Extrapolating from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: What lessons could China be drawing from it for its reunification ambitions?

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Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked the worst military conflict on the European continent since the Second World War. In justifying this so-called ‘special military operation’, President Vladimir Putin asserted that Ukrainians and Russians were ‘one people’. This has led some to draw parallels to the antagonistic relations between China and Taiwan, in which China claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of the country. It comes as no surprise, then, that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen raised the island’s alert level amidst fears that China may strike Taiwan while the iron was hot. Even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaders such as Boris Johnson had warned that the global response to Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border will shape China’s intentions toward Taiwan. Given the association of current developments with Taiwan’s predicament, this begs the question of what lessons China could be drawing from the ongoing war and how this may impact its actions towards Taiwan.

China’s position on reunification

To be sure, the likelihood of China invading Taiwan is arguably low, at least in the immediate future. There are several justifications for this expectation: firstly, a cross-strait invasion will be a herculean task. Accounting for the island’s geography and military capabilities, Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, estimates that to guarantee victory, China has to amass an expeditionary force of close to two million troops. Assuming that the leaders at China’s helm are rational, the research fellow suggests that they would likely question the feasibility of invading Taiwan in light of this staggering challenge. Secondly, Chinese officials claim that time is on their side – current trends supposedly suggest that reunification is an eventuality, not merely a possibility. This negates the necessity for a violent takeover of the island that may only do more harm than good for China.

Nonetheless, the global community must not become complacent to the insidious threat of invasion. Chinese statements seeking peaceful reunification have often been accompanied by reiterations that China will not tolerate challenges to its sovereignty and unity, thereby suggesting that it will not renounce the use of force when it comes to Taiwan. Vitallly, there also seems to be resolve on President Xi’s end to see through reunification, with him proclaiming last year that ‘the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled’. The arrival of a delegation of retired US defence officials to Taiwan just last week reveals latent fears that China could pull off a similar stunt on the island as Russia had on Ukraine.

Arrival of the U.S. delegation in Taiwan on 1 March 2022 (Source: Reuters)

The signs are clear that there remains a genuine risk of tensions spiralling out of control in the region.

What lessons could China draw from the Russia-Ukraine war?

One key consideration in Chinese calculations for invading Taiwan is the United States’ (U.S.) commitment to deploying troops to defend the island, which would bring the two superpowers into direct conflict with one another. In this aspect, there are suggestions that we may expect a stronger response in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, as compared to Ukraine. Whereas the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have insisted they will not put boots on Ukrainian soil, President Joe Biden had remarked that the U.S. will defend Taiwan. Senior Japanese political figures have likewise hinted that they will do the same.

Yet when pressed for details, Biden Administration officials insisted the U.S.’ Taiwan policy – that of strategic ambiguity — remained unchanged. Similarly, some have cast doubt that Japan’s policy toward Taiwan had really been modified. It is therefore unclear whether other countries would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of its invasion.

Regardless, the developments in Ukraine have revealed that even if the U.S. and its allies have no genuine intentions behind the veil of ‘strategic ambiguity’ to directly defend Taiwan, the Chinese should not expect an invasion to be any easier. In the current conflict, although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it has been flooded with critical military equipment from NATO member states ranging from the U.S’ anti-tank Javelin missiles to Turkey’s Bayraktar drones. These have decisively shifted the battlefield in Ukraine’s favour. Extrapolating from this, a similar dynamic could emerge for Taiwan. While many states may continue abiding by the ‘One China’ policy, this does not preclude them from rallying together to supply Taiwan with the necessary capabilities to repel a Chinese attack. In fact, the U.S.’ Taiwan Relations Act already obliges it to ensure that Taiwan is able to maintain ‘a sufficient self-defence capability’.

Even if countries refrain from supplying arms to avoid becoming militarily implicated in such a conflict, the means to deter China are not merely limited to arms: recently imposed economic sanctions have proven consequential for Russia.

In the days following the invasion, a slew of hard-hitting sanctions was imposed on Russia, which includes selected Russian banks being banned from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) payment network and the suspension of services by corporations such as Visa. As Russia turns into a pariah on the international stage and Russian citizens begin to feel the pinch of the sanctions, it comes as no surprise then that some reports have predicted that it would become ‘harder for the Russian government to keep its domestic political situation under control’, a pain point for authoritarian states such as China. The severity of sanctions imposed, along with the willingness of the U.S. and its allies to impose them even at the cost of their own economies, does not bode well for China’s latent ambitions of invading Taiwan. Providing insight to the inherent weakness of the Chinese economy, a report published by a China-based think tank warned that China will lose out in a scenario where it decouples from the U.S. Combined with the fact that China is more extensively integrated within – and thus reliant on – the global economy than Russia, we should thus expect even more dire impacts were it to be sanctioned and isolated from the world economy for invading Taiwan.

Signs of bank runs in Russia following the imposition of sanctions (Source: CNBC)

What might China do?

Having postulated the lessons China could be drawing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the validity of the Chinese foreign ministry’s assertion that Taiwan is ‘not Ukraine’ – since Taiwan’s sovereignty is only recognised by a handful of small states – must be acknowledged here.

Much doubt lingers over how much international support Taiwan will receive in case of its invasion. Would states distance themselves from the conflict over fears that they might get on the wrong side of a rising superpower, or would we observe the international community uniting, as they mostly have in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, in unanimously adopting measures to punish China?  

Perhaps, then, the most important lesson that China could be drawing from the Russia-Ukraine war is the importance of gauging the willingness of the international community to mete out punishments were it to invade, lest it underestimates the potential consequences that await it. Until the Chinese government is confident that an invasion of Taiwan will not lead it down the same path as Russia, it will likely stay the course in employing strategies short of war, such as grey-zone warfare, with a longer-term horizon toward reunification.

But there are no guarantees that China’s patience can be sustained. 

By Tan,

Tan is a year 1 undergraduate in the BSc Politics and International Relations programme and is interested in current affairs issues related to defence and international relations.

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