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If Russia Invades Ukraine Will China Invade Taiwan? Not Exactly

Image of Chinese JH-6 bombers on the ready. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine, Taiwan Issues Vastly Differ And Are Not Linked: While outwardly similar in that both countries are facing existential threats with large superpowers wanting to annex their territory, the issues Ukraine and Taiwan are facing are quite different as are the criticality to US interests. 

And because of the outward similarities between the two small nations facing larger, belligerent ones, many, including members of Congress have mistakenly linked the two, stating that the US’ actions in Ukraine were a test of American credibility in Taiwan. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican Michael McCaul urged President Joe Biden to stand up to and “not to make concessions at the expense of our strategic partner Ukraine…it would also embolden Vladimir Putin and his fellow autocrats. U.S. credibility from Kyiv to Taipei cannot withstand another blow of this nature.”

Back in December, the New York Times published a piece that said that President Biden’s stance on what has been transpiring in Ukraine is a wider test of US credibility abroad. Even more so, many believe that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would signal a Chinese move to invade Taiwan and that unless the US responds forcefully to Russia, it would greenlight China. 

That is a mistake. It isn’t so much credibility as it is prioritization. And although many would view what is transpiring in Eastern Europe as more vital to American interests, it is Taiwan that is much more vital to the United States. 

China and Taiwan Are Very Interested in US Actions in Ukraine: 

Much of the world’s attention has been focused on the massive Russian buildup around Ukraine, including the leaders in Taipei. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen ordered her own national security advisers to study the situation in Ukraine and determine how it could affect the situation in Taiwan. 

“Taiwan has faced military threats and intimidation from China for a long time,” Tsai said late in January, adding “we empathize with Ukraine’s situation.” And while the prevailing feeling in Taipei is empathy with the Ukrainians, most people in Taiwan don’t see the parallel to their own situation. 

But they worry that if the situation in Ukraine escalates, the United States can be distracted or act in bad faith to Ukraine, which could point to how the US may very well act with Taiwan one day if China decides to take the island nation by force. The Chinese are watching closely to see how Washington acts diplomatically, economically, as well as militarily for the same reasons.

However, how Washington reacts to what transpires in Ukraine, while significant doesn’t automatically determine how’d they would react in Taiwan. Washington’s resolve isn’t a one-size-fits-all narrative

The Situations in Ukraine and Taiwan Differ Historically:

The factors surrounding the issues when it comes to Ukraine and Taiwan are quite different historically. Russia has always looked at Ukraine and other bordering states to be a buffer to protect the Russian homeland from invasion. 

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until the break up of the communist state in 1991. While other former Soviet satellite states embraced the West, Ukraine was a different entity being right on Russia’s border, that is why the West and NATO steered clear of it until 2008. That’s when then-President George W. Bush pushed NATO to include Ukraine into the alliance, against the wishes of some analysts and diplomats. 

Then-US Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns said at the time that bringing Ukraine into NATO “is the brightest of all redlines” as quoted in the book, “The Back Channel”. He said that Russia would respond and that “even the promise of future NATO membership would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

Putin is trying to recapture the heady days of the Soviet Union, but Russia’s economy will not allow him to achieve anywhere close to that goal. And wary of Western democracy creeping up to his own borders, especially after mass protests from 2012 is a way of garnering internal support from conservative Russians and maintaining his grip on power.  

Much has changed since the Bush administration of 2008. The US now considers the Indo-Pacific as the next great area to vie for global influence. China is a rising power, diplomatically, militarily, and certainly economically. And they are patient. They see the US as a great power in decline, their objectives in Taiwan would best be served in a soft takeover and not a military invasion that would destroy the country and one of the world’s larger economies. 

Taiwan on the other hand has been free from the Chinese Communist Party since 1949, when they lost a civil war with Mao Zedong and were forced to flee from the mainland. Many young Taiwanese people feel that China hasn’t ruled the island since the 19th century and that they have much more in common with Western liberal democracies than the Communist Chinese. 

Taiwan sits on very strategic sea routes that link Japan to the Philippines. The Chinese have already claimed the Spratly Islands off of the Philippines and are building up those with military bases that could become choke points in the sea trade routes during times of conflict. 

And finally, there is the economic considerations. Taiwan was the US’ 9th largest trade partner in 2020, accounting for $106 billion dollars in two-way trade. And that trade centers around the semiconductor industry, where the global giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) controls 54 percent of the semiconductor industry. Semiconductors are necessary for the construction of computers, phones, and other electronics.

While both China and Russia consider Taiwan and Ukraine part of their historic homelands, Taiwan is by far the more critically important target of US resolve. And the Biden administration realizes that. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speech back in December mentioned China’s “unlawful, expansive South China Sea maritime claims.” The United States as a result strengthened its strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) with Australia, India, and Japan, and AUKUS treaty with Australia and the United Kingdom.

“The United States has long been, is, and always will be an Indo-Pacific nation.  This is a geographic fact, from our Pacific coast states to Guam, our territories across the Pacific.  And it’s a historical reality, demonstrated by our two centuries of trade and other ties with the region.

“Today, half of the United States’ top trading partners are in the Indo-Pacific.  It’s the destination for nearly one-third of our exports, the source of $900 billion in foreign direct investment in the United States.”

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

Written By

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.