The standoff with Russia does not provide a template for Asia
During a press conference with Australian senior officials in early December, American secretary of state Anthony Blinken revealed his contention that the futures of both Ukraine and Taiwan are inextricably linked. He said that the major efforts undertaken by the U.S. and its allies to help Ukraine “impacted on China’s thinking about the future and about what it may be looking at in terms of Taiwan.”
It is true that the circumstances of both Ukraine and Taiwan have a certain symmetry. Located at either end of the Eurasian supercontinent, they each confront existential pressure from major and proximate powers. At stake in each conflict is not simply territory and ideology but also, crucially, identity and history. Language is a factor, too, but not in a way of which Americans seem to be aware: just as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first language is not actually Ukrainian, but instead Russian, the official language of Taiwan is not Taiwanese but, rather, Mandarin Chinese.
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Unfortunately, however, Blinken’s analysis is not only simplistic, but also harmful to America’s strategic interests. The Biden administration has adopted a neo-Wilsonian position on Ukraine that seeks to bolster the country’s democracy against Russian authoritarian aggression. In this, it has achieved some genuine successes, helping to drive Putin’s forces back from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and most recently Kherson.
However, these gains have also come at considerable cost. Not only has Washington’s focus on Ukraine distracted from other hot spots, notably in the Asia-Pacific (this week China sent 70 war planes on Taiwan exercises), but even American weapons stocks have been drawn down to dangerous levels. Senator Josh Hawley recently complained that armaments orders for Taiwan are going unfilled due to the huge demands emanating from Ukraine.
Cleaving the global economy apart with aggressive sanctions has put the world and especially Europe on the brink of major recession, but the most dangerous aspect of current U.S. policy in Ukraine undoubtedly involves the significant risk that the conflict will escalate, including to the use of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, similar tendencies would likely accompany any conflict over Taiwan as well.
Indeed, there are many reasons to believe that such a scenario in Taiwan would be even darker and more dangerous than what has occurred in Ukraine. Most fundamentally, there is a strong likelihood that any American president would abjure direct intervention by U.S. forces for the same basic reason that Biden has refused to countenance sending the U.S. military into Ukraine: the overwhelming imperative to avoid war with a formidable nuclear power.
Bear in mind that Taiwan is about 15 times smaller than Ukraine, while China’s defence budget is at least four times larger than that of Russia. Much more concentrated firepower in a smaller area implies that China might succeed in coercing or even conquering Taiwan in short order. Then, there is the obvious constraint that China’s navy, air, and missile force could quite easily prevent U.S. aid and arms from flowing into the island. Thus the “Ukraine Model” for a proxy war against China is simply not viable.
A more effective U.S. policy on both Ukraine and Taiwan would adopt a policy of restraint with an understanding that other great powers have legitimate security interests too. From that conclusion flows the obvious necessity to pursue compromise and de-escalation in both of these volatile regional crises — neither of which is vital to U.S. national security.
In Taiwan, the conflict would benefit from a more realistic U.S. approach that limits any U.S. security commitment to the island. In general, the U.S. can still offer some limited support to the island, but should not generally stray from the “One China Policy” that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon wisely cemented in the 1970s. If China develops in a much more aggressive direction, defences in Japan and the Philippines — both treaty allies unlike Taiwan — can then be strengthened as necessary.
Overall, Washington should aim to avoid the mistakes it has made in European security over the last decade and instead strive for a more inclusive architecture for Asia-Pacific security that does not isolate Beijing. Indeed, zero-sum approaches will inexorably lead the Asia-Pacific region to spiralling escalation ending in a tragic war along the sad path that Eastern Europe has witnessed.
Lyle Goldstein is Director of the Asia Engagement Program at Defense Priorities