While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine, curious voices have asked whether the island of Taiwan could face a similar fate at the hands of their long-time adversary, China. Beijing has after all refused to condemn the Russian invasion and made clear its relations with Moscow are both stable and amicable. While we are certainly in an era of emboldened autocrats and diminished power of international institutions, there are several significant differences which characterize the Chinese-Taiwanese rivalry that make it distinct and separate to the situation in Ukraine. These differences ultimately suggest that an immediate Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next few years is not incoming, or indeed inevitable. While there should be no doubt that integrating Taiwan into the People’s Republic is a longstanding foreign policy aim, the current Ukraine crisis should not be understood as a spark which will ignite conflict in the Pacific.
Firstly, Russia has spent years building up their precedent and groundwork to invade Ukraine. While the actual attack came as a shock to many, the sponsoring of two separatist republics and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula seem to have been part of a long-term strategy in the making. Ukraine also shares a 2,300 km border with Russia, and extra 1,000 km with Belarus, a key Russian ally. Taiwan, by comparison is 160 km from mainland China and is surrounded by the South China Sea. A massive land border allowed Russia to pour into Ukraine with mechanized and armored units, whereas a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require an amphibious landing with naval and air support. Taiwan has also focused its resources and efforts into preparing for a Chinese invasion, and has advanced weapons, both domestic and imported, which help deter a direct assault. The United States also maintains its doctrine of strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis Taiwan, making any ploy by Beijing far riskier. While Ukraine receives large amounts of support from the United States, there was never any sincere promise that it would receive protection. Taiwan is far more likely to be provided such defense. A potential conflict between China and the United States could prove devastating, a fact which will certainly affect Beijing’s political calculus. It is entirely conceivable as well that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could shake its regional rival in Japan to remilitarize in a way which could further complicate China’s long-term ambitions.
Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not only proven the difficulty of waging conventional war in the modern day, but also sparked a massive international response which China will be wary of. While some may suggest international focus on Ukraine currently lends cover to a Chinese operation in Taiwan, this is unlikely to be the case. The show of unity against Russian aggression proves that the world will not sit idly by as conflict unfolds. To launch a full invasion of Taiwan would lump China into an unenviable camp with Russia in the eyes of the global community. Additionally, China, while conscious of the need to maintain its relationship with Russia, is also deeply integrated in the global economy, and would not want to risk its privileged place in the system through reckless militarism. Much like Hong Kong, China would prefer Taiwanese sovereignty end with a whimper, not a bang.
China has shown itself to be less willing to engage in military deployments abroad than Russia, preferring to gain influence slowly through economic and political ties rather than large gambles of force. President Xi is undeniably image conscious and seeks to present China as a global superpower, rather than a rogue state relying on brute force alone. This foundational tenant of Chinese foreign policy doesn’t seem poised to change soon and undermines the idea that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is on the way in the next few years. The fallout of the Russian invasion in financial and political terms seems anything but an incentive to do the same in Taiwan.
While “recovering” Taiwan remains a clear and undeniable goal of Beijing’s foreign policy, their approach does not benefit from brazen belligerence. Russia felt its window to bring Ukraine back into its fold was closing and saw military action as a costly but necessary step to prevent NATO accession and further European integration. Conversely, China benefits from a longer-term approach, slowly isolating Taiwan and becoming indispensable in the global economy, making sanctioning tougher. Highly controversial military action can incur great costs, as Russia is learning by the day. Why would China shoulder these burdens today, when the costs seem to be lower tomorrow? Moscow feels the clock is against it, while Beijing believes time is very much on its side.