, stood in support of Ukraine over Russia’s invasion.
However, in terms of military escalation, Beijing has sent a slightly increased number of warplanes intended for sorties into Taiwan’s air defence zone (ADIZ – as mapped in the image below) over the past month, though incursions have been occurring near daily over the past two years. And most recently on 18 March, a Chinese aircraft carrier sailed through the contentious Taiwan Strait hours before US President Biden was due to speak with Chinese lead Xi.
Furthermore, Beijing’s response should still be viewed through the wider lens of a decade long tightening of relations with Russia. In many ways, China is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lifeline and they have been preparing – whether intentionally or not – for this moment. Economically speaking, with global sanctions rocketing against Russia, the Chinese can soak up their excess oil, gas, minerals and grain. And China can act as a supplier of weapons and technology to ostracised Russia.
Meanwhile, as recent as 21 March, Ukraine called on China to play an "important role" in resolving the war with Russia. An online summit will take place on 01 April where EU leaders will meet Chinese President Xi for the first time in two years, to press him to end support for Russia, urging him to join the rest of the world in upholding the rule of law by condemning Russia for its invasion. The EU will also underline the economic sway they hold over China in comparison to Russia. For example, in 2021 China exported only about USD70 billion in goods to Russia, while exports to the EU and US totalled over USD1 trillion. Even the Power of Siberia pipeline that pumps Russian gas to China constitutes a fraction of the amount supplied to the EU.
Therefore, if China wants to straddle relations with both Russia and The West it will have to calibrate its diplomacy to successfully do so, while also retaining economic balance and protecting its own self-interests.
Although not explicitly said to be in relation to the situation in Ukraine or Taiwan, it has made for interesting timing that the US government proposed setting up a semiconductor industry alliance with its Asian allies, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, to keep mainland China’s fledgling semiconductor industry at bay.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global chip shortage, and so henceforth Washington has been seeking ways to reduce its supply chain reliance on China.
The latest report of a potential chip alliance comes as part of broader legislation by the Biden administration aimed at countering China’s growing influence with the government looking to pass a bill that would provide USD52 billion in funding for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research. Some in China have taken to social media to declare that an alliance such as this is unlikely as China’s market remains too big for South Korean and Taiwanese chip companies to pack up and leave.
However, if these measures were to become enacted, this will likely provoke two outcomes from China. One being it would force Beijing to double down on efforts to achieve technology self-sufficiency, focussing inward economically and further placating its capability and appetite for a war in Taiwan. And two, on a diplomatic-level it would serve to intensify already escalating tensions between them and the US.
Meanwhile, the head of UK cyber-intelligence GCHQ said on 31 March that China's aspirations to become a leading player on the global stage were "not well served by close alliance with a regime that wilfully and illegally ignores" international rules, in a message served to further warn them over their alignment.
China is expected to take its foot off the pedal in terms of its aggressive, hawkish rhetoric and actions against Taiwan. It is increasingly believed that China will now carefully review Russia’s military failures in Ukraine with the key objective being to improve its own armed forces. And as is now believed this could lead to a possible four-year delay in President Xi’s threatened invasion of Taiwan.
In light of this, if the worst case scenario ensued and a conflict were to be sparked by China it would have to be a comprehensive invasion rather than limited in order to maximise potentials for success and navigate an environment they are now more nervous in than perhaps ever before.
That being said, there are several advantages Taiwan has in comparison to Ukraine. For example, the “natural barrier" of the Taiwan Strait which would make the prospect of China launching a ground invasion much more difficult than Russia simply crossing over its land border.
Furthermore, Taiwan has more advanced military capabilities, including a large and well-equipped air force, and the development of its own formidable missile strike capability which will double in production this year.
As such, these strategic advantages coupled with a reduction in Chinese military confidence in Taiwan and a likely period of economic and political introspection from Beijing, make an unconvincing case for impending war in Taiwan.
Laura is a threat advisory and intelligence consultant, with extensive international experience working in risk management and intelligence-driven investigations for major organisations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and LATAM. Laura is an Arabist and holds an MA in Terrorism and Security from King’s College London where she graduated top of her class.