The months-old Ukraine crisis is no closer to being resolved as the US and Russia remain at loggerheads. Although President Biden agreed ‘in principle’ to meet Russian President Putin, the White House remains skeptical over Moscow’s withdrawal of materiel and personnel from the border.
As the world remains glued to the drama in Europe, it has presented an exclusive opportunity for a third party to make gains elsewhere. China has been vocal about its support for Russia in the whole affair, stopping short of backing Moscow’s military moves. Sino-Russian relations have always been warm minus the odd fallout in the late 50s, and the current political climate has seen them inching closer than ever before.
Ukraine poses a very interesting question for China. Some parallels can be drawn between Ukraine and Taiwan in relation to Washington’s interests but the similarity ends there. Both countries are poles apart, geographically and politically. However, Ukraine holds many lessons for China when it comes to its dealings with Taiwan.
The Little Dragon
Taiwan is China’s soft underbelly – something it wishes to eliminate at the earliest instance possible. The question of whether the US would go to war with China over Taiwan is a legitimate concern for all stakeholders. While Washington has been vague about its intentions should a Chinese invasion occur, it does have a law in place that requires it to come to Taiwan’s aid.
The US does not have such obligations with Ukraine. It is, therefore, of interest to Beijing how the US reacts to a possible Russian military incursion. Ukraine has become a yardstick which will dictate Chinese actions in Asia. The White House’s reluctance to risk an all-out war with Russia may encourage serious muscle flexing by China in its backyard.
That being said, Washington’s actions must be taken with a pinch of salt. Ukraine may not feature high on its list of strategic partners but Taiwan certainly does. Despite its deliberate policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, the US has a significant presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Its Seventh Fleet is a major deterrent to Chinese threats in the area. Should the US choose to bring its guns to bear in a military confrontation over Taiwan, the Seventh Fleet and its assets will be a force to reckon with. The combined forces of the US and its allies in the region will prove difficult to handle, even for Beijing.
The unification of Taiwan with the mainland is a critical aspect of Xi Jinping’s ‘national rejuvenation’ vision. He has made it clear that Taiwan’s reunification with China is non-negotiable. This means that a future conflict is unavoidable. Another reason why China will be closely monitoring Washington’s moves in the Ukraine crisis is that any development will provide them with the answers they need when dealing with Taiwan.
Taiwan is a vital link for the US and its allies in the region. From a military perspective, it is the first island chain of the Western Pacific and should it fall into Chinese hands, defending countries like the Philippines and Japan would be implausible for the US. China, on the other hand, would be able to sever US ties in the region, giving it a relatively free hand in the region.
From an economic front, Taiwan is also an economic giant and the ninth largest trading partner for the US. Losing Taiwan would cut off the US from the advanced superconductor technology – something Taiwan has a near-monopoly of – and shift the balance of power in Beijing’s favour.
The Formosan dilemma
Speaking from a geo-political perspective, Taiwan is more important to US, then say, Ukraine. However, its reaction to the Ukraine crisis will undoubtedly shape future confrontations in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington needs to understand the future ramifications of its dealings in Ukraine. It will provide the basis on which China will approach the question of Taiwan.
Beijing will already have compiled a list of do’s and don’ts when dealing with Washington DC. Learning from Russia’s mistakes and gaining an insight into dealings of the current US administration will give Xi Jinping a leg-up in his own backyard.
The writing is clearly on the wall. Taiwan will most certainly become the center of focus in the coming years. Chinese designs will feature lessons learnt from the Ukraine crisis. What remains to be seen is whether Washington will take a harder stance when it comes to Taiwan.