Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago sent shockwaves all over the world. Europe is witnessing its largest armed conflict since World War II, and the global economy is forced to adjust to rising energy costs and the fallout of massive sanctions levied against Russia. Perhaps no nation outside of Russia or Ukraine, however, is feeling the psychological toll more than Taiwan, as the island of over 24 million faces constant comparisons to a conflict 5,000 miles away.
But are the comparisons apt? Is Taiwan’s struggle against China the same as Ukraine’s with Russia?
Taiwan certainly doesn’t think so. On Monday, Taiwanese cabinet spokesperson Lo Ping-cheng doubled down on Taiwan’s existing stance regarding the two nations’ situations:
“In all areas, the two cannot be compared,” Lo said. “But there are those using this opportunity to manipulate the so-called (topic) of ‘today’s Ukraine, tomorrow’s Taiwan’, trying to inappropriately link Ukraine’s situation with Taiwan’s, disturbing people’s morale. This is inadvisable.”
Somewhat ironically, China and the nation that they have harassed and claimed sovereignty over for decades have found something to agree on publicly—dismissing the growing “today’s Ukraine is tomorrow’s Taiwan” narrative (albeit for different reasons). Ukraine and Taiwan are indeed two countries that share a precarious political situation and that has brought about some speculative dot-connecting. Prior to Russia’s invasion and the unfolding war, equating Ukraine and Taiwan was a bit more innocuous, but that is a much more consequential assertion now, and Taiwan is justified in pushing back against it.
Taiwan is not Ukraine. Taiwan poses a much different challenge for China than Ukraine does for Russia. There are key contrasts between the two embattled nations in terms of geography (and what that means tactically for their adversaries), culture, the historical timeline and political intricacies of both conflicts, their relationships with (and importance to) the United States, and the size, technology and capabilities of their respective militaries. All of these variables add up to paint two significantly different pictures even if they look the same from a distance.
Making comparisons and assigning labels to relatively similar things is just the natural order of the human brain. The mind seeks to bring order to the disordered, even when there is little or no order to be had. Grouping of ideas and concepts, for the sake of intellectual convenience, comes at a cost when we prioritize that convenience over nuance.
Before we address some of that crucial nuance, let’s take a look at what it is that has made Taiwan and Ukraine comparable through the eyes of the casual follower of world affairs.
The common threads
One can certainly understand why leadership in Taiwan doesn’t want to associate their fate with that of Ukraine. The people of Taiwan need confidence in their security right now. Accepting the comparison would not only do Taipei little good, but the idea of an impending Chinese invasion could be very harmful and even lead to panic.
That said, it may have been going a bit too far for Lo to say the two can’t be compared “in all areas.” A superficial look at Ukraine and Taiwan several months ago would show them as being in the same boat in several ways. They are two symbolic bastions that live right on the front in the battle for democracy and self-determination. They are menaced by despotic global powers with formidable militaries (even if Russia’s is currently proving to be formidable in size only), and have lived with the prospect of the day that looming threat might descend upon them.
To date, Xi Jinping has followed a similar playbook to Vladimir Putin’s prior to Russia’s invasion. Putin flexed military muscle with frequent exercises in close proximity to Ukraine, not just to intimidate, but to change the baseline for what would generate alarm. It began to be a new “normal” for Eastern Europe to have Russian troops uncomfortably close to their borders, making it difficult to determine when a real threat was present, or as things escalated, to determine when an attack was actually imminent. It can be exhausting and demoralizing to maintain the level of vigilance required when one of the largest military forces in the world is at your doorstep.
China has followed a very similar approach, with mock invasions, amphibious landing exercises in Taiwan’s backyard, and frequent flights by fighters and nuclear-capable bombers on the edge of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Even the latter is not technically an “incursion” (the zone extends beyond Taiwan’s internationally recognized territory as an early-warning measure), but they are all deliberate messages or warnings to Taiwan and the U.S., as well as a means to gauge the political and tactical reaction of both.
Beijing and Moscow have been more and more aligned with one another in recent years, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 triggered economic sanctions from the West, prompting Russia to look to the East for a partner in trade. The pledge of partnership between Russia and China made at a summit just prior to the Winter Olympics last month definitely warrants concern. It could be seen as a tacit admission that China does sympathize with Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and view Taiwan in a similar light. An apparent gaffe by Chinese media last week was evidence that Beijing is committed to the new partnership, as it was revealed that the nation censors mention of the Ukrainian invasion within Chinese media.
Of course, there is also the common element of ambiguous support from the U.S. government. Many are drawing the line from the U.S./NATO response to Russia’s invasion directly to what could be expected in a Chinese attack on Taiwan. While the complexities of both geopolitical situations with near-peer adversaries prevent the U.S. from providing outright military support to either Ukraine or Taiwan, viewing them as one and the same is an oversimplification.
Why it’s just not the same
While Lo Ping-cheng’s dismissal of the comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan as manipulation and fear-mongering is just good politics and leadership, he also has some significant facts on his side.
As he pointed out himself, The Taiwan Strait is 100 miles of water between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, a significant geographical barrier that was not present in Ukraine. Ukraine’s 1,300 miles of shared land border with Russia and another 600 miles with Belarus (from which Russia launched its attack on Northern Ukraine) made defense of the entire country from invasion very difficult.
Yes, Russian troops did mass along Ukraine’s borders for months, but an amphibious invasion would require even longer planning, and a more conspicuous massing of troops and equipment. For context, just consider that the English Channel only separates England and France by 25 miles at its narrowest point, preventing Hitler from ever crossing and taking literally years of planning for the Allies to launch Operation Overlord.
100 miles of water between China and Taiwan also might not sound like much, but shouldn’t be discounted in terms of influence on the population. Eastern Ukrainians were naturally already subject to more Russian influence in regions where they were literally neighbors. Putin has fueled that and backed separatists in the Donbas region for years prior to this invasion, blurring the line between what is Russia and what is Ukraine in the eyes of some living there. The Taiwan Strait is not just a geographical barrier for Taiwan, but a psychological one. It stands to reason that this is part of Taiwan’s attitude of seeking their own path, that this contributes to the people of Taiwan seeing themselves as something separate from China.
The histories of Ukraine and Taiwan are also separate and distinct in ways that bear mentioning. While the vast majority of Ukrainians wanted out of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, Ukrainians’ opinion of Russia was still mostly positive until Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the fighting in Donbas that has killed at least 14,000 Ukrainians to date.
Taiwan’s roots, however, trace all the way back to the Chinese Nationalists who have been at odds with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1927. Taiwan’s very existence is a result of the Chinese Civil War, and is what remains of a democratic China. Taiwan is, to this day, still known as The Republic of China (ROC), not to be confused with the CCP’s People’s Republic of China (if you get mixed up, do what I do and think of Taiwan as a “ROC” in the middle of the ocean).
This is all to say that while the resistance and hatred for Russia are newer, and might burn hotter at this moment, Taiwan’s is foundational and more established, as is their democracy itself. There is a great deal of support and sympathy within the U.S. government for any democratic nation clashing with oppression. That said, Ukraine is simply not the partner, symbolically or in trade, that Taiwan is.
For years, so much of the Ukraine-Taiwan comparison and analysis boiled down to one question: How would the U.S. respond to an invasion? With Ukraine now fighting for its right to exist, and the U.S. not committing troops or air support, many have surmised that this would be the approach with Taiwan as well. There are several reasons, however, to think otherwise.
As noted by Ian Inkster of the Tapei Times, Taiwan is not a member of NATO. Ukraine may not be a member of NATO at this time, but Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified attack poses a significant security threat to NATO, whereas the only hope Taiwan would have besides the U.S. is the largely ineffective United Nations (UN) Security Council. In the case of Taiwan, the U.S. does not have the dispersed responsibility it does in Europe, and likely sees itself as Taiwan’s lone realistic defender.
Inkster goes on: “…the US gains more soft power from defending Taiwan than from interfering in Ukraine. Taiwan is a major democracy outside of Europe and the US, its GDP is four times that of Ukraine, and it has a historical alliance with the US of great strength, if also periodic uncertainty.”
Finally, and most importantly, China is simply not equipped for a successful full-scale invasion of Taiwan and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Even if China’s navy was large enough and suited to such a massive amphibious operation, Taiwan’s military is some 170,000 strong defending a mere 14,000 square miles of territory, and is largely armed by the U.S. per the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Contrast that against a standing Ukrainian army of just under 200,000 defending a nation that is 233,000 square miles and armed with mostly outdated Soviet-era equipment. Taiwan’s Air Force includes 400 combat aircraft including 150 F-16s purchased from the U.S. Meanwhile, Russia still has not achieved air superiority over Ukraine’s significantly smaller air force over a week into the conflict.
China won’t make the same mistake as Russia
This is all to say that an outgunned and outnumbered Ukraine has still managed to turn this invasion into what looks to be an absolute quagmire for Russia. That is, without a doubt, largely thanks to the valiant efforts of the Ukrainians, uniformed or not. Should China expect much different if they were to invade Taiwan? Recent polling suggests that the answer is no. While the people of Taiwan see themselves as having much in common with Chinese culture, they are staunchly against its politics. One is left to expect that China would be in for a brutal insurgency in Taiwan like that which will likely be seen by Russia in Ukraine if Putin’s forces manage to take control of the nation.
As mentioned by Dr. Harlan Ullman of the Atlantic Council, China can (and probably already will) take other approaches to infiltrate and weaken Taiwan’s government and attempt to sway public support as Putin did in Eastern Ukraine. Taiwan certainly still faces a significant threat, from China, which has not been quiet about its ambitions to bring Taiwan back into the fold. Ambitions are not necessarily the same as intentions, though, and Taiwan should not see itself as being in any greater danger simply because of the Russian invasion.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an erratic and questionable tactical move by a leader who seems to have overestimated his own forces’ readiness while also underestimating the resolve of the nation he is attacking. After seeing how it has played out for Russia and facing an American response that isn’t as predictable as some might think, logic suggests China would only be less inclined at this time to act on their Taiwan ambitions.
China’s posture with Taiwan always bears watching, and the solidified partnership between Russia and China is cause for concern. However, while the people of Taiwan might have plenty of reason to empathize with a situation in Ukraine that shares some common threads, on the balance of things, Taiwan is simply not Ukraine.