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Ukraine Series: Will Taiwan Be the Next Ukraine?

June 09, 2022
James Lee

Talking Policy Podcast

In the latest episode of Talking Policy’s series on Russia’s war in Ukraine, guest host Patrick Hulme talks with Taiwan expert James Lee about how Ukraine may affect Beijing’s Taiwan strategy, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan versus its commitments to other allies, and why a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be much more difficult than the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about how what is going on in Europe relates to what’s going on in East Asia. How does the war in Ukraine affect the Taiwan contingency in the eyes of Beijing?

Both Beijing and Taipei had been trying to distance themselves from the analogy between Taiwan and Ukraine for different reasons. In the case of Beijing, their view is that Taiwan is a part of China and so they want to separate these issues very clearly. From Taipei’s perspective, they’re trying to distance the Taiwan issue from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in order to highlight how Taiwan is different from Ukraine, both in terms of U.S. foreign policy and international politics.

We’re more likely to see U.S. direct intervention to defend Taiwan than U.S. intervention to defend Ukraine.

And it’s for that reason that across the political spectrum, within and outside of the current administration in Taipei, people have been downplaying the similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine.

Some think because the U.S. did not directly, militarily intervene in Ukraine, that Beijing will interpret this as [a sign that] the U.S. will not directly intervene in the case of Taiwan. Do you agree?

The United States has a Taiwan Relations Act that defines the scope for U.S. intervention in the defense of Taiwan and has been widely debated. The United States doesn’t clearly define a commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense, but the Taiwan Relations Act provides a pretty wide scope for the United States to intervene in Taiwan’s defense. The Taiwan Relations Act, for example, says that “it is the policy of the United States to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” That means that there’s a very wide mandate for the United States to intervene in the defense of Taiwan. There isn’t something analogous for Ukraine. I think the United States is much more likely to intervene in Taiwan’s defense and [that] the U.S. has a vital interest in doing so given the importance of Taiwan for geo-economics.

Specific to Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum from 1994, jointly signed by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, provides security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Why should Taiwan or Beijing see the U.S. commitment via the Taiwan Relations Act as more credible than the Budapest Memorandum?

The Budapest Memorandum was a multilateral guarantee of Ukraine’s security. The Taiwan Relations Act is a unilateral policy by the United States. The Six Assurances—six key foreign policy principles of the United States towards Taiwan—also clarified that the United States did not agree with Beijing on changing its position on Taiwan’s status; that Beijing would not have a say in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; and that the United States would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with Beijing.

The TRA says that the United States policy is “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people in Taiwan.” That’s an incredibly broad mandate for the United States to intervene. That can include cyberattacks, disinformation, subversion, basically any perceived threat to Taiwan’s security could trigger a United States action. And only the President and Congress can decide what appropriate action [to defend Taiwan] would be.

By contrast, there is a very limited set of conditions under which the United States would intervene in the defense of its western European allies. Where the Taiwan Relations Act is perhaps in some ways worse than NATO’s [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Article Five commitment (in terms of defining the strength of the U.S. commitment) is that the North Atlantic Treaty uses stronger language because it refers to taking action “forthwith,” “including the use of armed force.”

So, in some ways the Taiwan Relations Act is broader than the NATO commitment, but in some ways it might not be as strong. Of course, some people will say that the TRA is just a scrap of paper, and that the U.S. will ultimately do whatever is in its interest. Are there certain interests that the U.S. has in Taiwan that are greater than what it has in Ukraine?

The Taiwan semiconductor industry is incredibly important to the global economy. There’s one Taiwanese company, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), that holds 50 percent of global revenue in semiconductor manufacturing. For the most advanced chips, TSMC’s market share is closer to 90 percent. You can imagine that, with the United States and China competing [for dominance] in advanced technologies—5G, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, high-performance computing—the world’s most important company for the manufacturing of computer chips would be incredibly important in great power competition.

Steve Blank at Stanford has estimated that if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were to take control of Taiwan and cut off the supply of chips to the United States, it would set the United States back by at least five years. That’s an enormous amount of time, given how quickly these industries are developing. So, the United States has a strong interest to maintain the security of Taiwan [based on its] material self-interest.

In terms of global values, defending Taiwan from attack, just like defending Ukraine from Russian aggression, is an important part of the United States upholding the principles of the liberal international order. And what we’ve seen in the conflict in Ukraine is that Ukraine’s democracy plays a vital role in shoring up U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and that argument applies equally to Taiwan.

How do the U.S. and Taiwan think about defense planning differently now, after seeing what’s happened in Ukraine?

Several months ago, everyone was predicting that Russia was going to roll over Ukraine and trounce the Ukrainian military. No one thought the Ukrainians could keep the Russians at bay, which is what they’ve done. There are a few explanations for why this might be the case. One is that Russian military hardware was inferior both in quality and quantity compared to what was on paper, because of corruption. So, generals or military contractors would say: oh, yes, we’ve got these nice vehicles, or we’ve got these tanks and these weapons. On paper, they had ten but in reality, they had three. The extra money went into someone’s pocket. The other explanation is that the weapons systems that the U.S. and others have provided to the Ukrainians have proven to be very effective against even modern fighter aircrafts, modern armored vehicles, etc.

Yeah, this is going through the minds of officials in Taipei and Washington. And it bolsters the case for Taiwan to pursue an asymmetric defense strategy. Ukraine has been very successful at denying Russia air superiority over Ukraine using weapons systems like javelins and S-400s, whereas it’d be very difficult for Ukraine to deny air superiority purely through aerial combat or through dogfights, and the same would apply in the case of Taiwan.

One big difference between Ukraine and Taiwan is water. Taiwan is an island. It’s separated by water from mainland China, but it’s also separated by a lot of water from the United States. On the one hand, if the Russians aren’t able to overcome Ukraine’s resistance in a land attack, it would seem even less likely that China would be able to overcome Taiwan’s resistance when they have to cross a strait, because usually, amphibious assaults are much more difficult than land assaults.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s harder for China to get to Taiwan than it is for Russia to get to Ukraine, but it’s also harder for supplies to get from the United States or maybe even Japan, to Taiwan. Does that mean that Taiwan is in a worse place than Ukraine because it’s harder to be resupplied? Or is it in a better case because the channels make it harder to invade?

I think geography works in Taiwan’s favor, for a couple of reasons, although I agree with all the points you raised in terms of the double-edged sword. First, if the difficulty is in resupplying Taiwan, that’s [only relevant] once the conflict starts. But the United States has a policy of providing Taiwan with arms and so the United States can supply Taiwan before the conflict starts.

Another factor that’s important to consider is the human element of war. Russia has significantly underperformed in the invasion of Ukraine, even though Russian forces have arguably had much more experience with actual combat than Chinese forces have had. China hasn’t fought a war since 1979 and it lost badly against Vietnam. If you’re looking at this from Beijing’s perspective, that lack of experience in actual conflict would raise serious doubts about what they could pull off, especially since Taiwan would have the support of not just the United States, but also Japan and Australia. And you referred to Japan potentially resupplying Taiwan, just like Poland is for Ukraine.

I think Japan would be much more directly involved in a conflict over Taiwan than Poland is over Ukraine; so the degree of U.S. and allied support would be much stronger in the case of Taiwan.

If you’re sitting in Beijing, are you more or less likely to attack Taiwan after what you’ve seen going on in Ukraine?

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I wasn’t convinced that Beijing had a timeline for invading Ukraine, and after reading the analysis of experts on the PLA, such as a Tai Ming Cheung, I didn’t think that Beijing had decided that, by a certain day, Beijing must take Taiwan forcibly and reunite Taiwan with the PRC. All evidence now points toward a delay of Beijing’s plans to take over Taiwan, and Tai Ming Cheung in this podcast series has commented on how he thinks that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has set Beijing’s plans back by several years.

Another reason, which I haven’t mentioned, for why it’s unlikely that Beijing will attempt to invade Taiwan, is that, once a war starts, China has no room to back down. Given the importance of the Taiwan issue for Chinese nationalism, and for the domestic legitimacy of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], it’s all or nothing if they start a war over Taiwan, and they would be betting a lot on the war succeeding, because it could be very risky for them from a political perspective to try to invade Taiwan if they’re not ready for it.

Can you give us a brief history of the historical commitment of the U.S. to Taiwan?

If we wind the clock back to 1943, the United States, Great Britain, and China jointly issued the Cairo Declaration, in which they said that Taiwan “shall be restored to the Republic of China [ROC].” At that time, the belief was that the Republic of China would still be the government of China after World War II. But then after the defeat of the KMT [the Chinese Nationalist Party], and the ROC government in the Chinese Civil War, the United States did not want to transfer sovereignty over Taiwan from Japan to China. So the United States declared a policy, which has been U.S. policy ever since, that the United States considers Taiwan’s status to be undetermined.

For the first half of the Cold War, the United States recognized the Republic of China as the government of China. But it didn’t recognize Taiwan as being under Chinese sovereignty; it only recognized the ROC but not the ROC’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. And what that meant was that when the United States eventually switched recognition from the Republic of China to the PRC, the U.S. did not confer recognition of any Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and did not recognize the PRC claims over Taiwan. And that’s been the US policy ever since.

The United States has consistently, from June 27, 1950 onward, maintained that Taiwan’s status is undetermined. Beijing likes to downplay the similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine by saying that Ukraine is independent, but Taiwan is not. That’s only a half-truth. The U.S. doesn’t consider Taiwan independent, but the U.S. also doesn’t consider Taiwan to be part of China.

What about past crises over Taiwan? There have been three Taiwan Straits crises—the first one in 1954 to 1955. The second one is 1958. The third one was actually in 1995 to 1996.

The government in Taiwan maintains control of a few islands off the coast of mainland China, the Quemoy and Matsu island groups. The crises in 1954 to 1955, then 1958, centered around these islands. During the Cold War, the United States had a Mutual Defense Treaty with the ROC government in Taiwan, and under that treaty, the United States said yes, the United States will defend Taiwan, and maybe it will include “other territories” subject to “mutual agreement.” So that meant yes to Taiwan, maybe to Quemoy and Matsu. With the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States says maybe the United States will intervene in Taiwan’s defense, but it doesn’t say anything about Quemoy or Matsu. So there’s a bit of a shift in how strategic ambiguity has been applied toward this issue. But strategic ambiguity has been a cornerstone of the United States policy toward Taiwan.

There’s been a lot of talk by Graham Allison and others about the Thucydides Trap, which essentially says that a rising power and a declining power are likely to go to war. What can Thucydides tell us about the Taiwan contingency and world politics?

Graham Allison makes a great point about the structural pressures that arise from power transitions. But his argument makes it seem like a conflict [between China and the U.S.] is inevitable. His exact words in Destined for War are “avoiding the Thucydides Trap in this case will require [the United States and China to do] nothing less than bending the arc of history.”

I don’t think it’s quite that predetermined. But I do think that structural change has resulted in a potential cause for instability. The U.S. has been pushing back against a rising China ever since 2016, and a segment of the United States has been much more assertive in supporting Taiwan—and there’s a potential for this to escalate.

But I don’t think that there’s anything inevitable about a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan.

My reading of Thucydides is that what Thucydides actually described in the history of the Peloponnesian War was (in modern terms) that Athens created an empire in the Aegean that would be like what we would call an anti-access area denial [A2/AD] strategy, and Sparta didn’t realize that until it was too late. By the time Sparta wanted to convince Athens to back down and halt the expansion of the Athenian Empire, Athens had already acquired the A2/AD assets and capabilities needed to defend itself against Sparta and the Peloponnesian league. The lesson of Thucydides is that Sparta was too slow to realize that Athens was building up an A2/AD capability. And the fact that Sparta was so slow to realize that meant that when the crisis came, it couldn’t deter Athens from engaging in provocative actions. The lesson for U.S. strategy is that the United States needs to be more proactive in countering China’s A2/AD capabilities and consistently demonstrate that it has the capacity to intervene in the defense of Taiwan.

A larger point from Thucydides that is helpful for U.S.-China relations is that Thucydides talks about the Athenian-Spartan rivalry, which we should remember, didn’t result in any kind of glorious victory for any side. It was a terrible and disastrous war that led to the downfall of the golden age of ancient Greek civilization. Thucydides says that the Athenians and the Spartans “damaged their own interests competing in the heat of the moment.” So there’s a lot of heightened rhetoric and heightened political tensions surrounding Taiwan, but war doesn’t benefit anybody. Everyone involved stands to benefit from the peace. As long as we can keep that similarity in mind and can focus on the need to prevent a conflict over Taiwan, I think that managing this dispute is possible over the long term.

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