Russia’s unprovoked and senseless invasion of Ukraine has gripped the world over its potential ramifications on the global order. One autocratic ruler’s decision to disregard all reason and attack another sovereign state in what many are calling the “worst conflict in Europe since World War II” has suddenly made the inconceivable undeniable, and left everyone wondering if this would be the first domino to fall in a long and destructive run.
The obvious parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan have not gone unnoticed. Especially at a time when the perennial threat facing Taiwan has been consistently making headlines, commentators have been quick to raise the alarm that it “could be next.” Both have massive neighbors convinced that they are an inalienable part of their territory, led by autocrats with an iron grip on power and disdain for “the West.”
Yet this is where the similarities end. Understanding the differences is key to soberly assessing risk.
First and most evident, Ukraine shares a long land border with its bellicose neighbor, while Taiwan has the advantage of being a mountainous smattering of islands that have been building up defenses for decades. Ukraine was caught off-guard when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has been playing catch-up ever since. Most experts are confident that invading Taiwan would be immensely lengthy and costly for China, with no guarantee of success — especially with US involvement.
Sanctions against China would also likely have a far more acute sting, given its massive economy’s integration with the rest of the world. Beijing will certainly be watching closely to see how far countries are willing to go in sanctioning Russia, and adjust its risk calculation accordingly.
Perhaps most importantly, Taiwan is of critical economic interest to the countries poised to take action in its defense. The world relies on Taiwan for semiconductors, meaning that a Chinese invasion would at best disrupt supply and at worst rewrite the technological and geopolitical world order.
As unfathomable as it might seem to ignore these immense risks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown the world that when a tyrant is in charge, the war room is always open. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is not the same as Putin, and neither are their countries.
China’s leaders have time and again shown themselves to be calculating, and over the past week have once again proven their prudence. Beijing has carefully avoided any declarations of allegiance, acutely aware that affirming Russia also affirms its recognition of breakaway territories and invasion of another sovereign state, flying in the face of its foreign policy of noninterference.
Xi is also more likely to continue along this trajectory, because he sees where it leads. China views itself as a rising power, poised to eventually take over the mantle from the Western powers if it waits patiently and plays its cards with care. Meanwhile, Putin commands a state in decline. Both men want to leave their mark on the world — the difference is that Putin’s time is running out, while Xi believes he only needs to wait.
Although the doomsday talk in foreign media needs some cooling, the pundits are not entirely wrong. For all their differences, it is a very real possibility that China could decide on a military solution. No one can predict the calculations happening in the halls of power, and as the Ukraine crisis has shown, anything is possible.
Taiwan should take this warning to heart. Seeing images of Ukrainian citizens taking up arms serves as a striking reminder of what could happen, and everyone should be better prepared.
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