War in Ukraine emphasizes Chinese attack on Taiwan

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An authoritarian nuclear superpower invading a smaller but determined American armed neighbor is no longer the stuff of theoretical war games.

As defense ministers from around the world fly to Singapore to attend Asia’s most important security conference this weekend, they will be well aware that the war in Ukraine has heightened discussions over Taiwan and a possible invasion by China.

In an event that would provide arguably the preeminent direct contact between the US and Chinese armies under President Joe Biden’s administration, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Wei Fenghe will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue that runs Friday through Sunday.

It is unlikely that either side will be candid, given escalating tensions over the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own. China is already outraged in protest at Biden’s unexpectedly candid pledge last month to defend Taiwan. Expect encrypted messages in Singapore and Taiwan is more like an elephant in the room.

“Ukraine caused the perception of threat to increase across Asia,” said James Crabtree, executive director of the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which hosts the Shangri-La event. “Defense institutions suddenly thought that geopolitical calamities previously thought highly unlikely were suddenly possible, with Taiwan being just the most obvious potential flashpoint in a region torn by potential tensions.”

Those “threat perceptions” following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine have been split into two broad categories for China. Beijing must both make military calculations about taking over a Washington-backed country and weigh the global economic impact — on supply chains and its own exports — should China be hit by US, European and Japanese sanctions like Russia has been. The lesson from Ukraine for Chinese President Xi Jinping – in both respects – is that the risks are extremely high.

hard crossing

China has significant military superiority over Taiwan – as does Russia over Ukraine – but an amphibious assault on an island 100 miles away is no walkover. Backed by the US, Taiwan would be able to attack ships making the crossing, and any landing against well-burdened troops could prove dangerous to the untested People’s Liberation Army. Xi will not want to suffer from the enormous victims that Russia is making in Ukraine.

Conversely, in the other camp, many Taiwanese strategists have been shocked by how rapid Russia’s military build-up has been and how devastating the consequences can be.

For now, the general mood in Taiwan is one of careful scrutiny. The island’s top spy master said last month that Beijing would be “more careful” with its war plans, given Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine. “In the same way, Taiwan will learn how to make progress,” said Chen Ming-tong, head of the National Security Bureau.

There is no doubt that events in Eastern Europe are at the forefront of planning in Taipei. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said the government is “taking the war in Ukraine seriously in internal discussions”.

“One of the tactics that has been successful so far is the asymmetric capability. And that’s something we’re learning from and we want to talk further with the United States,” Wu told NPR.

Top policymakers meeting in Singapore will try to gauge Beijing’s thinking, banal as that may sound in Wei’s remarks.

China has publicly repeatedly called for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but has also threatened to take the island by force if necessary. There’s no clear timeline on when that might happen — but US officials speculated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next six to 10 years ahead of the war in Ukraine. Tensions have not been relieved by Chinese fighters and bombers repeatedly raiding Taiwan’s air defense zone.

President Xi has also unequivocally set out his plan. In a manner similar to Putin’s when he explained his “special military operation” to remove “Nazis” in Ukraine, Xi told the Taiwanese public in a keynote speech in 2019 that “we will not renounce the use of force and keep the option to take all necessary measures. This is to guard against outside interference and a small number of separatists and their separatist activities for ‘independence of Taiwan’. It is in no way aimed at our compatriots in Taiwan.”

Microchips and Supply Chains

Beijing is also increasingly aggressive about Taiwan’s leading role in semiconductors. In an eyebrow-raising speech, a top Chinese economist this week openly called on Beijing to “grab” the island’s leading microchip manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

“In the event that the US and the West impose destructive sanctions on China, such as those against Russia, we need to get Taiwan back. Especially in rebuilding the industrial chains and supply chains, we need to take control of TSMC – a company belonging to China – taking China’s hands,” said Chen Wenling, chief economist at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a research group overseen by the National Development and Reform Commission. The speech was published on the Chinese news portal Guancha.

The difficulty for China, of course, is that sanctions for an invasion could be severe, as the West has shown itself more united to the Kremlin’s aggression than many expected. China will have to assess whether the West is less likely to impose sanctions, because its supply chains are much more consistent than Russia’s.

However, China’s own economic model relies heavily on selling goods to rich markets such as the US, Europe and Japan.

And they are – for now – deeply skeptical of Xi’s direction.

The White House rushed into action to try to reverse Biden’s commitment to defend Taiwan last month, but to Chinese ears, the US president had ventured beyond the “strategic ambiguity” Washington normally tries to maintain regarding Taiwan.

Elsewhere, Taiwan’s military support is limited, although the situation in Ukraine is hardening stance in other countries. In April, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on NATO – anchored in Atlantic security but increasingly watching China – to “ensure democracies like Taiwan can defend themselves”.

In Asia, Japan is seen as Taiwan’s strongest mainstay, with Tokyo’s politicians speaking out louder about the security threats Taiwan faces.

Intriguingly, even Singapore itself, host of the Shangri-La summit, has conducted semi-hidden joint training exercises with Taiwan.

Much now depends on Xi’s appetite for ultra-high risk. Almost everyone will analyze Chinese Defense Minister Wei’s speech on Sunday for signs of that.

This article is part of POLITICAL PRO

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