Go back

What does Ukraine tell us about Taiwan?

Published 22 Apr 2022
Rebecca (Yancheng) Zhang

The idea that what is happening in Ukraine now will happen later in The Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) is misleading. But what is happening in Ukraine will affect the island’s future because it will shape the strategic calculations of Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China), and the US.

The US refusal to send troops to Ukraine has diminished confidence in Taiwan in reliance on the US. A poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation on March 22 showed that only 34.5 per cent believed that the US would join a war to defend Taiwan. This pessimistic sentiment appears to have grown since mid-February, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Less faith in US support has encouraged Taiwanese to seek help from Japan. People in Taiwan are also more willing to fight in a case of invasion, though this determination may result from a gloomy premise that no one else would come to save them. The US is cognisant of these shifting sentiments in Taiwan and has sent top defense officials to reassure Taiwan of its support.

For the US, Taiwan is of greater strategic importance than Ukraine. Not only because of Taiwan’s significant role in the global semiconductor chain but also as a security concern that is situated in a broader power dynamics picture. Under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is committed to defending the island if it is attacked.  The US is afraid of the potential knock-on effect of any loss of  Taiwan as this might imply a diminished status for the US relative to China and a collapse of the US-led post-war international order.

The lesson that China has probably learned from the crisis in Ukraine, is that international sanctions are real and can have an impact. Were China to be the target of sanctions the ramifications would be harsher because Beijing is so deeply integrated into the global economy. The possibility that Western powers might be reluctant to sanction China would not figure in Beijing’s calculations. The logic of Chinese policy making is to assume a worst-case situation and to look for ways of getting around it.

Consequently, it is unlikely that China will provoke a war over Taiwan in the near future. However,  non-kinetic warfare will likely prevail on the island. Examples might include exploiting public opinion and forms of psychological warfare. The aim will be to manipulate information and disinformation so as to erode Taiwan’s morale. This stratagem reflects that element in Beijing’s thinking of ‘peaceful means’ that favours a win without fighting.

It is essential to recognise that the first priority of the ruling party in China is to secure its power and legitimacy. Beijing clearly understands that reunification is the consequence of its ‘great rejuvenation’ rather than the cause. Therefore, the slogan of reunifying Taiwan to achieve China’s national rejuvenation is a means of national modernisation rather than a final goal that suggests an end. We have not seen the end of the Ukraine crisis yet, but what it brings forth, is a more complicated future for Taiwan.

Rebecca (Yancheng) Zhang is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney majoring in International Relations and Education. She is currently undertaking an honours year writing her thesis on potential cross-strait conflict. Rebecca is a research assistant at Intellisia Institute where she writes a series of reports and commentaries on AI politics, data governance, Taiwan politics and US-China relations. She is also a member of the CISS Youth project at the Centre for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University. Her research interests revolve around Taiwan politics, political theory, war and justice and AI and politics as well as Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Rebecca is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.