Since the visit of U.S. representatives in Taiwan in August, the tensions between Washington and Beijing have reached a new level. Many are tempted to compare Taiwan with Ukraine. Evan A. Feigenbaum explains why that is not the case and provides insights into how complex the situation in Taiwan is.
By Evan A. Feigenbaum
Many observers casually compare Ukraine to Taiwan, arguing that Europe’s tragic present may very soon become Asia’s future. Indeed, some argue that Beijing will now take its cues from Russian President Vladimir Putin, doing as he did in eastern Europe because the world is “distracted.”
But Taiwan is not Ukraine. For one thing, Putin’s decision to invade his neighbor on February 24, 2022 will not automatically influence Chinese decision-making. Beijing’s decisions about Taiwan and its timeline for pressuring it will be its own and could unroll over several years. For another, Moscow has leaned most heavily on just a single tool of coercion—the blunt instrument of military power. China, by contrast, has spent decades developing a multidimensional kitbag of diverse coercive tools, not just military but also economic, financial, and informational. To resist Chinese coercion, therefore, and help determine its own fate, Taiwan will need to prepare for a much wider range of contingencies than what Ukraine has faced.
Of course, while Beijing is on its own deliberate timetable, a crisis may yet come. Indeed, Taiwan is the sleeper crisis in East Asia, and in U.S.-China relations especially. These two major global powers may, unlike in Ukraine, fight each other directly in a force-on-force conflict over Taiwan’s future. That is because the mutual understandings, military factors, and ambiguous diplomatic positions that enabled decades of peace, prosperity, and democracy in East Asia are rapidly eroding.
Political erosion of the Beijing-Taipei-Washington triangle
There are three reasons for this erosion, each one touching all three sides of the Beijing-Taipei-Washington triangle:
In Beijing, the rapid growth of Chinese economic and military power has created very clear temptations to coerce Taiwan and settle Taiwan’s future in Beijing’s favor. This could include the outright invasion many in Taipei and Washington fear, but it is just as likely to include more diverse tools of military, economic, and psychological pressure aimed at coercing Taipei to bargain on Beijing’s terms.
In Taipei, meanwhile, consolidated democracy—now led by the China-unfriendly Democratic Progressive Party—has made any form of political union with Beijing a non-starter. Moreover, cross-Strait economic linkages are, unlike in the prior two decades, viewed by most people in Taiwan not as a commercial opportunity but as a point of vulnerability to further Chinese coercion.
In Washington, and especially among national security hawks, there is a new determination among many to relitigate the terms of normalization with Beijing from 1972 (Nixon Administration), through 1979 (Carter Administration) and 1982 (Reagan Administration), which were the three key moments in the establishment of the prevailing framework of the U.S.-China relationship. Among some in U.S. policy circles, there is also interest in leveraging Taiwan as a partner in the U.S.-China strategic rivalry.
Why the current developments are destabilizing
All three trendlines are converging in ways that are destabilizing. Beijing and Washington in particular are talking past each other. For its part, China regards recent U.S. moves to enhance interactions with Taiwan as a violation of Beijing’s view of U.S.-China understandings. But this is certainly not Washington’s view, where the U.S. maintains that its distinctive version of a “one China” policy has, since 1979, always presumed various forms of interaction with Taiwan. As such, many in the U.S. have dismissed China’s arguments. In a major speech about Taiwan policy in August 2020, for example, David Stilwell, the then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, reaffirmed the general outlines of U.S. policy but accused Beijing of being the sole party that has destabilized the status quo and is walking away from prior understandings.
Bluntly put, Beijing and Washington are talking past each other at the very moment when Taipei increasingly worries about Chinese coercion and views interaction with China, including economic ties, as a major point of vulnerability. Thus, we could see a crisis in, or around, Taiwan in coming years. But this is unlikely to look precisely like Russian pressure on Ukraine because Beijing now has many and diverse cards to play. Simply put, China has a more diverse and multifaceted strategy than Russia has in Ukraine.
China’s “whole-of-regime” strategy
Often, American and other international observers view China’s options as a binary of “peace” or “war.” But that is too simple. Rather, Beijing has a whole-of-regime strategy that includes a wide array of coercive and persuasive tools. But as the persuasive tools have waned in effectiveness, Beijing has begun to lean more heavily on the coercive ones.
Invasion appears the least likely of these tools to be deployed. And even in invasion scenarios, a D-Day style beach assault is unlikely because the People’s Liberation Army has improved its air assault power and thus given itself a wider array of military options. Beijing’s core strategic goal is to achieve the outcome it wants at the lowest possible cost. Invasion and occupation of Taiwan are the very antithesis of that since they would come at an incredibly high cost.
Beijing’s toolkit, therefore, includes a variety of measures aimed at inducing Taiwan to lose the will to resist. And so, coercing Taiwan will not necessarily be an “event”—as it was in Ukraine on February 24, 2022—but a process. And so, it will include the use of tools with second- and third-order economic, commercial, and financial effects over a sustained period of time.
There may be no single day decision to launch an invasion and then spend years fighting a Taiwanese counterinsurgency. Instead, Beijing could take a decision to move from “peace” to “confrontation” and then begin gradually and on a sustained basis of weeks, months, and even years to ratchet up the costs to all players. Beijing would mix and match from among its available tools at different times. It would deploy different elements of national power—military, economic, diplomatic, and informational. And it might even try to sustain this for a very long time.
Taiwan is not, therefore, Ukraine. But the challenge of resisting blunt coercion and ensuring that Taiwan has a powerful voice in determining its own future is even more complex.
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