Is Taiwan Next?

So, Putin did it. After months of Russian troop buildups and failed attempts at diplomatic resolutions, last week, Russia finally attacked Ukraine. The invasion shouldn’t have been a surprise; American intelligence agencies were all but certain that the invasion would soon commence, but still, it was shocking to many Americans and Ukrainians alike. Western nations have already begun to impose previously threatened economic punishments on Russia, and they will take a heavy toll on the Russian economy. But Putin knew the high cost of invasion well in advance, and concerningly for the liberal world order, it didn’t stop him from invading. In wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a flagrant violation of international law, and the principles of sovereignty enshrined within, many have begun to draw similarities between the situation in Ukraine and the situation in another democracy under threat; Taiwan. China makes no secret of its desire to reunite Taiwan with the CCP government of mainland China, whether peacefully or violently, and Chinese leaders are no doubt closely watching the western response to the Russian invasion, calibrating their own internal calculus regarding Taiwan. If the United States and its allies can’t stop Russia from taking Ukraine, what hope do they have of stopping China from taking Taiwan? Will Taiwan be the next democracy to fall under the forces of autocracy?

Why does China want Taiwan, anyway? And let me be clear, they really want Taiwan. In fact, China has a law, the Anti-Secession Law of the People’s Republic of China, that says should the possibility of a peaceful reunification be lost, “the State shall use non-peaceful and other necessary means” to facilitate reunification. On July 1st of 2021, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, President Xi Jinping spelled out China’s desires. “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the [CCP]. We will uphold the one-China principle… and advance peaceful national reunification… We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence… No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” 

Reunification with Taiwan has long been an integral part of the CCP’s vision of the future. Since 1949, when the nationalist Kuomintang Party was forced to retreat to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to bring the “renegade province” back under the control of mainland China. For decades, China lacked the military strength to invade Taiwan, as Taiwan’s ally, the United States, possessed far greater military resources and technology than China. In 1979, the US officially recognized the CCP as the legitimate government of China and ended its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, ending explicit military support of Taiwan. With the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act, the US adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. Under the policy, the US remains deliberately ambiguous about its stance on controversial questions regarding Taiwan, in particular, the question of the rightful government of Taiwan and whether the US would defend Taiwan from a theoretical Chinese invasion. The goal of the policy is to maintain a working relationship with China, the world’s second-largest economy while continuing to support the world’s democracies.

The United States has demonstrated its support of an independent Taiwan on several occasions, most recently in 1996, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Following a series of Chinese missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan, and a buildup of troops in the coastal province of Fujian, the US deployed two carrier strike groups to the Taiwanese Straits in a massive show of force. It worked then, and China backed down, but these days, things have changed. China’s military has transformed to become one of the world’s most technologically advanced militaries. Armed with an arsenal of hypersonic missiles, advanced fighter jets, and a modernized navy, China’s military grows more confident with each passing day that it would prevail in a conflict with the US military. The United States no longer scares them; recently, in response to near-daily violations of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) by PLAAF, the US Navy has sailed several of its most advanced vessels (think guided-missile destroyers) through the straits of Taiwan. But unlike before, China hasn’t backed down and continues to fly fighter jets and bombers through the Taiwanese ADIZ. 


Within China, the political pressure to take Taiwan has only grown, and support is widespread both within the Chinese establishment and among the broader public to use force to reunify with Taiwan. In the United States, Americans aren’t very supportive of entering into a war with China to protect Taiwan. It seems unlikely that any US president would be willing to sacrifice American blood and treasure for a nation the United States isn’t even officially allied with. And make no mistake, the costs of war would be steep, for all parties involved, not to mention the very real risk of nuclear war were the United States to be drawn into the conflict. Even assuming the war doesn’t go nuclear, it is no longer certain that the US would prevail in a war over Taiwan. Taiwanese forces would undoubtedly be crushed by the Chinese, meaning any hope of Taiwan remaining independent would have to come from a nation that is not only thousands of miles away, but also lacks the will to fight. In the event of a possible Chinese invasion, it is probable that no one would come to Taiwan’s aid. We shouldn’t mischaracterize China as a nation seeking war; they don’t want to see their sons and daughters violently perish in a conflict any more than we do. Peaceful reunification is certainly the preferable option. But should worst come to worst, China could, and would invade Taiwan.

Returning to the subject at hand, the question begs, if the West can’t stop Russia from taking Ukraine, can it stop China from taking Taiwan? Since NATO and the United States both publicly stated that direct military involvement is virtually out of the question, the main deterrent available to the West was in the form of economic and diplomatic penalties. The same is true in Taiwan; the main tool available to the United States and its allies is to threaten the Chinese economy and foreign policy aspirations. The West is following through on its threats; isolating Russian banks from the SWIFT system, imposing sanctions on Russian companies and elites, freezing foreign assets, and diplomatic isolation. Putin knew what was coming, and he still invaded. China knows what the economic penalties of invasion would be, although they would depend on the exact trajectory of the conflict. Will they still decide to invade?

To answer this question, one must understand the main differences between the two belligerent nations, Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow have fundamentally divergent views of the current international order. China has greatly benefited from the international order and the institutions it is composed of, such as the World Trade Organization. The existing international order has been critical in growing the Chinese economy, and as China wields more and more influence, it seeks to occupy the role of an international leader and standard-setter that the US once monopolized. In other words, China wants to preserve these institutions and utilize them in expanding its sphere of influence and power. Russia takes an opposing view, as it believes that the international order created by the West has suppressed both the Russian economy and Russian power. Therefore, it seeks to destabilize and undermine the same organizations China hopes to one day helm and use to extend Chinese influence.

If Russia creates outrage among the international community, to a certain extent, Putin doesn’t really care. This is not to say that Western sanctions will not hurt; the average Russian will suffer dearly for Putin’s invasion. But Russia has prepared for isolation, creating what many analysts have dubbed a “fortress economy,” by stockpiling some $631 billion in reserves, much of it in cryptocurrency, as well as reducing the reliance of the Russian economy on the US dollar. Russia also can continue to rely on its lucrative fossil fuel exports to Europe. The West doesn’t dare sanction Putin’s pipelines, for fear of the catastrophic economic impact on the natural gas-dependent European economy. Diplomatic isolation from the West is also nothing new for Moscow. Putin isn’t exactly interested in forging new alliances. To be brief, Putin feels as though he doesn’t have much to lose.

China, however, is still a power on the rise, and if it hopes to take what it believes is its rightful place at the helm of the international order, launching a violent invasion and subsequent bloody occupation of Taiwan would destroy China’s international credibility. Already, the aggressive so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy (in reference to a series of Chinese action movies) has left a sour taste in many of China’s prospective Allies. The Belt and Road Initiative, the flagship international infrastructure project of the CCP, has been the subject of corruption scandals and labor and environmental violations and often elicits public protest in recipient countries. Controversy over what many have called the genocide of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, as well as China’s deceitful handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, have all damaged China’s public image. 

In the event of an invasion, the West would likely implement extremely harsh sanctions on China, and while some powers such as Russia and Iran would probably continue to trade with China, China would lose most of its international trading partners. China in recent years has attempted to reduce its reliance on external trading partners, specifically the United States, but it would be far from enough to shield China from the effects of an international economic blockade. China is fundamentally interconnected with the rest of the world; Russia is not. Another factor is the sheer cost of an invasion and occupation of Taiwan. Wars cost money, and although China would probably be able to take Taiwan without Western interference, it is unlikely that the Taiwanese would part so easily with the democratic way of life they have cultivated over the past few decades. There would probably also be an armed Taiwanese resistance movement, as in Ukraine. 


Although China might hint at the threat of war and has built a military capable of crushing Taiwan, it would be far more advantageous for China to seek peaceful reunification. Russia and China might both be autocracies, but they are not one and the same. Russia seeks to destroy the international order; China seeks to helm it. A war with Taiwan would severely damage Chinese credibility and would inhibit China from cultivating the necessary alliances to attain its goals. The United States did not become powerful by itself; it cultivated a network of alliances across the globe. So must China. In the coming years, we can expect China to dial up the economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, and they will likely threaten war. But for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to be worth it, China would have to become far more economically independent, as well as truly surpass the United States as the dominant power in the world to ensure it would weather the diplomatic and economic storm that would surely follow an invasion. At least for now, Taiwan is safe from a Chinese invasion.