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Taiwan and Ukraine – Related, But Different

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Floyd Ciruli

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Russia’s claim of a right to control Ukraine’s foreign and defense policy and willingness to enforce it with a military invasion has sent shockwaves not just in Europe, but throughout the Pacific. The argument is similar to China’s claim of rights over Taiwan currently being reinforced with military flyovers and diplomatic isolation. But, there are some distinct differences.

  • Any change in the sovereign status of Taiwan would be a massive shift in the power positions in the Indo-Pacific. China’s strategic boldness would be affirmed and dominance accelerated. The U.S. would consider it a much greater threat than the change in the political status of Ukraine.
  • The U.S. has had security relations with Taiwan since the 1940s, and although the “one country, two systems” mantra is repeated since Hong Kong, it comes with little credibility. Although the commitment to Taiwan independence “has strategic ambiguity,” there are clear limitations on the use of force. A military and economic reaction is far more likely.
  • In the immediate terms, a military action would have high risk for Xi Jinping, who wants to secure a third term this fall. With economic and security threats abundant from previous initiatives (Hong Kong, Xinjiang), he is unlikely to want more.
  • This may not turn out well for President Putin. Russia’s modest economy is about to suffer more sanctions and NATO has been revived. Putin has challenged the post war viewpoint that the sovereignty and territoriality of nations are linked to peace and prosperity. But the visuals of the action against civilians and the damage to the world economy has significantly harmed autocrats’ strategy of offering a more attractive alternative to post war, U.S.-led world order.
  • Ukraine has activated the U.S. national security establishment to the danger of ambitious autocrats. Republicans, except for a small isolationist wing, see Putin as a threat and sanctions as necessary. Democrats were already onboard. With the violence against civilians and Putin’s talent for unbelievable rhetoric and brutish behavior, U.S. and Western opinion is becoming attentive and more willing to back investment and pro-defense policies.

The U.S.’s shift of interest to central Europe is unlikely to distract from the broad national security consensus that the greatest challenges are in Asia. Japan and Australia are both committed to a stronger defense alliance, and even European fleets are starting to enter Pacific waters. Ukraine, in fact, is adding urgency to the alliance.