Besides the two combatants, it is unlikely that any two countries are watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine more closely than China and Taiwan. And yes, I know that Taiwan is not officially an “independent” country, but let us deal with reality instead of the Chinese-preferred illusion of Taiwan as a subservient rebel province belonging under the thumb of the Chinese communist party.
Taiwan is undoubtedly fully aware that Ukraine’s precarious present situation is a glimpse of its own foreboding future, as China has made no secret of its intention to one day reunite the two states under one (communist Chinese) flag. Given that Taiwan is unlikely to acquiesce peacefully to such a forced reunification, the most realistic outcome following such an advance by China is a war of aggression and attrition launched from mainland China against Taiwan.
The role of geography
That leads to the first lesson we should take away from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Namely, that Russia invaded a relatively large continental European country. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a smaller country, and an island just 100 miles off China’s eastern shore. This means that a Chinese maritime invasion of Taiwan will look decidedly different from Russia’s land invasion of Ukraine. Prior to invading, Russia amassed its Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) on Ukraine’s border, in front of the watching world, and under the barely concealing fig leaf of “military exercises.” It then crossed the Ukrainian border in a slapdash and ill-supported invasion that lacked coordination, planning, logistical support, or even clear strategic and tactical goals.
China, on the other hand, will have to take a different approach should it invade Taiwan: It has to cross the Taiwan Strait with an adequate invasion force if it hopes to seize and hold Taiwanese territory. Making an amphibious landing, and one that is not easily foreseen in its preparatory phase, is an altogether different operation than rolling across a land border with tanks and infantry. Although China could also use the fig leaf of military exercises to build up its forces, such a feint will be less likely to succeed in the wake of recent assessments that Xi Jinping seeks to take Taiwan back within his lifetime.
Therefore, China would likely soften Taiwan’s resistance and defensive forces with a sustained pre-invasion bombardment, and a naval blockade to prevent quick naval or air resupply efforts by the United States or any other forces allied with Taiwan. China would likely hope to overwhelm Taiwan quickly so that it could prevent a collective mustering of Taiwanese defenses, as well as an outpouring of international outrage and support similar to what we have seen in support of Ukraine. Simply put, the quicker that China can “defeat” Taiwan, the better its chances of solidifying a victory and preventing any effective international aid. Thus, we should expect it to throw tens of thousands of troops across the straight in an initial onslaught, no matter the withering defenses it will encounter from dug-in Taiwanese forces or the logistical difficulties of successfully carrying out such an amphibious assault.
China has likely concluded from Russia’s ill-fated invasion that a barrage of economic countermeasures against it would be forthcoming following a Chinese invasion. While most of the world has refrained from joining in Western sanctions against Russia, enough countries have done so to make the war economically painful for Vladimir Putin, his oligarchs, and the Russian people. China is likely better placed to avoid as damaging an outcome. Hence, the international community will need to devise more effective economic measures to counter and punish China’s future invasion. What those measures might be are better left to economic policymakers and experts, but suffice it to say, those policymakers should be devising such measures now if they want to quickly and effectively employ them when they are needed.
The time of allies
As far as Taiwan and its means of self-defense against a future Chinese invasion, defense experts in the country are surely studying Ukraine’s heroic defense and formulating new plans for their own future efforts. Specifically, they would be wise to note Ukraine’s collective will and national effort to repel the Russian invaders; their use of man-portable surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles; and their use of a “porcupine strategy” of defense to make it extremely painful for Russian invaders to take and hold Ukrainian territory. This should include a mobilized and armed populace, guerrilla-style attacks, a diffuse and agile defensive force, and a dedicated, involved, and lion-hearted national leadership at the forefront of the collective defense efforts. The goal should be to hold off the Chinese invaders until allied forces come to the defense of Taiwan.
How to adapt Ukrainian defense measures to Taiwan’s unique island geography is for Taiwanese defense specialists to work out. Nevertheless, robust coastal defenses, efforts to break a Chinese naval blockade, and withstand withering Chinese air and naval gunfire assaults will be important. Taiwan must make it a priority to hold out for as long as possible against invading Chinese forces, to give its allies the time and impetus to come to its aid. Perhaps a close study of Japanese defensive preparations in the face of an impending allied assault in World War II (rendered unnecessary in the wake of the U.S. dropping two atom bombs on Japan) would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Meanwhile, the United States and Japan must also scrutinize the current Russian invasion of Ukraine with an eye toward countering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the future. Will the weapons systems we are currently providing Ukraine prove as effective in a Taiwanese theatre? Will U.S. naval power in support of breaking a Chinese blockade be off the table given fears of a clash with the Chinese navy? Will Japan be at risk of pre-emptive attack given the presence of U.S. naval bases on its islands? Will Australia and other allies agree to participate in some manner in defending Taiwan?
These are all questions that should keep Taiwanese, U.S., Japanese, and Australian military planners awake at night, as defense agreements will be put to the stress test of actual military conflict. Furthermore, the will of the citizens of those allied countries will also be put to the test, as they must weigh the risk versus the reward of countering the Chinese threat on the battlefield.
War will not benefit anyone
Finally, China must also be assessing the full spectrum of effects resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While China will argue that the two scenarios are fundamentally different, with Taiwan a “break-away” province of China as opposed to a sovereign nation, a large part of the world will refuse to accept this meager excuse for a destructive military invasion. China must ask itself if taking Taiwan back by force is truly worth it given the likely economic, political, and military consequences. Perhaps it is more in China’s interests to simply wait out the rest of the world, and shelve any short or medium-term plans to recapture what they see as rightfully theirs.
This hoped-for judicious hesitancy on China’s part will partly depend on Taiwan not forcing the issue by declaring outright independence. Such a move would not serve anyone’s interests. Instead, preservation of the status quo seems to be the best insurance against a potentially far more disruptive regional conflict than we are currently witnessing in eastern Europe. After all, if China chooses to invade Taiwan in the near future a conflict could draw in multiple great powers and lead to a potentially fatal shock to the current global economic and political systems. China should consider this long and hard before making any reckless moves.
Read more from Sandboxx
- ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ producer says Darkstar looked so real, China moved spy satellite to see it
- US, China, Russia and others issue rare joint statement on nukes
- China attempting to shake Taiwan’s confidence in US resolve
- Taiwan Strait Crises: How history is repeating itself in the Pacific
- Hypersonic weapons could rescue the Navy’s stealth destroyer