Will Taiwan become "the next Ukraine"?

May 16, 2022

Session 2 of the Tokyo Conference explored the question of whether Taiwan will become "the second Ukraine."

The Genron NPO's President Yasushi Kudo moderated the discussion, and opened the session by posing three questions to the keynote speakers who would provide the fodder for debate. First, he asked what the speakers think about the current discussion in the West comparing the invasion of Ukraine to a potential Taiwan contingency. Second, he asked if China would conduct a military invasion of Taiwan, when such an invasion could occur, and what factors increase the danger. Third, how can we work together to avoid conflict and manage crises, and is it even possible?

Do not give China justifiable cause, avoid domestication of international affairs, and quickly rebuild trust between the US and China

First to take the podium was Yuji Miyamoto, former Japanese Ambassador to the People's Republic of China. Miyamoto shared his belief that the war in Ukraine would not immediately trigger a contingency in Taiwan, explaining, "As many have pointed out, the legal and political position of Taiwan differs from that of Ukraine."

Miyamoto added that President Xi Jinping's most pressing issue is to secure a third term as president at the upcoming party congress in autumn and consolidate his political foundation; to do so, Xi must prioritize the domestic economy. That is just another reason why there is little room for China to move when it comes to invading Taiwan.

However, Miyamoto believes the war in Ukraine does offer China some important information.

"In a way, the situation in Ukraine is providing China with a look at how to achieve reunification by force, and serves as a dry run for how the international community will respond to such an invasion, particularly the West."

Consequently, he believes that it is necessary to reduce the effectiveness of the invasion of Ukraine and increase the price to Russia in order to dissuade any potential ideas about invading Taiwan. That being said, if given justifiable cause, the Xi administration would have no choice but to invade. One example of such a "justifiable cause" would be if the Tsai Ing-wen administration were to make clear moves towards Taiwan independence.

"In other words, as long as they avoid doing that and giving China justifiable cause, we should be all right," he said.

However, Miyamoto warned that there is a major threat to US-China relations when it comes to the Taiwan Strait. He argued that in order to manage that risk and prevent a conflict, "The highest priority should be given to restoring at least a minimal amount of trust between the US and China. To that end, direct dialogue between political leaders and military personnel must be re-established, and the crisis management mechanism needs to be expanded and fortified."

Miyamoto concluded with the suggestion that, "We should be looking at a bigger picture than just the US and China. That means that the Taiwan issues should be handled diplomatically."

He pointed to the "domestication of international affairs," a phenomenon causing more radicalized diplomacy spurred on by the heated exchange of opinion in the domestic sphere, and said that determining how to deal with this will remain a major issue.

The US should build its ability to deter China from acting, and reverse its current strategic ambiguity

The next to speak was Katsutoshi Kawano, former Chief of Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

"Just like the US, China is major nuclear power, and it is paying close attention to the fact that the US is considering the possibility of nuclear war and therefore not intervening militarily in Ukraine," Kawano said. "That is a major risk factor in the event of a Taiwan contingency."

However, Kawano pointed out, China is also watching Russia struggle, and suggested that Russia's experience could cause China to think twice.

"They will be learning that if a land-based invasion of another country is this difficult, it will be even more difficult to conduct an invasion after crossing the Taiwan Strait," he said, but also noted that, "China has no option to not annex Taiwan, whether that is achieved by force or not."

As long as that is the case, Kawano believes it is necessary to make China think that it will be impossible to reunify with Taiwan using forceful means, and that the lesson learned from Ukraine is that one cannot use economic logic to defeat an enemy who fights using the logic of national security. Therefore, the only way to stop the leader of a country invading militarily is through the use of military force.

Kawano emphasized that it is urgent for Japan and the US to build a deterrence to convince China that it cannot invade Taiwan, and that diplomatic measures must be based upon deterrence."

Moreover, he looked to the US to review its policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan now that it has become clear that avoiding a nuclear war is considered high priority.

Taiwan and Ukraine are fundamentally different, but China will only use military force if peaceful reunification becomes completely impossible.

Zhou Bo is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in China, and he offered his perspective on the question of whether Taiwan will be "the next Ukraine" by describing the differences between China and Russia.

"We are ready to preserve (the international) order. Why? Because China is the largest beneficiary of globalization, which is rooted in the current international order, with its rules which were largely built by the West led by the United States. China has millions of ties with the West including the US, that neither side wants to severe." Zhou said. "But Russia looks at the world (from a position of) victimhood caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, therefore they look at this world with resentment."

Zhou also pointed out the difference in geopolitical policy between the two countries in light of the war in Ukraine.

"I believe the Ukrainian war is a clash between NATO's sphere of influence and Russia's sphere of influence. Many people talk about how bad Russia is, but very few people point out the fact that it was the NATO expansion that eventually backfired. But China has no interest in spheres of influence," he explained. "Let me remind you one thing; influence and spheres of influence are two different states. Precisely because China's influence now is already global, China doesn't need a sphere of influence, which is difficult and costly to maintain."

Zhou also described the situations in which China would be likely to use force in Taiwan, listing three conditions, the first of which would be a clear declaration of independence. He sees that as being unlikely, however.

"I believe Taiwanese forces will not declare independence...they would say they have de facto independence, so why would they declare it knowing that we will use force," he explained. "The second thing would be major events that lead to the separation of Taiwan. The third condition (under which) China would use force is the complete loss of the possibility for peaceful reunification. As long as China believes there is a possibility of peaceful reunification, we will not use force."

Zhou added a few words of caution.

"But of course, at the same time, we must be fully, militarily prepared. That takes into account the possible intervention of the United States and their allies."

After Zhou's address, the ten thinktank representatives began their discussions about the issues raised by the three keynote speakers.

Major points in the Taiwan issue are whether US intends to offer military support, and what to do if Taiwan uses the democratic process to decide on independence, which would serve as justifiable cause for China to invade

The participants offered a great variety of opinions and posed many questions.

Ettore Greco is Executive Vice President of Institute of International Affairs in Italy, and he expressed agreement on the previous assessment of the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan.

"I fully concur with those that were saying that there are more differences than similarities...between Taiwan and Ukraine. And indeed, parallels may be misleading," Greco said. He also touched upon the possibility of a conflict arising in the Taiwan Strait arising from miscalculations, before posing two questions to the conference.

"First of all...what more can be done in the present circumstances to establish new confidence and security measures to avert such risks?" he asked. "The second question relates to the argument that a (justifiable) cause can precipitate a conflict. Can you (Miyamoto) elaborate on that? What type of contingencies are you referring to? Are there developments in the domestic scene in Taiwan that could become a trigger?"

Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman of India's Observer Research Foundation, then asked Zhou Bo to consider a scenario in which China invaded Taiwan and the US responded with economic sanctions rather than military intervention. Joshi wanted to know how such sanctions might affect China's actions.

Miyamoto responded to Greco's question first.

"For China, justifiable cause would be Taiwan declaring independence, and if that were decided by referendum, China would be forced to intervene militarily," Miyamoto said. "If independence is declared through the democratic process, we are faced with the very difficult question of how many countries would abandon Taiwan to its fate." Miyamoto said that he expects Taiwan to remain make its decisions with cool heads.

Zhou next responded to Joshi's question by pointing out that China has been subjected to many sanctions throughout its history.

"Have the sanctions played an effective role? Probably not," he said. "In ten years' time, China definitely will become the largest economy in the world. If you have sanctions on small countries, it might work if you work collectively. But on such a large economy, the largest economy in the world, how effective can it be? It cannot be that every country would unite against China."

Thomas Gomart is Director of the French Institute of International Relations, and he made two points, first noting that Russia "completely underestimated" the level of resistance it would face in Ukraine.

"I'm wondering if we can make a parallel for the expected level of resistance (among) the people of Taiwan in the case of a conflict," he added, before turning to the expansion of NATO.

"It is always important to remind people that it is primarily countries which want to join NATO" he said. "That's precisely countries like the Baltic states, Poland, and others, which decided to join just to get away from the Russian historical sphere of influence."

Gomart ended by asking Zhou what he thinks about the future relationship between China, Russia, and India in light of the joint statement made by China and Russia on February 4, and the signing of a cooperative agreement.

"I think India's position is closer to that of China, no matter how India pretends to be on the American line for a while," Zhou answered, adding that India holds an extremely important position in the Indo-Pacific.

"Quad, the four-country organization (made up of) Japan, the United States, Australia, and India: who is most important? India. Why? Because the other three countries are already allies. So, the lynchpin is India," he explained. "India's silence (regarding the Ukrainian war) was highlighted because 70% of its military hardware relies on Russia. Because it is buying the S-400 from Russia, so therefore they cannot afford to criticize Russia."

Zhou also believes the relationship between China and India will improve in the future.

"Even talking about maritime issues, India's maritime law is very much like China's maritime law," he said, describing the 2021 incursion by a US naval vessel into India's EEZ to assert its "freedom of navigation," an act which was illegal under Indian law and which drew India's ire. Coupled with India's continued silence regarding the situation in Ukraine, Zhou believes that this suggests India does not always take the US' side.

Lawrence Anderson, Senior Fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, touched upon a number of points, starting with the Taiwan issue.

"Some analysts that China will take advantage of the US distraction in Ukraine and use that as an opportunity to attack Taiwan, but I don't think so," Anderson said. "Unless Taiwan does something foolhardy like proclaim its independence, China is unlikely to risk an invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan is strategically a much more important territory to US interests than Ukraine. Taiwan's production of IT chips and semiconductors is crucial to America's struggle with China."

He also noted that after its abandonment of Afghanistan and lack of intervention in Ukraine, if the US were to abandon Taiwan as well, it would lose all credibility.

"All you'd have to do is threaten the US with nuclear weapons and then countries that have nuclear weapons will get their way," he said.

Anderson also mentioned some concerns he has about the Xi administration and Chinese domestic issues.

"If you monitor social media in China, you find that a lot of people there are even more belligerent than the Chinese government; they are strongly urging the invasion of Taiwan. There is a need for caution," he said.

"Like everybody else, China is keeping a close watch on what's happening in Ukraine," he continued. "But the question is how much of that is actually filtering up to the leadership. I make this point because there is a difference between how strong, powerful, authoritarian leaders run their countries and are prepared to take advice that may be contrary to what they feel or interpret or what they want to hear, and those of other countries. My concern is, is the right information of the situation in Ukraine, but more importantly the situation in Taiwan, all percolating up to Mr. Xi and his advisors."

Kudo turned to Kawano to ask if, based on the lessons learned in Ukraine, the US would take undertake a military intervention were China to invade Taiwan, to which Kawano responded, "Definitely."

One reason is that Okinawa hosts to the main force of the US Marine Corps, and Yokosuka has the 7th Fleet, the largest fleet in the US Navy. If a conflict were to erupt in Taiwan, right on the US' doorstep, and the US were not to intervene, it would be equivalent to the US abandoning its entire identity as a nation.

However, there is the possibility that the lesson China has learned from the Ukraine war is that the US will avoid military action if there is the chance of nuclear war, so "to prevent such doubts, a clear intervention policy should be established in place of the strategic ambiguity."

James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President of the US' Council on Foreign Relations, joined the discussion towards the end.

"I think that the most likely outcome if China were to invade Taiwan is that the United States would come to the aid of Taiwan militarily," he said. "Of course, the posture the United States has towards Taiwan is known as strategic ambiguity, so the American commitment to Taiwan is greater than the commitment to Ukraine, but it's also less than the commitment enshrined in the bilateral security treaties with Japan, with South Korea, with Australia. It's important to keep that in mind."

Lindsay also disagreed about the underlying reason for the lack of US intervention in Ukraine.

"I would not attribute the United States' unwillingness to defend Ukraine based on a fear of nuclear war, but that the United States had never made a commitment to defend Ukraine," he said. "Ukraine is not a member of NATO and so Article 5 and the legal obligation that flows from it does not hold."

He explained why the US would come to the aid of Taiwan, however.

"The failure to do so would have potentially catastrophic effects on America's commitments and credibility throughout East Asia," he explained. "If the United States were not to come to the aid of Taiwan, that would raise real big questions about the credibility of any American commitment to Japan. Same with South Korea, same with Australia."

Finally, Lindsay described the benefits of the policy of strategic ambiguity.

"There is a potential out where you don't act. When we're talking about issues of what the United States would do, context will matter. I think it would be a different outcome if it's the Taiwanese government that declares independence against the wishes of the United States. I can also imagine that American elections may go in a very different direction, and may have a very different president in 2025 who may choose not to backup Taiwan. If the United States is embroiled in a war elsewhere in the world, then the ability to come to the aid of Taiwan is going to be seen through a very different filter.


Post a comment