Main Image Credit A Taiwanese marine pictured during an anti-invasion drill in 2019. Courtesy of Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo
A conflict in Ukraine would not present an opportunity for China to invade Taiwan, because China’s foreign policy is not linked to Russian actions in Europe.
As Russian forces have accumulated on the border with Ukraine, a view has emerged in some news and analytical circles that Ukraine’s fate might create a pretext for an invasion of Taiwan. Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Barack Obama, has said that if the US did not deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, or roll it back once it had occurred, this would strengthen Beijing’s case against Taiwan. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss even warned in January that China could use an invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to invade Taiwan.
The reasoning that underlies these assertions appears to be a combination of two assumptions. The first is that the US response to a war in Ukraine will have the effect of limiting its military capabilities and preventing it from fighting a conflict with China. A second variant of this argument holds that Beijing has tied its Taiwan policy to Russian actions in Europe. A joint announcement released by the Kremlin reaffirmed the mutual support of Beijing and Moscow for each other’s security concerns, ostensibly adding weight to this reasoning.
Balance of Forces and Means
The first assumption is undermined by the fact that Washington has refuted any notion that it would risk its own troops on Ukraine’s behalf. It is believable that the US will commit additional resources to the defence of NATO, and this has already been demonstrated by the sending of 2,000 extra US troops to Europe. The USS Truman carrier strike group (CSG) was also placed under NATO control for the Neptune Strike exercise in the Mediterranean, demonstrating the US’s willingness to deploy its most capable assets in support of the Alliance. This suggests that the US has committed resources to supporting NATO and deterring any possible aggression against an Alliance member; however, it is debatable whether Russia currently has any intention to start a war with NATO. The likelihood is that it would seek the opposite, and hope for a localised conflict between itself and Ukraine. A conflict with the US and its allies would be an unwelcome development.
First, for a war in Europe to prevent the US from engaging in another theatre, it would have to be all-consuming. The USS Truman CSG is one of nine US CSGs, and at the time that it was positioned in the Mediterranean, three CSGs were positioned in the South China Sea, along with the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), which carries elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The Essex Amphibious Ready Group with the 11th MEU was also operating close to the ESG. Moreover, there is no indication that the US would prioritise deployments to Europe over the Indo-Pacific. Historical precedent tells us that the larger of two competitors usually receives priority during concurrent conflicts – witness the US’s ‘Germany first’ strategy during the Second World War, which was adopted despite Japan attacking the US. As key US policymakers have argued, even if the US found itself in concurrent conflicts with Russia and China, it is the latter which would receive priority. Moreover, a Russian invasion of Ukraine falls far short of being a direct conflict that would directly draw on US assets. Symbolic deployments meant to reassure NATO allies will not substantially alter the Indo-Pacific balance.
A rushed operation to take Taiwan while the West was supposedly distracted over Ukraine would be an ill-conceived disaster that the PLA is unlikely to attempt
Second, the assumption that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could take advantage of a contingency in Europe to mount a rapid fait accompli against Taiwan radically underestimates the temporal dimensions of an amphibious assault. Bringing troops to a state of readiness sufficient to conduct an invasion of hostile territory is time-consuming under the best of circumstances. The Russian deployment to Ukraine’s borders has been a multi-month process and has delivered just 149,000 Russian troops, including those that were already present in the Southern Military District. When conducting amphibious assaults, this is exacerbated by more complex planning requirements, as well as the need to bring assault vessels to readiness, force generate sufficient numbers of escorts and muster forces in ports for embarkation. In the case of the Turkish intervention in Cyprus, opposed landings that were smaller than an invasion of Taiwan would be took five months to plan and execute. In the case of China, which will likely utilise civilian vessels to augment its amphibious lift, the need to draw assets from the civilian economy and bring them to standards approximating military readiness adds a layer of complexity. Not only would this process be near impossible to hide, but the fact that only a handful of Taiwanese beaches are suitable for a landing means that defenders can anticipate and concentrate their assets accordingly. Rather than being a rapidly executable operation, such an endeavour would be a months-long process that could well be underway long after the conventional phase of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has ended.
Once it begins, moreover, an assault on Taiwan will not be a rapid affair. Even if China was able to disable Taiwan’s sea denial capabilities, air force and command structures with the missile strikes that Chinese doctrine calls for and a sufficient number of Chinese forces survived Taiwanese anti-access capabilities to disembark on Formosa, China would have to overcome roughly 450,000 defenders. The nature of Taiwan, a country with a 79% urbanisation rate, means that much of this fighting would take place in cities – many of which, like Kaosiung, are built up to the country’s coastline. Urban geography is particularly difficult to assault, with battles like Marawi and Mosul taking six months and just under a year respectively. Even if the US were temporarily overcommitted to Europe – and there is no evidence it would be – it would have a good deal of time to rebalance.
Put simply, a rushed operation to take Taiwan while the West was supposedly distracted over Ukraine would be an ill-conceived disaster that the PLA is unlikely to attempt.
The View from Beijing: The Balance of Power is What Counts
There is a second variant of the argument that events in Ukraine will impact Taiwanese security, based on the notion that an inability to demonstrate resolve will embolden Beijing by indicating the West’s inability to respond to a crisis.
Unlike a Russian invasion of Ukraine, attacking Taiwan requires China to attack the US; the posture of US forces makes it impossible for China to do one without the other
The basis of this reasoning is an approach to understanding credibility dubbed the ‘past actions’ approach. In effect, past actions theory assumes that adversaries calculate one’s own resolve based on prior actions. While intuitive, this approach to understanding credibility is generally wrong and has been the basis for flawed policy assumptions, such as the US’s domino theory during the Cold War.
The reason for this is not that adversaries do not care about past actions, but that they are context-sensitive in the comparisons they draw. Analyses that assume that losses in one area will lead to cascading effects tend to omit this point. Several contextual differences distinguish Ukraine and Taiwan. First, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan does benefit from an implicit US security guarantee under the Taiwan Relations Act. Indeed, this guarantee has arguably now been made explicit. The fate of Taiwan thus has a much more profound impact on US credibility than that of Ukraine. Second, Taiwan is geographically critical: its fall would provide China with a stranglehold on Japanese sea lines of communication, and thus potentially overturn the US–Japan alliance – and with it, the US posture in East Asia.
Third, unlike a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would by necessity involve preliminary strikes on US airbases, as beginning an invasion without doing so would expose the invading force to unacceptable risks while at sea. Indeed, the PLA has been preparing for precisely such strikes against mock targets in the Gobi Desert. In other words, unlike a Russian invasion of Ukraine, attacking Taiwan requires China to attack the US; the posture of US forces makes it impossible for China to do one without the other. The ability of Russia to successfully invade a non-allied third party without targeting Western forces, then, will tell Chinese decisionmakers precious little about the response to an invasion of Taiwan, which would by necessity begin with a pre-emptive attack on US forces.
Ultimately, if China does decide to invade Taiwan, it will be when it believes the regional balance of power enables it to fight and win a war that will necessarily involve the US. While different opinions may exist regarding whether such a state of affairs will ever emerge, and what the US can do to prevent it, the calculus of Chinese leaders will be shaped by the regional balance of power in Asia, and not by events further afield. There are good reasons to support Ukraine, but the notion that an invasion of the country will be either a window of opportunity for the PLA or a precedent that encourages Chinese revanchism vis-à-vis Taiwan is not one of them.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power