Taiwan Is Not A Small Ukraine

THE UKRAINE CRISIS has drawn inevitable — but ill-founded — comparisons with Taiwan.

More strident nationalist voices in China are calling on Beijing to mimic Moscow’s ‘liberation’ line and take the opportunity of the West’s diverted attention to reclaim the island by force. They interpret the United States’ unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine as a systemic weakness that would mean Washington would similarly not intervene on Taipei’s behalf.

That would be a misunderstanding of the United States’ intent, and of the capability of the People’s Liberation Army to deliver a fait accompli by scoring a military victory before US forces arrive.

Nonetheless, earlier in the week, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen ordered the armed forces to increase their surveillance and strengthen their combat readiness. She also instructed security services to be alert for information warfare.

In this Bystander’s view, covert infowar operations to demoralise Taiwan are more likely than a military assault. So, too, a stepping up of the PLA Airforce flights across the median line in the Taiwan Strait and into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

Nor should some action against Taiwan’s small islands near the mainland coast or more distant ones in the South China Sea be discounted. China tried this twice in the 1950s, once successfully, once not.

The islands would be difficult for Taipei to defend, so the costs for China in taking them would likely be low and success more likely.

Geography and meteorology make a military invasion of Taiwan more challenging than an invasion of Ukraine. PLA forces would have to undertake a combined amphibious and airborne landing. Crossing the often storm-tossed waters of the Taiwan Strait would be far more difficult than sending tanks and infantry rumbling across a land border with secure supply lines in their wake, and doubly so for an army that has not been battle-tested since 1979.

The military uncertainty would raise the political risk of an attack on Taipei so close to the Party Congress due in the autumn. Beyond the near certainty that the United States and its allies would come to Taipei’s aid militarily, Western sanctions imposed in response to such an attack would be significantly more severe than those related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

President Xi Jinping is walking a geopolitical tightrope over Ukraine. He will likely be cautious and absorb the military and political lessons from how Russia’s invasion plays out.

Once the Congress is passed, and, assumedly, Xi has consolidated his control and secured a third term, an invasion of Taiwan in the medium to long term would become more likely. A favourable and low-cost outcome for Russia in Ukraine or a perceptible weak Western response would shorten the time horizon.

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