Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.03.07

The fates of Ukraine and Taiwan aren't necessarily linked

Despite similarities, the former Soviet state and the island claimed by China are two different issues

the japan times on February 20, 2022

The U.S.A. China Russia

A nightmare scenario for Tokyo appears to be unfolding. Last week, a series of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic events took place in the Indo-Pacific region. Yet, Western media, mostly indifferent, continues to focus on the capricious intentions of Vladimir Putin and his military buildup along the Ukraine border.

Developments in the Indo-Pacific were hardly unimportant. The U.S. finally announced its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy on Feb. 11. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. was held in Melbourne on the same day. And a Japan-U.S.-South Korea foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Hawaii on Feb. 12.

Of course, most of the decisions made were aimed at deterring China. Some in Tokyo even wonder whether the crisis in Ukraine would eventually encourage Beijing to take similar action against Taiwan someday. In this regard, it was good that the Biden administration re-demonstrated the significance and importance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Despite all the superficial similarities, however, Ukraine and Taiwan are two different issues. While Ukraine, surrounded by Russia, Belarus, Poland and Romania is vulnerable to ground invasion, Taiwan, is an island protected by waters, and is thus not as vulnerable.

That said, it is worthwhile now to compare the ongoing crisis in Ukraine with a future contingency in Taiwan. It is especially so when we analyze and compare the intentions and motivations of the two authoritarian leaders in Moscow and Beijing.

Putin’s thinking

Let us start with Putin’s probable real intentions vis-a-vis Ukraine. The following are only my personal thoughts on his misguided logic and justifications for his actions. Yet, this may explain, at least partially, the reason why Putin has decided to take a chance and test the will and commitment of the Biden administration in Europe.

Russia’s top priority at present is to ensure its security and influence in Europe. However, Russia’s power is declining, while China’s is on the rise. This comes as America’s national security priority is shifting from a war on terror in the Middle East to deterring China in the Indo-Pacific at a time when the United States does not have the capacity to fight two major wars simultaneously. Sooner or later there will form a power vacuum in Europe that Putin and Russia will likely exploit to recover its traditional influence in regions that were once dominated by the Soviet Union before its demise in the 1990s.

Fortunately, for Russia, the Biden administration’s weakness and a divided Europe means it may be able to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Germany and France, for example, are likely to move independently, weakening any Western response. China, for its part, which is also at odds with the U.S., will not likely interfere with any moves made by Russia.

And if the U.S. and NATO make concessions in response to Russian military pressure, that will put Moscow one step closer to achieving its strategic objectives. Still, even if NATO does not concede anything, Russia may seek to use its military to seize parts of Ukraine for future negotiations.

In any case, it is highly likely that Russia will be one step closer to alleviating its long-standing geopolitical concerns with minimum costs. Western economic sanctions will hurt, but Russia will endure because Germany and France will certainly make concessions. Nevertheless, Russia will not reveal until the last moment whether it will invade Ukraine or not. Hastily showing its hand too soon will be counterproductive and it can wait until the final moment to decide its course of action.

Xi Jinping’s reasoning

Beijing, while hosting the Winter Olympic Games, is carefully watching the developments in Ukraine, although President Xi Jinping has no intention to take similar actions as Russia against Taiwan in the foreseeable future. The following are my takes on Xi’s probable real intentions vis-a-vis Taiwan.

The Chinese government’s top priority at present is to ensure the country’s security in East Asia while maintaining the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. To protect and enhance the party’s authority, Xi believes he must remain in power for a third term or even longer. The year 2022 is also important because the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is scheduled for this autumn.

More importantly though, China’s power is on the rise while Russia’s is declining. Thus, the U.S.’ national security priority is turning back to the Indo-Pacific region to deter China, which is totally unacceptable to Beijing. America, for its part, as mentioned earlier, does not have the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously so it is in the interest of China for Washington to remain bogged down with events in Europe or the Middle East.

Taiwan is part of China according to Beijing and this position is not negotiable. China believes it has the right to recover its traditional territorial interests, some of which were lost in the mid-19th century when it was humiliated in the Opium Wars against Western powers.

Fortunately, for the Biden administration, it is difficult for China to prevent Taiwan from allying itself with America. This, however, does not mean that China now needs to exert military pressure on or even “liberate” Taiwan.

And because this year is so important for the Communist Party, it should not take the risk and invade Taiwan, the success of which is not 100% guaranteed. Nor should it exert new military and diplomatic pressure on the United States and/or its allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific.

This does not mean that China will renounce its right to exert its influence and even dominate the region. It just means that Beijing can take its time and wait for a power vacuum to form, of which it can take advantage of in the not-so-distant future.