Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the most consequential military conflict Europe has witnessed since the Second World War — has riveted the attention of the world. Observers have grappled with the meaning of the act of aggression and scrambled to ponder the wider implications of the war. Almost inevitably people look to draw analogies—both historical and contemporary ones. 

Taiwanese helicopters fly the country’s flag through the capital Taipei. October 5, 2021. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
Taiwanese helicopters fly the country’s flag through the capital Taipei. October 5, 2021. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

One popular contemporary analogy is between Russia’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine and China’s approach to Taiwan. Beyond some broad-brush parallels — the most obvious parallel being that both Ukraine and Taiwan are peace-loving democracies that are the objects of belligerent irredentism on the part of more militarily powerful and threatening neighboring autocracies — there are also significant differences. Xi Jinping’s China is not Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Taiwan is not Ukraine.

China Is Not Russia

Russia under Putin has repeatedly dispatched its armed forces for combat missions overseas to a range of countries, including Georgia, Syria and Ukraine, as well as conducted major military interventions against other states, most recently Kazakhstan (albeit at the invitation of that country’s president). Moscow has also actively supported armed groups and militias in some of these same countries and others.

Although China has also been active and assertive in the use of its armed forces beyond its borders in recent years, Beijing has eschewed large-scale combat operations. Around its periphery, China has engaged in provocations, confrontations and even violent clashes. But China, unlike Russia, has refrained from massive interventions, invasions or occupations of other countries since it invaded Vietnam in 1979. China’s largest deployments of troops overseas in the post-Cold War era have been on U.N. Peacekeeping missions. Whereas Russia has more than 20 military installations beyond its borders, to date, China has only one official military base on foreign soil — in Djibouti (established in 2017) — and a handful of other facilities it does not formally acknowledge.

Of course, Beijing has a history of using its potent armed forces and muscular coercive apparatus within China’s borders to repress vigorously peaceful protesters, political dissidents and disaffected ethnic minority peoples. The locations of these operations include Beijing, Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Hong Kong. China has also not hesitated to employ armed force and a wide array of coercive instruments around its periphery. This includes building roads and bunkers in remote frontier areas of the high Himalayas along its contested border with India and constructing artificial islands and military installations in disputed waters of the South China Sea. In recent years, China’s armed forces have also engaged in deadly clashes and violent confrontations with Indian army units along the disputed Line of Actual Control and harassed and rammed the fishing boats and coast guard vessels of Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.

Putin appears to relish projecting the image of a strongman who is routinely willing to thumb his nose at the rest of the world. By contrast, Xi — at least to date — has mainly sought to cultivate a statesmanlike image on the global stage. At times he has given speeches attempting to cast China as a more responsible, less meddlesome and values-free version of the United States. And Xi has invested a lot of time and resources in promoting a set of high-profile international efforts intended to demonstrate that China is a constructive and proactive great power. Employing positive rhetoric touting “win-win” solutions and aspirations to build a “community with a shared future for mankind,” China under Xi’s leadership has launched ambitious efforts such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Putin, by contrast, has made no real effort to offer an alternative to U.S. global leadership beyond delivering vague grandiose declarations (often in tandem with Xi) and has offered the world little in the way of economic stimulus beyond the prospect of more energy exports and hype about the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Despite consisting of only a handful of Soviet successor states, the EAEU is touted as Russia’s answer to China’s BRI. In terms of geostrategic activism, Russia’s major multilateralist initiatives have tended to involve China. These include the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001 and the formation of the BRICS grouping in 2010. The former is a security community with a Central Asian focus consisting of Russia, China and four Central and two South Asian states. The latter is a loose association of some of the world’s largest “emerging economies”: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

However, Moscow’s most significant geostrategic maneuver under Putin has been to strengthen Russia’s strategic partnership with China. Both Beijing and Moscow insist that their relationship is not an alliance and their 2001 treaty of friendship — which was renewed in 2021 — does not commit either signatory to come to the defense of the other in case of military conflict. Yet, the Sino-Russian relationship is a clearly consequential alignment that has grown closer in recent years, particularly as their respective relationships with the United States have deteriorated.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in a very uncomfortable position: Beijing does not want to antagonize Moscow but neither does it want to damage its relations with Washington and European capitals. Consequently, China has equivocated in its statements and actions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called for peace but has stopped short of condemning Russia or calling upon Moscow to withdraw its military. The lengthy joint statement of February 4, 2022, issued by Putin and Xi during the Russian leader’s visit to Beijing on the eve of the Winter Olympics, makes no mention at all of Ukraine — and China has pointedly abstained on all U.N. Security Council resolutions related to Russia’s invasion. Xi appears to have asked Putin to delay any military action against Ukraine until after the Olympics.

Russia’s invasion poses other difficulties for China both in terms of running counter to Beijing’s long espoused principles in foreign affairs and its adverse impact on China’s national interests in Ukraine. Russia’s actions clearly contradict China’s cornerstone foreign policy principles of noninterference in other countries’ affairs and respecting territorial integrity. Moreover, China has sizable economic investments in Ukraine and is a good customer of Ukraine’s armaments industry. In 2020, Ukraine signed the BRI cooperation agreement, which further bolstered the economic relationship between the two countries and marked Ukraine as an important partner in Beijing’s signature foreign policy and economic initiative.

Taiwan Is Not Ukraine

The fact that Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was almost certainly a decisive factor in Putin’s calculus to invade Ukraine. Russia’s commander in chief knew that his invading forces would likely not have to contend with the militaries of any other countries. And if there were any lingering doubts in the Kremlin about the disposition of the most powerful member of NATO, U.S. President Joe Biden stated publicly that the United States would not send military forces to help defend Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has taken strong steps to reinforce NATO allies in Eastern Europe and provide robust military assistance to Ukraine.

By contrast, Xi and his Politburo colleagues have long been convinced that Taiwan has the resolute support of the world’s most capable military. The People’s Liberation Army — as all branches of China’s armed forces are known — continues to assume that if it launches an invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. military will swiftly and decisively intervene. The U.S.-Taiwan relationship, while technically “unofficial” due to the One China policy, has strengthened in recent years. On February 28, the Biden administration sent an unofficial delegation of former U.S. defense and national security officials to Taiwan as a signal to China of that commitment. It remains true that the greatest deterrence to a massive Chinese military attack on the island is Beijing’s assumption that war with Taiwan also means a war with the United States.

However, there is no formal military alliance between the United States and Taiwan. The defense pact binding Washington to Taipei was formally abrogated in 1979. So why is Beijing convinced that Washington has an ironclad alliance-like relationship with Taiwan? There are at least two reasons. First, successive U.S. administrations have publicly committed themselves to support Taiwan against Chinese aggression and have regularly sold arms to the island’s armed forces. Second, although there is no language in the1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that explicitly commits the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack on the island by China, many in Washington believe that such a commitment exists. While there are different interpretations as to what the TRA means, the most significant fact is that the vast majority of U.S. political and military leaders are fully convinced that this legislation binds the United States to a de facto alliance with Taiwan.

China’s increased military assertiveness and greater level of armed provocations in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere around China’s periphery in recent years have only served to strengthen the conviction in Washington that the island is a staunch democratic partner worthy of U.S. support as it tries to defend tiny Taiwan against efforts by Beijing to coerce the island into unwanted unification with China.

However, Taiwan, unlike Ukraine, is not a member of the United Nation. While Ukraine has ambassador-level diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries, including China and the United States, Taiwan only has full diplomatic ties with approximately a dozen countries and none of these are major powers. Yet, thanks to the TRA, Taipei enjoys robust quasi-diplomatic relations with Washington, and thanks to Taiwan’s pragmatic ingenuity, the island possesses a vibrant worldwide network of de facto diplomatic missions.

Although Ukraine’s diplomatic standing is far superior to Taiwan’s, the European country’s military alliance status is less impressive — Ukraine is not a member of NATO, although it is a very active member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative. While Taiwan also has no formal military allies, the island has several close and consequential security partners, most notably the United States.

China Is China and Taiwan Is Taiwan

Taiwan continues to be the most contentious issue in U.S.-China relations. Moreover, the Taiwan Strait is routinely identified as the most plausible location of a military confrontation between the United States and China. For Xi and his Politburo colleagues, Taiwan looms large and is prominently identified as a “core” national interest of China’s, with Xi reiterating in 2021 that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China” and that “no one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Moreover, most Chinese citizens consider Taiwan to be Chinese territory and view the island as something worth fighting for. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has staked its political legitimacy on the ultimate goal of unifying Taiwan with China and in the meantime is working resolutely to prevent the island from becoming de jureindependent. Beijing’s preferred means of realizing unification or preventing independence is peaceful but the CCP has never renounced the use of armed force. Furthermore, the PLA’s central warfighting scenario is Taiwan and China’s military has been focused on planning and preparing for an operation against the island for decades.

A Cautionary Tale?

The above differences notwithstanding, Russia’s combat experience in Ukraine will have a spillover impact on how China thinks about Taiwan. If the Russian armed forces remain bogged down in a stalemate in Ukraine for an extended period and/or face a prolonged and widespread insurgency, this may give Xi and his fellow Politburo members pause. If Russia’s military experiences major setbacks and perhaps even embarrassing defeats, this may make China’s political leaders think twice about the advisability of an invasion of Taiwan.

After all, an invasion of Ukraine is relatively straightforward — the country is geographically contiguous to Russia, sharing an extended land border with mostly gentle terrain. By contrast, an invasion of the island of Taiwan is a far more complex operation — a successful campaign requires careful planning and coordinated execution between air, naval and ground forces. It would also involve amphibious landings in addition to considerable urban warfare — on an even larger scale than in Ukraine — including operations on rugged mountainous terrain. Certainly, the PLA will carefully study Russia’s Ukrainian campaign and draw lessons from it, much as they have studied campaigns of other major powers. Such analyses are conducted with great seriousness because China’s armed forces themselves have not fought a major war since 1979 (when Chinese forces invaded Vietnam) and have not conducted a major island landing campaign since 1950 (against Hainan Island).

One way that China’s leadership might be taking notes from Russia’s Ukraine invasion is by rethinking the risks associated with escalation. In addition to noting the potential military embarrassment that Russia is facing, China might be wary of the sweeping economic sanctions levied by the international community. If China were to receive similar backlash for an invasion of Taiwan, it would raise the possibility of truly crippling sanctions at a time when the Chinese economy is experiencing anemic growth and structural challenges.

In particular, the weaponization of the SWIFT payments system might give China pause. Russia has been trying to popularize a cross-border financial information transmission system, and China is committed to developing the CIPS payment network, but neither has had significant success outside Russian or Chinese borders. Despite its flaws, SWIFT remains the most efficient system for international financial transactions for banks and being removed from SWIFT could potentially be devastating to the Chinese economy. Furthermore, the lessons of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to date are that the costs of armed aggression are high in blood and treasure, as well as strong international censure of Moscow and a resolute collective response by NATO member countries.

In any event, at present Xi and his Politburo colleagues display little sense of urgency about realizing unification with Taiwan via military means and there is no indication of a massive Chinese military buildup in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait. Of course, Beijing’s calculus vis-à-vis the use of force against Taipei can change, so the world must continually monitor the situation and remain alert to warnings and indicators. Part of this monitoring must include scrutinizing Chinese assessments of Russia’s performance in Ukraine in the coming weeks, months and years.

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