As Western arsenals are emptied, the war in Ukraine is opening a window of opportunity for the People’s Republic of China to assert its claims over Taiwan militarily. Over the next few lines we explore the stockpile situation, the similarities and differences between the Taiwan and Ukraine scenarios for China and Russia respectively, and the likelihood of Beijing’s decision to use force to annex the island.
While NATO allies continue to support Ukraine through economic aid packages and weapon systems delivery to repel the Russian invasion, China shows no interest in playing a significant role in the conflict. As the war progresses, many Western countries see their already anaemic munitions and surplus weapon systems stocks dwindling. NATO is beginning to address the issue, increasing defense budgets, buying ‘of the shelf’ from domestic defense contractors, and increasing or restarting munitions production. But modernization and production efforts will take several years to bear fruit. Meanwhile, China, whose arsenals remain unscathed, continues to manufacture and equip its People’s Liberation Army with more modern weaponry. Furthermore, the Asian giant’s control and vertical integration of supply chains means its manufacturing capacity far outpaces the west’s.
Proof of this is the dizzying pace at which Chinese firms have transformed the Chinese navy into the world’s largest in recent years, as measured in terms of number of ships and overall tonnage.
China is currently in a very advantageous geopolitical position to observe NATO’s reactions to the invasion of Ukraine and the depletion of its arsenals. With the current pace of depletion within NATO, certain milestones on the international agenda present a window of opportunity within the next two years for China to ‘answer the question’ of Taiwan. There are marked similarities between the current Russia-Ukraine war and a future China-Taiwan conflict, especially in the pre-conflict stages leading up to the February 2022 invasion. China will certainly incorporate lessons learned into their own calculations. The result will be a conflict that looks similar at passing glance, but with a much greater chance of success for China. Taiwan’s independence could have its days numbered.
Ukraine and Taiwan: similar scenarios?
There are undoubtedly many similarities between the two conflicts, but the devil is in the detail and it shows when comparing the individual areas of the two scenarios.
Politically, just as Taiwan is not a member of a defensive pact such as NATO, neither is Ukraine. Despite this, both receive significant support from western countries. After the initial Russian invasion of Crimea, NATO and its members began a partnership with Ukraine in arms and economic support, accompanied by an exchange of economic sanctions with Russia. In the case of Taiwan, we see increases in arms sales, U.S. military advise and assist efforts, and a new security alliance via the AUKUS (Australia, U.K., U.S.) agreement, an Asia-Pacific analogue to NATO. Economic sanctions have also come into play. Previous threats by the Chinese government have materialized, with the suspension of sales of rare earths in February 2022 to the American arms companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, in retaliation for supplying Taiwan with military hardware. Rather than acquiescing, the Biden administration is digging its heels in. In addition to recent sales of SideWinder and Harpoon missiles, December 2022 saw proposals to sell to Taiwan 100 of its most advanced Patriot ground-based air defence (GBAD) missiles accompanied by support radars valued at 882 million dollars.
But unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and has only been recognized as a country by 23 of its members. Thus, Taiwan’s legal status as a nation is of lesser force and legitimacy in the international diplomatic arena than that of Ukraine. Likewise, it’s not an immediate neighbour of the EU or the US, meaning the political urgency to intervene is much reduced. The March 2022 UN general assembly vote following the Russian invasion of Ukraine is extremely illuminating. International condemnation was not as unanimous as one might have thought a priori and the necessary two-thirds vote failed by an excessive margin (141 to 193). China showed the extent of its tentacles within an organization created by the Allied countries after World War II and cast a vote of abstention that was seconded by many countries under its sphere of influence, many of them major debtors of the Chinese government. In this case they were merely showing their alignment with the Middle Kingdom on an issue that did not directly concern them. One wonders how much all these countries could raise their diplomatic voice in favor of the Asian giant if Taiwan was the object of invasion.
Western economic interests in both scenarios are also similar. In Ukraine, the U.S. energy companies Shell Oil Co. and Chevron Corp. were interested in exploiting oil and gas fields in the Black Sea and were in negotiations with the Ukrainian government before the invasion. the EU had also signed on to a strategic partnership in July 2021 with the Ukrainian government for the exploitation of its mineral resources under the umbrella of the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Action Plan. Ukraine’s superb potential in critical materials would allow the EU to guarantee access to the material bases necessary to promote its European Green Deal and to carry out its green energy transition, based on renewable energies and electric vehicles.
8,000 kilometers to the southeast, the economic interests aroused by the island of Taiwan have also played a significant role in western economies and green energy initiatives. The all-powerful TSMC, the world’s largest manufacturer of high-end microchips, ensures that the latest-generation designs coming out of American high-tech companies become a physical reality. These microchips, the most powerful on the market, make possible the technified and electrified lives of not only Western citizens, but also of a growing Chinese middle class, which has also become addicted to them. Suffice to say, without these semiconductors, the supply chain shortages suffered since the onset of the 2019 COVID crisis would grow to unprecedented levels. But this past year has shown a trend towards decentralisation of TSMC’s technology and manufacturing capacity. Just as Nordstream II stripped Ukraine of the strategic protection of being the key gateway for Russian gas to Europe, the opening of TSMC factories in Japan and the US detracts from the economic and strategic relevance of the island of Formosa. Western countries may be less willing and interested in defending the government in Taipei if they achieve self-sufficiency in microchip manufacturing.
In the Taiwanese information domain, Taiwan’s democratic government favours freedom of expression and open communication networks, making them easy victims of Chinese propaganda or cyber-attacks. With both countries sharing a common language, a Taiwanese political party representing Beijing’s interests, and 10% of the population in favour of the Chinese government, China has several dangerous inroads to exploit. And unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s population has not viewed Chinese invasion as an immediate existential threat and have not steeled themselves accordingly. Conversely, in China, information is tightly controlled and monitored by the state, and criticism or dissent is criminalized. The population is also indoctrinated to a significant degree. Russia also suppresses and exploits the information domain, but their lack of technological prowess means they are not nearly as successful as China in suppressing dissent, at least in the cyber domain. Taiwan is much more susceptible to the ravages of a massive information campaign than Ukraine, while China is far more hardened against western information campaigns than Russia is. China also has the tactical advantage of being able to physically cut the undersea cables from which the island of Formosa draws most of its data and information.
Even at the tactical level, there are disturbing parallels. Chinese cyber-attacks prior to the Taiwanese elections, overflights of their airspace by Chinese fighters or incursions by Chinese fishing militia into Taiwanese waters constitute some of the tactical groping actions, similar, although on a smaller scale to the cease-fire breakdowns in the occupied Donbas regions of Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.
It is not easy to elucidate whether it is imperialist forces that are driving the Russian and Chinese autarchies or whether it is the attainment of resources related to their security. What can be seen is that the initial, pre-invasive discourse of moral and historical justification is disturbingly similar in both scenarios, as is the existence of important strategic resources. The Beijing government, like that of Moscow, makes no secret of its intention to regain full control of the island of Taiwan and does not renounce the use of violence. The questions to be answered are therefore how and when.