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Can the Russian invasion of Ukraine incentivize China for forceful unification of Taiwan?

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is an island located at the junction of the East and the South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan anchors a chain of the island (first chain island) with massive strategic importance. Taiwan and the corresponding island chain are essential for the Chinese Navy to control and rule the South China Sea and, ultimately the Indo-Pacific.

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There are numerous parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine, a prospect that is raising fears that China may be emboldened to invade Taiwan after NATO’s refusal to militarily engage with Russian forces on Ukraine’s behalf. The recent escalation of tensions in the China-US-Taiwan troika has furthered heightened fears that a military conflict could erupt across the Taiwan strait. The US, fearful that Beijing might be encouraged to replicate Moscow has responded by announcing an arms sale worth $120 million to Taiwan.

This has, in turn, exacerbated Chinese concerns that any attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is underway. The actions, security calculations and fear from both sides are in fact, aggravating the tensions in the region. In terms of global material wealth distribution, Russia’s power does not even compare to China-the rising power challenging the status quo power-let alone US. Russia’s calculation that Washington would avoid a military engagement even if it invaded its neighbor has proven to be spot on.

Read more: Russia Ukraine Crisis: Why Russia?

Understanding the matter better

As anticipated, economic sanctions have been imposed along with the US banning the import of Russian oil with Europe’s agreement to a partial ban. In the midst of all the chaos, Taiwan becomes even more important. During his visit to Japan in May, US President Joe Biden astonished the stakeholders by stating that the US would not hesitate to defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded it. The White House, however, continues to maintain the policy of “strategic ambiguity”, i.e. the US may or may not militarily defend Taiwan if China attacks. Amid the growing tensions over Taiwan, Beijing has lashed out at Washington, accusing it of trying to trigger a conflict in the region and disrupting the status quo.

During a bilateral meeting on June 10th in the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the Chinese Defense Minister apprised his US counterpart that China will “smash to smithereens any ‘Taiwan independence’ plot and resolutely uphold the unification of the motherland”.Though why Taiwan is such a contentious issue for China, the answer lies in two critical factors i.e geostrategy and nationalism.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is an island located at the junction of the East and the South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan anchors a chain of the island (first chain island) with massive strategic importance. Taiwan and the corresponding island chain is essential for the Chinese Navy to control and rule the South China Sea and, ultimately the Indo-Pacific. For the US, Taiwan and the corresponding islands are leverage for countering China’s military expansion. Controlling Taiwan would mean that PLA Navy would effectively navigate on the east of the first chain island, severely damaging the USA’s ability to control the nearby island and freely maneuver in the Pacific.

Read more: Stalemate in the Russia Ukraine War

This would tip the strategic balance in Beijing’s favor

The US allies in the region, including South Korea and Japan, would be forced to reconcile with China as the dominant military force in the region. Sixty percent of global maritime trade passes through the Indo-Pacific region, meaning that in case of domination China could disrupt access to these trade routes; the US worries that the non-containment of China would spell the end for a free Indo-Pacific region.

In terms of nationalism, Taiwan remains an important aspect of China’s declared goals in order to attain “national rejuvenation”. Taiwan was lost to China after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. China’s Anti-Secession Law obligates Chinese authorities to ensure reunification with China through peaceful means, in case of failure, the use of force is also allowed to achieve this objective.

There are operational costs of the invasion as Ukraine and Russia share a 1200-mile border while Taiwan and mainland China are separated by 100 miles of water. The Amphibian attack would require massive positioning of troops and military hardware along the cost months prior, which could be easily picked by the satellite imagery. Taiwan is not Ukraine; the former is one of the leading global exporters of semiconductors used in almost every electronic device. Both China and US are to some degree dependent on Taiwan’s semiconductors, which in case of an invasion, could face severe disruption in the global supply chain, spelling a disaster for the entire global community.

The material cost to states, global organizations and enterprises means that they would be more likely to act aggressively against China’s invasion of Taiwan than they did in the case of Ukraine. This aspect raises the stakes of Taiwan’s invasion exponentially. Neither is Ukraine critical to containing a Russian threat nor does it produce a critical global commodity that can choke and disrupt global markets, unlike Taiwan. Both China and US are conscious of their dependence on Taiwan’s semiconductors and are looking to diversify it. Though for at least a decade, China will remain reliant on Taiwan’s semiconductors.

Analysts state that Beijing is carefully taking notes of the liberal world’s lack of military response as well as the popularity of a neutral stance amongst US Asian allies or the economic sanctions and the unraveling of cancel culture in international relations. China is likely to get more and more assertive with regard to Taiwan in the coming years, with calculations from Russia’s actions and the global response as one of the many factors influencing the decision. Over the last few years, PLA has become quite assertive, with instances of violating Taiwanese airspace or AIDZ becoming a common phenomenon.

Read more: Russia Ukraine Crisis: Who is the beneficiary?

This would have been unimaginable in the nineties as in one instance in 1995, after China’s military exercises to intimidate the Taiwanese, President Bill Clinton sent the US enforcement in the Strait of Taiwan and forced Beijing to change course. This time things are different; China is on a steady path to closing the material wealth gap with the superpower US and successfully setting its own norms of international relations. For instance, rather than a military intervention to achieve its foreign policy goals, China favors the use of no strings attached to economic relations and investments as core foreign policy instruments.

The policymakers in Beijing particularly abhor military interventions, meddling in internal affairs of other countries and weaponization of one’s favored political and governance values, such as in the case of the USA’s rigorous quest for exporting the liberal ideals and values beyond its borders. China, in the last fifteen years, carefully crafted an alternative model for international relations where an aspiring superpower acts less like world police and more like a manager and an arbitrator. These values are nonetheless a hit in the global South, which is strife with US political and military interventions and constantly witness the daunting double standards exhibited.

Invading Taiwan now would be a bit naïve on China’s part when it is successfully establishing its reputation as a benign power and a more favorable alternative to the US. Reunification with Taiwan is one of the most important objectives of the “National Rejuvenation”. The official deadline to incorporate Taiwan with China is 2049. Beijing has all the time in the world, and the Chinese do live by the dictum ” bide your time and hide your strengths”. Chinese policymakers are not only taking note of the US and world’s reaction to Russian actions but also calculating the costs of military action at this point in time. The economic, political and operation-wise costs of invading Taiwan are way too high right now.

Read more: Russia Ukraine Conflict: The past and the future

How US is supporting Taiwan?

Even with USA’s Strategic Ambiguity, the economic, strategic and political objectives necessitate that Washington comes to Taiwan’s defense. Losing Taiwan would mean losing supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. In case of an offensive from China, the United States will react to maintain and safeguard its own position as US foreign policy and core geostrategic concerns have pivoted to the Indo-Pacific region.

A conflict in Taiwan will occur, and the US provocations such as arms sales to Taiwan may trigger it sooner than later. To achieve a global power status, China needs control over the Indo-Pacific, and Taiwan is the sure-shot way to achieve a strategic advantage over the US. China is still building its image and in a sort of a preparatory state rather than in a position to offer an all-out military challenge to the reigning hegemon. Keeping in view all the costs and risks associated with military action in Taiwan, it makes sense for China to first mitigate all those risks, costs, and consequences.

Read more: Russia-Ukraine conflict: From destruction to construction

Reduce its own dependence as well as a present global community with an alternative to Taiwan’s semiconductors. All while waiting out the end result for Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and accordingly devising its own coping mechanism, such as the West’s weaponization of the SWIFT payment system. Since time is at its side, it has no incentives to militarily engage with Taiwan yet.

 

The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.