Ukraine war highlights stakes of Chinese attack on Taiwan

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An authoritarian nuclear superpower invading a smaller but determined U.S.-armed neighbor is not the stuff of theoretical war games any more.

As defense ministers from around the world fly in to Singapore to attend Asia’s top security conference this weekend, they will be acutely aware that the war in Ukraine has given an added intensity to discussions about Taiwan and a potential invasion by China.

In an event that would potentially offer the most senior direct contact between the U.S. and Chinese militaries under the administration of President Joe Biden, Defense Ministers Lloyd Austin and Wei Fenghe will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue that runs from Friday to Sunday.

It’s unlikely either party will be outspoken given the escalating tensions over the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own. China has already fumed in protest at Biden’s unexpectedly candid pledge last month to defend Taiwan. In Singapore, expect coded messages and Taiwan to be more of an elephant in the room.

“Ukraine led threat perceptions to rise all over Asia,” said James Crabtree, executive director for the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organizes the Shangri-La event. “Defense establishments suddenly thought geopolitical calamities previously thought highly unlikely were suddenly possible, with Taiwan merely being the most obvious potential flashpoint in a region riven with potential tensions.”

Those “threat perceptions” after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine have split into two broad categories for China. Beijing has to make both military calculations about taking on a country backed by Washington and also weigh up the global economic impact — on supply chains and its own exports — should China be hit by American, European and Japanese sanctions as Russia has been. The lesson from Ukraine for Chinese President Xi Jinping — on both counts — is that the risks are extremely high.

Hard crossing

China has considerable military superiority over Taiwan — just like Russia over Ukraine — but an amphibious assault on an island 100 miles away is no walkover. Backed by the U.S., Taiwan would be able to strike at vessels making the crossing and any landing against well dug-in troops could be hazardous for the untested People’s Liberation Army. Xi will not want to suffer the huge casualties that Russia is taking in Ukraine.

Conversely, in the other camp, many Taiwanese strategists have been shocked by how rapid Russia’s military buildup was, and how devastating the consequences can be.

For now, Taiwan’s overall mood is one of careful examination. The island’s top spymaster said last month that Beijing would be “more cautious” about its war plans, given Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine. “Similarly Taiwan will learn how to advance ourselves,” said Chen Ming-tong, chief of the National Security Bureau.

There’s no doubting that events in Eastern Europe are at the forefront of planning in Taipei. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said that the government “are taking the war in Ukraine into very serious internal discussions.”

“One of the tactics that has been successful so far is the asymmetric capability. And that is something that we are learning from and we want to discuss further with the United States,” Wu told NPR.

Top policymakers gathering in Singapore will be trying to gauge Beijing’s thinking, however runic that may sound in Wei’s remarks.

Publicly China has repeatedly called for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but it also threatened to seize the island by force if necessary. There’s no clear timeline about when that might happen — but U.S. officials prior to the Ukraine war speculated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next six to 10 years. Tensions have not been helped by Chinese fighters and bombers making repeated incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone.

President Xi has also laid out his plan unequivocally. In a manner not unlike Putin, when he explained his “special military operation” to remove “Nazis” in Ukraine, Xi told the Taiwanese public in a major speech in 2019 that “we do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and a tiny number of separatists and their separatist activities for ‘Taiwan independence’. It does in no way target our compatriots in Taiwan.”

Microchips and supply chains

Beijing is also increasingly hawkish about Taiwan’s leading role in semiconductors. In an eyebrow-raising speech, a top Chinese economist this week openly called on Beijing to “seize” the island’s leading microchip manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

“In case the U.S. and the West impose destructive sanctions on China like those sanctions against Russia, we must recover Taiwan. Particularly in the reconstruction of the industrial chains and supply chains, we must seize TSMC — an enterprise that belongs to China — into China’s hands,” said Chen Wenling, chief economist at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a research group that is overseen by the National Development and Reform Commission. The speech was published on Chinese news portal Guancha.

The difficulty for China is, of course, that sanctions for an invasion could well be severe as the West has proved itself more united in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression than many expected. China will have to assess whether the West will be less likely to sanction it because its supply chains are far more consequential than Russia’s.

China’s own economic model is, however, heavily dependent on selling goods to rich markets such as the U.S., Europe and Japan.

And they are — for now — deeply skeptical of Xi’s direction.

The White House moved quickly to try and walk back Biden’s commitment to defend Taiwan last month, but at least to Chinese ears the U.S. president had ventured beyond the “strategic ambiguity” that Washington normally attempts to maintain regarding Taiwan.

Elsewhere, Taiwan’s military support is limited, even though the situation in Ukraine is hardening the stance in other countries. In April, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on NATO — anchored in Atlantic security but increasingly eyeing China — to “ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”

In Asia, Japan is seen as the strongest backer of Taiwan, with Tokyo’s politicians being increasingly vocal about the security threats facing Taiwan.

Intriguingly, even Singapore itself, host of the Shangri-La summit, has conducted semi-covert joint training exercises with Taiwan.

Much now depends on Xi’s appetite for ultra-high risk. Almost everyone will be parsing Chinese Defense Minister Wei’s speech on Sunday for any signs of that.

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