by Lyle Goldstein
Tuesday, 27
December 2022
Analysis
08:15

A Taiwan conflict would be nothing like Ukraine

The standoff with Russia does not provide a template for Asia
by Lyle Goldstein
Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky hold a press conference in the White House. Credit: Getty

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

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L Cruise
L Cruise
1 month ago

Perhaps this scenario could have been avoided if the western world had not offshored their entire manufacturing base to China, which has funded their massive militarisation.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  L Cruise

Though the USA still outspends China on defence by at least 3 times. With demographics, authoritarian restrictions on culture and business, and finally zero covid – I think China has peaked and is at the start of its decline.

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

With demographics, authoritarian restrictions on culture and business and finally zero covid – I think the West had peaked and is at the start of its decline

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
29 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Jeez D that’s a supremely glib response –
demographics, everyone wants to come to the west, it will only grow;
authoritarian restrictions on culture and business – really, compared to the Chinese?
Zero covid – do you watch the news?

Terry M
Terry M
1 month ago

“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. “

How is Taiwan a security threat to Beijing?
Ans. Only in saving face.

Allowing China into WTO and other actions before they showed they would behave as a civilized nation was a mistake. Now we must work to destabilize China and support our Allie’s in that region, with military if needed.

Last edited 1 month ago by Terry M
Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Terry M

How is Taiwan a security threat to Beijing? Taiwan is the manufacturing base for high-density computer processors and devices. America has just started to bring manufacturing back to America… that isn’t going to happen in the near future. China has yet to achieve the capacity and leadership that Taiwan has. Taking Taiwan is the fastest route to achieve this technological dominance and put America and Europe in a defensive posture.

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
1 month ago

Mr Goldstein seems to be proposing appeasement. We know what happens when you try to mollify dictators. The reason Putin felt sufficiently emboldened to invade Ukraine is that the West did nothing when he became involved in Syria and similarly did nothing when he annexed Crimea.

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Ruud van Man

Actually, the four years of Trump, along with far-right politics, have damaged America’s reputation and alliances. Putin felt this to be the time to take Ukraine. The Russians have a long history of invasions from the West along the Ukraine/Poland corridor. From Napoleon to the West’s attempt just after WWI and, of course, the Germans in WWII. These countries are buffer zone. If they align with the West, the buffer is lost, and their borders are exposed.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

Blaming the only president in recent history that did NOT involve America in foreign entanglements, but rather deterred foreign aggression, is a bit disconcerting. If you were a malevolent dictator, would you rather strike at an “America first” President or a senile, pathological lying grifter with a 50 year history of questionable decisions and corruption?
And to think that the left was certain, indeed apoplectic, that Trump would cause WWIII if elected.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 month ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

That’s because the left’s standard ractis is to accuse the opposition of what THEY are up to.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

A-historical and delusional.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago
Reply to  Ruud van Man

Russia only got involved in Syria in 2016 after David Cameron’s majority government overturned the coalition decision of 2013 not to get involved in Syria.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Diplomacy from a position of strength. Give Taiwan what it needs to defend itself.
The position of Japan cannot be overlooked. It’s the biggest US ally in the region and views an attack on Taiwan as almost an attack on itself.

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 month ago

Finally, a straight shooter. A little on Mr. Goldstein’s background: Research Professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. He’s an American and undoubtedly needs to become more accustomed to the circumlocutory and verbosive style of British writing one often finds here. Reading what would have taken twice as much time left me feeling short-changed. 
Russia views the west as a security threat as far back as the Teutonic Knights, Napolian, WWI, The Russian Civil war and western interventions, and Germany in WWII. And, of course, the cold war thanks to Truman’s diplomacy and the Bomb. Whether this short analysis is correct is of little value. The point is this makes Russia suspicious of Western intentions. Buffer states are required. Ukraine is viewed as a buffer state. Ukraine wants to join NATO.  Hence, Putin’s failed attempt to secure the “Western Front” in quick work. Now, everyone is in a mess and it is distracting us from another key player. 
China believes itself to be the next America. It considered itself a great nation and superior until European colonization tripped into the scene. Its dominance in the area and prestige suffered. It wants it all back. It is the Chinese version of America’s MAG.  
Taiwan is home to more than 90% of the manufacturing capacity for the world’s most advanced semiconductors, according to a 2021 Boston Consulting Group report. America is just now trying to bring manufacturing back to the US, but that will take some time. To some degree, Europe does have chip manufacturing, but government subsidies support it. Our reliance on these chips affects everything, including national security. It would take China some time and effort to mirror Taiwan’s dominance in this sector. The quick way is to take Taiwan without destroying the goose that lays the golden egg. Hence the continued show of force. And if successful, world dominance. America’s traditional attempt to defend Taiwan would certainly lead to the destruction of Taiwan’s manufacturing sector, hurting everyone, the world economy, and stability.  We need more time, hence the diplomacy approach as the carrot and the traditional defence of treaty-aligned countries like Japan as the stick. Making China a valued partner in the area instead of an enemy will go a long way. It will buy us time.

Last edited 1 month ago by Fred Paul
Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

With regard to “the circumlocutory and verbosive style of British writing”, you’re setting a bad example yourself. Try using “verbose” instead of “verbosive”, a nonexistent word.
Your basic theme, however, is that the West should defer to Russian security concerns, no matter how paranoid or self-serving, and show its deference by throwing Ukraine to the Russian bear. Meanwhile Ukraine desires to join NATO, a very understandable wish given Putin’s record of treacherous, murderous conduct. By chance, are you any relation to that great appeaser, Neville Chamberlain?

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago

Neo-Cons are the only voice allowed on the MSM it seems.

”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”

USA per person GDP, $70,000

UK GDP per person $45,000

Ukraine GDP per person $4,500

This has only one reason, Ukraine has high levels of education, industry, resources, agriculture, and Corruption. Some tables put Ukraine at the third most corrupt country in the world; below Russia. Ukrainian Oligarchs are known by everyone as the owners of the country – like Mafia running a protection racket they siphon off all the money, wealth, power, and hope.

This is what the writer calls a Democracy? Next he will be calling Zalenski the new Winston Churchill.

By ‘Genuine Success’ I suppose he means the 100,000 dead – the vast numbers of refugees fled, and many to never return history shows – and Ukraine Cannot afford to lose its young in its demographic position. The disabled, the destroyed infrastructure, houses, jobs, industry, and as we know – the education lost is very harmful, business lost, power lost, and the world poor starving from the sanctions and loss of ag and fertilizer output.

USA could even lose the Reserve Currency, and EU could go into depression. They already lost their savings and pensions to the inflation. The West has lost their pensions – what of the Ukraine? How are they to rebuild? Sure, Biden will give them everything to create war – but will he pay for them to rebuild? Hard for them to be a democracy in ruins and owned by corrupt oligarchs.

Ukraine, with Biden’s $100,000,000,000.00 has wrecked the generation coming up to keep its Oligarchs in power. This is a rather doubtful way of saying we preserved their democracy.

It has allowed half the money to enrich the corrupt on both sides of the Atlantic – hugely, and made fortunes for the Military Industrial Complex, and so Pelosi with her bio/pharma and Military industry investments – a nice retirement gift… But is it really preserving Democracy?

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

And as far as Taiwan……

”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.”

You think so? Well Taiwan do make the silicon chips for the world, and so disruption of those will drop global GDP by (some say) 25% as everything made now needs a chip and all industry halts, and all the needed equipment and tools are unavailable….This is apocalyptic like depression.

I think this writer needs to do some more studying of things…but I will hold back from that rant…..

Chris Keating
Chris Keating
1 month ago

It would be nice to think that that might occur, but the US military state is consumed by its own hubris and has absolutely no sense of what is achievable. They are gamblers on a level with Hitler and still think that they can create their own reality against the opposition of other great powers, a huge slab of their own populations, and the non-white world.
Having watched what has occurred with Russia vis a vis their security against NATO encroachment and the theft of Russian money from European banks, the Chinese would be under no illusions as to how the US will treat them and you can see that as they and numerous other countries try to move away from Western (ie US dominated) financial systems to something less precarious.
The Ukranian Imbroglio has been a huge own goal for the West although hardly anyone sees it as such. It is another nail driven into the coffin of the US dollar based financial system Only the US wants the dollar financial system and the rest of the world is now realising what a straitjacket it can be for them or already realised that and running away from it as fast as they can. It won’t last as the US keeps shooting itself in the foot making it more likely to fall over quicker than they imagined, even in their worst nightmares.
Good riddance to bad rubbish but there is a lot to get through before something better emerges. Hope we make it.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Keating

If we adopt a policy of surrender to every aggressive superstate, we won’t make it for long

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

”If we adopt a policy of surrender to every aggressive superstate, we won’t make it for long”

?????? You were worried Russian Tanks were massing to return to Berlin and erect the wall again?

Getting into wars when not in our vital interests is a worse habit than just being strong and maintaining ones own vital interests.

So the $7,000,000,000,000 (7 Trillion $ – more than the entire USA Federal yearly income, and all borrowed to be a millstone on the young people’s necks) spent on war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria – are those examples of avoiding what you call ‘surrendering to every aggressive…”

The homeless USA vets dieing from fentanyl…..the lobbying power of the Military Industrial Complex……

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Keating

There’s always an alliance/confederation with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. A replacement to the US.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

Another laughable comment. I’m sure China is trembling at the thought of a mighty Aussie and New Zealand alliance. And Canada, with their ample supply of wood, could contribute by supplying a fleet of hand carved canoes for the Navy.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

”Australia, New Zealand, Canada”

Those three are vassal States of the WEF, and not really Western Anglosphere anymore. They gave it up totally during covid and showed their true colours – Globalist running dogs, police states with the police fist in the velvet glove. The ones who have to fear them the most are their own citizens.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

I live in NZ and can assure you it’s far from a police state Sandford

Mark Denman
Mark Denman
1 month ago

We (the West in general and the US in particular) facilitated Putin’s invasion by not previously providing sufficient lethal military equipment to Ukraine to deter the invasion. We must not make the same mistake in relation to Taiwan.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago
Reply to  Mark Denman

Wasn’t that what Joe Biden, Jnr., was doing in Ukraine, offering his influence (for cash) to obtain US military hardware and support?