Russia and the PRC are mirror images of aggression
The similarities between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a possible People's Republic of China (PRC) invasion of Taiwan are self-evident. President Putin believes an independent Ukraine has no right to exist because it is part of Russia, and Chairman Xi believes that Taiwan is an inextricable part of the PRC despite the fact that this has never been the case. Understandably, Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has given rise to intense speculation by Taiwanese, their friends, and neighbors about what China might attempt in Taiwan, when, and what to do about it.
Both Russia and the PRC are authoritarian nuclear powers with enormous militaries and insatiable appetites for territorial conquest and expansion. Russia as far back as 1990 helped carve out Transnistria from Moldovin, in 2008 occupied territory in Georgia, in April 2014 took over Crimea, in June 2014 captured large areas of eastern Ukraine, and on Feb. 24 of this year invaded Ukraine in an effort to swallow the whole country.
Similarly, the PRC annexed Inner Mongolia in 1947, Xinjiang in 1949, and Tibet in 1951. It invaded Vietnam in 1979 and took full control of Hong Kong in 2020. As early as 1950, the PRC occupied the Amphitrite Group of the Paracel (Xisha) Islands in the South China Sea.
In 1974, People's Liberation Army warships, aircraft, and soldiers won a battle against Vietnam for control of the southern Crescent group of the same Paracel Islands. In 1988, the Chinese attacked the Vietnamese-occupied Johnson South Reef, killed Vietnamese soldiers, and took control of the reef. In 1995, the Chinese took the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef by force, even though the atoll is well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
This and other territorial aggression in the South China Sea and Chinese efforts beginning in 2014 to militarize these islands and others have continued to this day, despite Xi Jinping’s (習近平) public statement in Washington in September 2015 that “Relevant construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”
Meanwhile, the PRC has continued to seek to absorb independent, democratic, and sovereign Taiwan into the alleged motherland.
When might the PRC attack?
In the numerous recent commentaries on the significance for Taiwan of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most speculate on a few basic questions: When might the PRC attack? What manner of attack will Taiwan face? How can Taiwan best prepare to defend itself? Who will help defend Taiwan against its giant adversary?
The PRC is certainly studying the war against Ukraine, but I think it unlikely Beijing would see it as a model for an attack anytime soon, and certainly not before the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the second half of this year. I think it very unlikely Xi would take any action against Taiwan on the heels of Putin’s invasion lest it be seen as an imitation of what Putin did; nor is Xi likely to take action before his third coronation as the ruler of the CCP lest it detract from his ceremonial crowning.
China and Russia remain in contention for the leadership of the authoritarian world, so Xi will in any case want to see whatever actions he undertakes toward Taiwan as unique, and certainly more successful and with their own justifications, not follow in Russia’s footsteps. As Stanford University Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro so well put it in the title of a recent article in Foreign Affairs, "Invasions are Not Contagious," although her meaning was that we should not assume China will attack Taiwan.
Certainly, Xi and the PLA are closely studying Putin’s war, assessing the many strategic and tactical mistakes Putin has made, and learning from his errors. Just as important, they are surely studying the costs of the invasion. While Moscow appears to be brutally indifferent to the loss of Ukrainian lives — including women, children, and the aged — Beijing will likely want to consider not only the cost in PRC lives but also the deaths of their “countrymen” in Taiwan to maintain the illusion of “one country.”
Meanwhile, Beijing will also need to calculate the economic costs of an attack on Taiwan: the inevitable sanctions it will face, the resulting diminished trade and investment, and the reputational costs and diplomatic consequences that all pariah states suffer. The PRC, moreover, does not have the oil and gas of Russia, whose continuing sales to the Europeans are sustaining its war. Russia will pay a very heavy cost for Putin’s invasion for many years to come, and it will likely acquire an inescapable legacy of evil. China needs to consider its own economic future. After all, since 2014, it has not only been the world's largest exporter but also, given the entirety of its exports and imports, the largest trading nation in the world.
What kind of attack?
In an April 25 commentary in the Taipei Times, Richard D. Fisher, Jr. argued that “as Putin quickly shifted from a ‘surgical’ war to one of ‘attrition’ resulting in the brutal destruction of Ukrainian cities and heavy Russian losses, the CCP has seen that against Taiwan it must from the start commit to a war of annihilation, meaning the immediate and brutal destruction of Taiwanese cities.”
But is Xi willing to invade Taiwan at the potential cost of thousands of Chinese lives on both sides of the strait to gain a land reduced to a pile of smoking rubble? Although Mao's rule led to the estimated deaths of as many as 45 million Chinese, and Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) crackdown at Tiananmen cost possibly a few thousand lives, Xi and the CCP likely want to find a way other than a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. An analyst at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing once told me in the late 1990s during a discussion of Taiwan, “Chinese don’t kill Chinese.” While this is factually inaccurate, of course, it may also be an ideal Beijing would want to sustain as much as possible.
There are, however, alternatives to all-out annihilation. Guermantes Lailari, a defense expert and retired U.S. Air Force officer who is currently doing research at National Chengchi University, argued in a persuasive April 3 assessment of “The CCP's Military Plan for Taiwan's Subjugation” that an aerial and naval blockade might be the most likely scenario.
This, he assessed, would further explain the PLA’s frequent circumnavigations around Taiwan, continuing air defense identification zone intrusions, and PLA naval deployments between Japan and Taiwan in the western Pacific. The sheer number of these maneuvers, more than a grey zone war strategy aimed at wearing down Taiwan’s forces, might also be designed as practice for a future embargo.
As Lailari points out, because Taiwan is not recognized by most nations as a sovereign country, international law would not necessarily recognize a blockade of it as an act of war. Absent actual military attacks, blocking shipping and aircraft from arriving and departing along with the products they import and export might well give a commercial giant like Taiwan little choice over time but capitulation.
Taiwan can and must prepare for the worst
There are, of course, many variations or mixtures of measures Beijing could adopt to try to force Taiwan to do as it bids. Taiwan therefore needs, in every way possible, to prepare for threats of all kinds. One perhaps unanticipated benefit of the war in Ukraine for Taiwan is that it has made the latter more aware of what it must do to stand ready in the event of military aggression. In general, the preparations Taiwan needs are well known. What is more in demand is the will to take action.
Stronger, better trained, and better equipped military forces, and more of them, are certainly needed. Taiwan should urgently consider longer and more meaningful conscription than the current four months of training, which former students of mine have derided as a waste of time. Taiwan also needs better, more realistic training for its reserves and joint exercises — real-world rather than virtual — with the U.S. and other friendly countries.
Taiwan also should reconsider some of its purchases of heavy and expensive equipment like tanks, ships, submarines, and fighter jets and think more about asymmetric weapons, including drones, smart mines, and more missiles. It also needs to camouflage its weapons as much as it can and make them mobile so they can constantly be moved around to new locations. The U.S., for its part, should assist by lifting its missile technology control regime restrictions on the distances Taiwan’s missiles may travel, especially since the PRC abides by no such limitations.
It does not help Taiwan’s defense strategy, however, that the Ministry of National Defense on April 27, according to the Taipei Times, issued a report to the legislature stating that “Taiwan’s military capabilities are inferior to those of China’s People’s Liberation Army in almost all regards.” While this might be the best way to get an increase in the budget, it almost certainly also increases Beijing’s confidence in the outcome of an attack.
U.S. and Japan, at a minimum, will support Taiwan
Much of the debate about the possibility of a PRC attack centers on the question of whether other countries will support Taiwan. The above-mentioned Defense report cites the U.S. and Japan as security partners who will help ensure a successful defense. Both the U.S. and Japan have in fact been vocal about helping to defend Taiwan but perhaps not forceful enough.
At an Oct. 21, 2021, CNN televised town hall event, President Biden answered “yes” when asked if he could "vow to protect Taiwan.” Asked a second time if the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense in the event of an attack by China, Biden said, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that." These forthright assurances, however, were rather undermined by subsequent unhelpful State Department clarifications that U.S. policy had not changed.
Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield clearly stated on Feb. 6, 2022, “We are committed to protecting the security and supporting the security of the people of Taiwan” but then reflexively, needlessly, and awkwardly added, “At the same time our policy has always been to recognize the one-China policy.”
More recently, on April 6, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made a stronger comment during a Congressional hearing, saying that any military action taken by China against Taiwan would be met with a response from the U.S. and the international community, as had been the case with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
She said the U.S. hoped the PRC took the "right lessons" from the current situation in Ukraine and that the U.S. believed stability across the Taiwan Strait is "critical.” She added, "Should China opt to use force against Taiwan… any such action would see a response from the international community, not just from the U.S."
Nonetheless, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s remarks have been the most explicit about the need to ensure Taiwan’s security. In the process, he raised China’s ire but also got its attention. In a virtual meeting with Taiwanese on Dec. 1, Abe said Japan and the U.S. could not stand by if China attacked Taiwan, and Beijing needed to understand this.
Noting that the Sakishima islands and Yonaguni island are a mere 100 km from Taiwan, he said an armed invasion of Taiwan would be a grave danger to Japan. He added, "A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognizing this.”
In a television interview on Feb. 27, Abe reiterated that Taiwan’s security was of particular concern to Japan and called for Washington to abandon its “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan’s defense. Asked whether he thought China would, like Russia, use unilateral force to change the status quo, Abe reasserted what he said last year: “If Taiwan has a problem, then Japan also has a problem.” Discussing U.S. policy on Taiwan’s defense, Abe said it was necessary for the U.S. to articulate clearly its intention to defend Taiwan.
But could it be too little, too late?
While it is certainly true the U.S. has contributed substantially to the defense of Ukraine with weapons, supplies, cash, and presumably military intelligence, no Ukrainian would argue that U.S. support arrived too soon or that Washington had adopted too tough a stance from the start toward Moscow.
In that context, in the May 2022 issue of The Diplomat titled “Can the US Deter a Taiwan Invasion?” David Gitter offers a compelling argument that U.S. deterrence in the face of a potential Taiwan Strait conflict has been dangerously inadequate. There has been, he argues, too much talk about the desire to avoid a wider war instead of being “much more concerned with its day-to-day deterrence signaling toward China over Taiwan, which is woefully inadequate and prepositioned on dated calculations that make it ineffective.”
Noting the growing military strength of the PRC, Gitter observes that “Militarily the PRC can now finally hope to defeat a U.S. intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict” and also has a leader in Xi Jinping seeking to cement his legacy and therefore willing to take the risks inherent in a cross-strait attack. The U.S. therefore needs to “compensate by emphasizing greater politic resolve to fight — and to keep fighting — if China pulls the trigger.”
Gitter recommends, among other policies, “more frequent and tougher rhetoric (public and private) signaling the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan; “the stationing of ever larger contingents of U.S. military personnel in Taiwan”; “high-profile and semi-regular US Navy port calls”; as well as reconsideration of the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity.
The bottom line for those of us who care about Taiwan is the United States needs to do more and do it sooner.