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Will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine embolden China on Taiwan?

It is no understatement that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the international community into upheaval. The invasion challenged the notion of international sovereignty and borders. In an international moment characterized by events such as the fall of Afghanistan, the invasion of Ukraine presents yet another challenge to a peaceful international order. In such a time period of upheaval it is natural to wonder whether other nations with expansionist goals will take the opportunity to pursue them. Chief among them is China’s aim of forcibly uniting Taiwan with itself. So will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine embolden China against Taiwan? 

  • What the invasion of Ukraine showed about international conflict 

The first factor to whether China will attack Taiwan is understanding what Ukraine showed about the international order. The invasion of Ukraine was first and foremost a challenge to the Western order embodied by the United Nations, one that prizes peaceful cooperation, human rights, and globalization. Russia’s invasion blatantly asserted its own selfish aims over the good of the international community. Furthermore, the lack of swift and decisive response from the west was illustrative. While some nations aided Ukrainian war efforts, the lack of direct military support to some may seem to nations like Russia and China as a pattern of the West withdrawing or not directly involving itself in conflicts. Such perceived withdrawal leaves a vacuum of power that Russia was more than willing to exploit to invade Ukraine. China may seek to exploit a similar scenario with Taiwan, who they’ve been posturing against for years. 

  • What is China’s Claim on Taiwan?

China’s claim on Taiwan is allegedly a territorial one. China does not view Taiwan as sovereign or separate but rather, as a “breakaway province” since it used to be a part of China.  Meaning, that China views Taiwan the same way the United States would view Texas if it left the Union, as a breakaway that is at best seceding and at worst, in open revolt.  For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Taiwan’s independent existence is a revolt which flies in the face of their political authority. Thus, the CCP views the reintegration of Taiwan as a key domestic policy goal that it has vowed to resolve, by force if necessary. 

  • What might keep China from invading?

However, apart from the very volatile Chinese rhetoric surrounding Taiwan, there are at least a few factors that may forestall any Chinese military action against them for the time being.  

  • The invasion of Ukraine did not go as hoped

Firstly is that the invasion of Ukraine has not gone as well as Russia would have hoped. According to the British Ministry of Defense, Russia has lost an estimated third of its ground invasion force since February. Indeed, the Ukrainian counter offensives have been so successful that Russia has been forced to withdraw from some of its positions and has opened the possibility of Ukraine successfully repelling the Russian invasion.

For China this can mean two things. First, the success of the Ukrainian people may give China pause as to whether Taiwan will similarly resist. However, Taiwan is significantly smaller than Ukraine and lacks many of the geographical advantages that Ukraine gave its people. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is a small island nation that could be completely surrounded and cut off from outside support. Moreover, Ukraine’s population is almost double the size of Taiwan. 

More importantly, international focus is not as absorbed by the invasion of Ukraine as it would be if Ukraine was losing. Because Ukraine is successfully defending itself, the international community is able to support Ukraine from a position of comparative optimism instead of panic at the thought of assured Russian expansion into Europe. This would allow the international community to have a more robust response to a potential invasion of China.

  • US vows to use force in response to Chinese invasion

However, the biggest reason why China may not follow through on its threats to invade Taiwan is the United States. While Taiwan and the United States have had unofficial relations for decades, the Biden administration has been clear in its support of Taiwan against Chinese military intervention. In May of 2022, when President Biden was asked about whether the United States would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, reaffirmed America’s commitment to Taiwan and answered that he would protect Taiwan from a military invasion. The official stance from the Biden administration on this issue is that while the United States supports a One China policy, an eventual reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, they will not accept any attempt to reunify through force. Thus, in the event of any military move by China against Taiwan, the Biden administration has pledged to defend it which may dissuade China from any invasion. 

  • Will China invade anyway? 

Despite these reasons which make a Chinese invasion of Taiwan unlikely, there are some factors which indicate that China may ignore these factors and invade anyways. Here are some of the most important: 

  • No international recognition 

Taiwan does not have international recognition and the benefit of international support for its sovereignty. While some countries do recognize Taiwan as an independent state, the United Nations does not recognize Taiwan as a country but rather a territory. Since Taiwan is not an official member of the UN or recognized by the majority of the international community, it does not have a significant voice on the international stage by which it could garner support. This means that in the event of a Chinese invasion, Taiwan might have difficulty finding international support for its independence and condemnation of China’s actions. 

Taiwan’s lack of international support is particularly concerning when compared to the invasion of Ukraine, a nation which was officially recognized. Despite Ukraine being a member of the UN and officially recognized, Russia’s invasion was only met with sanctions and outcry from European and Western allies. However, without such official sovereignty, it would be difficult to condemn China by ousting them from the international community, making it harder to diplomatically punish China, especially when they have a history of dodging international condemnation for Human Rights abuses in places like Xinjiang , Hong Kong, and Tibet. All this indicates that Taiwan would struggle to garner a large degree of international support against China. 

  • China has shown willingness to use force despite American promises

Most significantly, China has shown that it is willing to face the United States in Taiwan if necessary. Despite promises from the United States to protect Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, China has been clear that it does not fear American involvement and will “fight to the end” for Taiwan. For China, Taiwan is considered a domestic issue. Meaning that China views any military intervention by the United States in Taiwan as a military intervention in China. As a result, the People’s Liberation Army is not afraid of a conflict with the U.S. and will not back down on what they view as their domestic policies. 

  • Closing thoughts on the invasion of Ukraine and the future of Taiwan

Ultimately, it’s true to say that just because Russia invaded Ukraine does not mean that China will invade Taiwan. However, it is equally true to say that the state of the world is changing, authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are not afraid to at least vocally assert their claims and the international system seems unprepared to cut off their ambitions before they come to fruition. Only time will tell whether China will eventually invade Taiwan. But China’s willingness to so boldly assert their claim on Taiwan indicates that China is not afraid of the United States, the West, or the international community’s backlash. Without some sort of influence countering or confident posturing, China and other aggressive regimes will likely continue to assert what they view as their rightful claims and ambitions. 

Luke Argue

Luke Argue

Luke Argue is a junior at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, where he studies Strategic Intelligence in National Security. Luke serves as the Deputy Project Manager for Patrick Henry's African Strategic Threat Assessment Review which studies Chinese activity in Africa. At the Dark Wire, Luke primarily studies China and Chinese politics, especially the intersection between international politics and cultural developments, the influence of international soft-power, political philosophy, national security strategy, and U.S.-Chinese relations. Luke grew up in San Diego, California, and spends his free time reading, listening to music, and playing Volleyball. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/luke-a-bb4823120/