Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes China think twice about taking Taiwan by force. Here's why.

China is watching the war in Ukraine closely.

Kayla Wong | March 20, 2022, 02:56 PM

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Russia’s all-out war on its southern neighbour Ukraine has sent shockwaves throughout the world, where most were flabbergasted at the use of brutal military force in the 21st century.

The invasion has sparked concerns that should Russia succeed in defeating Ukraine, China would be inspired to do the same with Taiwan as well, which Beijing views as a non-negotiable part of its territory despite never having ruled it.

Taiwan is not Ukraine

China has dismissed such comparisons between Russia’s invasion and the existential threat China poses to Taiwan, with the Chinese foreign ministry stressing that Taiwan is not Ukraine, and that it has always been "an inalienable part of China".

Foreign policy experts have also opined that China would not simply attack Taiwan just because Russia has done so to Ukraine.

Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said Beijing knows there is scant similarity between Taiwan and Ukraine, therefore the crisis in Ukraine would have "no direct impact" on China's calculations towards Taiwan.

Similarly, Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in International Relations at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Li Mingjiang has also said he doubts that the Ukraine crisis -- nor U.S. foreign policy elsewhere in places like Afghanistan -- is going to have "any significance or real impact" on Beijing's decision-making regarding Taiwan.

However, that being said, the aftermath of Russia's act of war towards Ukraine has most likely taught China, which has probably been watching the developments with keen interest, a few lessons that might factor in its plans of any potential attack on Taiwan.

Here are the reasons why China would probably think twice about actually launching an invasion on Taiwan:

1. Resistance from the Taiwanese

Ukrainians have responded to Russia's attack with ferocity.

Galvanised by their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who stayed in Kyiv even as Russian forces pressed closer, some ordinary citizens stayed behind and joined in the fight against their invaders, either by arming themselves with weapons that have been distributed, or by making Molotov cocktails – a crude, homemade explosive.

The intensity of their resistance has surprised the world.

Retired U.S. Major John Spencer told Sky News that “nobody expected the Ukrainian resistance to be like this”.

“The military has done a great job on stopping Russia from doing what they initially wanted – a rapid invasion,” he said.

The resistance put up by the Ukrainians has managed to hold off the Russian forces, dragging their invasion into its fourth week, despite the latter being more superior militarily.

Such tough resistance has shown that in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, where more than half of the people identify as Taiwanese – as opposed to Chinese – there is a chance that Chinese forces might encounter resistance as well from people who are determined not to be ruled by Beijing.

Already, there have been growing voices among the younger population in Taiwan who expressed their desire to help in the island's defence.

A survey released on Mar. 15 by Taipei-based think tank Taiwan International Strategic Study Society showed that 70.2 per cent of respondents are willing to defend the island should China attack.

This compares with only 20.8 per cent who said they were not willing to do so.

And as China ramps up pressure on Taiwan militarily, such as increasing the frequency of military aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has pledged to increase military spending and to strengthen asymmetrical defence capabilities to deter China from attacking.

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the Taiwanese leader, who has expressed “empathy” for Ukraine’s situation, and likened it to threats the island is facing from China, has also called for Taiwan to step up vigilance on military activities.

So even though Taiwan’s military has been criticised for being weak and unable to hold up to Chinese forces in combat, a people who are fiercely protective of its democratic values and de facto independence might put up a fight that’s much stronger than expected.

2. Taiwan would be much harder to take than Ukraine

Unlike Ukraine, which is separated from Russia by just a land border, Taiwan and China are separated by 180km of seawater.

Amphibious operations are considered to be the most complex of all military manoeuvres as they are highly complex and requires coordination between several military specialities.

According to Washington D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council, a full-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan wouldn’t exactly be a walk in the park.

This is because some landing sites on the west coast are blocked by mountainous areas, which can be as high as 3,900m above sea level, and soldiers defending the island can use this difficult terrain to counter with guerilla warfare.

However, while the island has an advantage in forcing the attacker to undertake an amphibious landing, this can also mean it would be hard for other countries to supply Taiwan with weapons and other supplies as the island lacks a land border with a friendly country, according to Reuters.

Nevertheless, even with a superior military, military operations do not go according to plan all the time as they are dependent on the risks involved and potential miscalculations by the leadership, as what has happened with Russia, which had likely planned to take Ukraine quickly in a straightforward operation, but failed.

Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army lacks combat experience, having last executed a major offensive operation in 1979 when China invaded Vietnam, Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow with the China programme at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Reuters.

The last time it conducted an operation similar to an invasion of Taiwan was also back in 1950 when it launched an amphibious attack on Kuomintang forces on Hainan Island.

The risk of an invasion on Taiwan becoming a protracted and bloody conflict – as opposed to a swift victory with little damage done to its forces – might also adversely affect Chinese President Xi Jinping’s standing, and even that of the Chinese Communist Party, therefore, making it hard to make such a move.

3. The risk of U.S. involvement

There has been much talk about and doubt towards U.S. commitment -- or the lack of it -- to its allies, especially since its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

However, Taiwan is not Afghanistan, nor is it Ukraine, which the U.S. and other Western nations have helped supply with military aid in the form of equipment and ammunition.

While U.S. President Joe Biden has ruled out sending any troops to defend Ukraine, likely to avoid risking a nuclear war with Russia – the U.S. is also constrained by how far its European allies are willing to go when it comes to pitting themselves directly against Russia – there is much more doubt when it comes to Taiwan.

This is because Taiwan is part of a crucial supply chain for semiconductors, and is an important part of the alliance system that anchors American presence in the region, not to mention the U.S. potentially losing a democratic ally to a regime that appears to be seeking to expand its influence over other countries in the region.

Furthermore, because of the bipartisan support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress, it would be hard for the U.S. to stay out should there be some kind of “unprovoked attack on Taiwan”, Bilahari opined.

And should the U.S. get involved, its allies, such as Australia and Japan, might join the fray as well.

However, unlike the sanctions on Russia, countries might find it harder to do the same with China as its economy is not only much larger than Russia’s, it is also more integrated with the rest of the world.

Still, these could not be completely ruled out in the event of an invasion on Taiwan, and China would likely be wary of any retaliation from the world that could plunge its economy into a crisis.

Forceful takeover of Taiwan likely a last resort for China

With all these being said, some experts don’t see an invasion of Taiwan as an immediate risk -- barring a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Instead, they’ve highlighted the risk of what Tsai has referred to as “cognitive warfare”, such as the spread of disinformation and propaganda using fake social media accounts, for instance, in order to stir social unrest and subvert the public’s trust in the Democratic Progressive Party-led government.

This is one of the policy tools that China is utilising at the moment to pressure Taiwan, along with the doling out of economic incentives to encourage the Taiwanese people to work in China, before resorting to an armed takeover.

Other tactics include imposing economic and financial embargoes or imposing a physical blockade in the sea to prevent access to the island, according to the Atlantic Council.

And for as long as domestic stability is being valued by the Chinese leadership, a war on Taiwan is not likely to happen as it will be highly destabilising on the economy, given the uncertainties involved, such as any unforeseen circumstances prolonging the war unnecessarily.

Furthermore, should Beijing want to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people, an attack on the very group of people they say is part of their own would not look good on the optics.

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