Is Taiwan vulnerable after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
As Russian tanks fly over Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s crisis will reverberate around the world, perhaps most dangerously in the Taiwan Strait. An attempt by Beijing to claim Taiwan by force has become more likely. This is not necessarily because there is a direct link between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s threat to Taiwan, but because the war for Ukraine is the most unfortunate indication of this. day of the frightening direction of global geopolitics: the autocrats fight back.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, America’s long struggle against global authoritarian threats seemed won. Everywhere, dictators were on the run: in Indonesia, Myanmar, Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines, Chile and even Russia. Globalization was working its supposed magic, spreading liberal political and economic ideals, prosperity and, hopefully, an end to great power confrontation. Certainly, the Chinese Communist Party was well entrenched in Beijing, but its cadres seemed to be partners in the world order, content to enrich themselves gloriously and to immerse themselves in the commercial networks and international institutions created by the democratic powers. .
Putin’s war in Ukraine shows how wrong this line of thinking was. What the United States and its allies achieved in the 1990s was not a definitive victory over authoritarianism, but a simple respite. For years, the US-led liberal democratic consensus has eroded: Take Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s curtailing of freedoms in Turkey, or Narendra Modi’s attack on secular traditions. from India. In Myanmar, the generals have regained control, Jair Bolsonaro is espousing anti-democratic rhetoric in Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte has proudly waged a violent and lawless war on drugs in the Philippines. However, Putin’s invasion marks a new stage, heralds a new era, that of authoritarian aggression.
No country, however, poses such a great threat to the liberal world order as China. Russia, in many ways, is a power in decline, lacking the economic dynamism to maintain its political punch. The assault on Ukraine could allow Putin to get what he wants while he still can. The story is different with China, a power with growing economic, diplomatic and military might. Russia is in the headlines today, but China will spearhead the authoritarian cause. President Xi Jinping’s nationalist fervor, commitment to restoring Chinese power, and more aggressive approach than his predecessors to territorial and maritime disputes, relations with the United States and its allies, and the international system as a whole, have already become a destabilizing force in Asia.
Taiwan is on this tenuous front line. Just as Putin cannot tolerate Ukrainian sovereignty, the Chinese Communist Party will never accept the separation of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a central part of China occupied by an illegitimate (and for that matter, democratic) government. Taking control of Taiwan, or as the party prefers to call it, “reunification,” is one of China’s main foreign policy goals. In a world order where authoritarian states are more assertive and democratic allies are in retreat, the risks of war for Taiwan increase. Xi has already intimidated the Taipei government by sending squadrons of jet planes to harass the island, while Beijing’s complete suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is undermining any hope that Taiwan would retain some semblance of its current freedom. he was integrated into the communist regime. Party-led China.
This does not mean that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is imminent. It is impossible to predict with certainty what Xi might think of Taiwan in the aftermath of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Unlike Putin on Ukraine, however, Xi is not gathering an invasion force in the strait separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Also, Xi is a lot of bad things, but recklessness is not one of them. According to him, the rise of China is inevitable; time is on his side. He does not need to follow Putin on the path to war.
But Putin’s military aggression is a sign of what could happen. Authoritarian powers believe the time has come to push back against the United States and reshape the world. And who can say they are wrong: it is not at all clear whether the democratic allies have the will, the resources or the unity to fight another battle against autocracy. The Ukraine crisis has shown both how the United States and its allies in Europe are striving to achieve a common goal, while failing to achieve results. European leaders want to chart their own course, but their vaunted “strategic autonomy” looks more and more like “strategic indecision,” in which short-term economic and political gains take precedence over long-term strategic interests. In Washington, meanwhile, rabid political divisions are raising serious doubts about continued American resolve. The American public is tired of fighting the battles of the world.
If these trends continue, the day when China will invade Taiwan is drawing near. Chinese leaders are coming to see American decline as inevitable as their own rise; the Ukraine crisis may seem to add even more evidence to their case. One day they may calculate (or even worse, be wrong) that the United States and its partners will not fight for each other, their ideals, or their world order.
Nothing, however, is inevitable. Washington’s critics will complain that failure to prevent Putin’s invasion is already a sign of creeping US weakness. But the United States has never been and never will be omnipotent. The fact is that the game against Ukraine is not over. From now on, the world – and especially Xi Jinping – will watch the pain and cost that the United States and its allies can and will inflict on Russia. The United States projected its power not just with aircraft carriers, but with its technology, its currency, and its talent for organizing collective action. Putin’s assault on Ukraine is a test for all of these many tools.
China and Russia will certainly keep up the pressure. They will foment new crises to put pressure on the United States and its partners. Perhaps alliances can be broken and American primacy eroded.
The modern world, with its intertwined nexus of economic and security interests, is too complex to be defined as a mere competition between democracy and autocracy. But it can be divided between states that strategically benefit from perpetuating the current world order and those that gain from overthrowing it. The invasion of Ukraine could be just one step in a campaign to destroy it. The next could well concern China.