As I write this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, and diplomats from both sides are negotiating a ceasefire to the war in Ukraine.
Leaders in America and Europe are carefully watching as events in Ukraine continue to unfold, fearful that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not stop his aggression there but may move into the Baltic states or even Poland. But there is most certainly another leader watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, perhaps more importantly, the West’s response to that invasion: Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It is no secret that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want to reunify the island of Taiwan with mainland China, and many speculate that he will do so while America and NATO are distracted by the threat Russia is posing to Eastern Europe. When Russia invaded Ukraine, nine Chinese planes reportedly flew into Taiwan’s defensive airspace.
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On Sunday, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, in a radio interview with New York WABC 770 AM’s “The Cat’s Round Table,” warned that the “great danger right now is that Xi Jinping in China is going to watch how weak the West is and decide the point has come to seize Taiwan; that while we’re busy worrying about Ukraine, that that’s the right moment for China to take back what it considers its 19th province.”
The island of Taiwan, which is in the Pacific Ocean just 81 miles off of the east coast of China, had historically been part of China except for a period when it fell under Japanese control. When Mao Zedong took over the country and declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party (KMT), which the international community recognized as the legitimate government of the Republic of China (ROC), fled to Taiwan to regroup and retake the mainland from the Communists.
Chiang and the KMT never did retake China, and, in 1971, the United Nations (UN) recognized the PRC as the legitimate government of China. The ROC was removed from its seat on the UN’s Security Council and replaced by the PRC. However, both the KMT and CCP continued to follow the “One-China Policy” which hoped to one day reunite the island of Taiwan with the mainland, and diplomatic relations between the two opened up.
In 2000, Taiwan elected the first president from a party other than the KMT—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP does not share the One-China Policy and, thus, relations with the PRC began to sour again. In 2008, however, the KMT retook the presidency and relations began to thaw once more until 2016 when the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, won. She is still the president of the ROC today.
Fox News reported that James Anderson, the former deputy undersecretary of defense for policy under President Trump, has warned that China would be watching to see if Russia takes “significant and lasting consequences” for its invasion of Ukraine. “I think there’s a real risk that China may conclude that concrete U.S. actions in response to Russia’s invasion fall somewhat short of its rhetoric,” he said.
According to Fox News, Anderson is concerned that President Biden’s sanctions against Russia are not strong enough to deter China’s Taiwan ambitions. “I’m just concerned here that China’s going to draw some of the wrong lessons here and its leaders might consider the Biden admin’s response to be more show than substance.” China, he said, will not be rash but will make “cold-blooded calculations about America’s resolve and capacity to act during international crises.”
Author and China expert Gordon G. Chang is also concerned about China. Speaking outside of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, he told Fox News Digital that “China wants to destabilize the world. It certainly wants to marginalize the United States and Russia is doing Beijing’s bidding.” “Biden is not defending Ukraine and Europe the way he should be,” he continued. “This does create an opportunity for Xi Jinping, who otherwise might have been deterred by the United States. [Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan and America’s response to Ukraine], he sees the United States not using its power, so therefore, there is this opening that Xi Jinping is starting to perceive.”
If fear of U.S. sanctions won’t deter Xi, is there anything that could stop China from invading Taiwan?
Could continued Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion dissuade Xi? If China sees the Russians get badly bloodied in a conflict they expected to win easily, Xi might be less inclined to invade Taiwan as he might fear the same could happen to the Chinese military. The last thing Xi wants is for China’s military to look weak or ineffective against an inferior force. That would only embolden his enemies.
However, even if Russia continues to struggle, that may not deter China. Xi certainly realizes that Taiwan is much smaller, both geographically and by population, than Ukraine. While Ukraine is about the size of Texas, Taiwan is closer to the size of Maryland. And Ukraine has nearly twice the population of Taiwan.
But Taiwan is an island. While Putin was able to move trucks, tanks, and other vehicles directly into Ukraine from Russia and allied Belarus, China would have to invade Taiwan by sea, and Taiwanese beaches are heavily defended. Plus, despite Taiwan’s smaller population, according to GlobalFirepower.com it has more total troops (active and reserve) and a significantly larger military budget than Ukraine.
Still, few believe that Taiwan would offer much resistance militarily. Former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld Jr. (Ret.) and Michael Morell, former acting CIA director in the Obama administration, have warned that China could subdue the island in just three days.
Would China fear a U.S. military response? That’s doubtful. If we show no inclination to get involved militarily to defend Ukraine, a country that borders NATO allies, why would China believe we’d be willing to intercede militarily to defend Taiwan?
Would international ostracism deter Xi? The world has been largely united in its condemnation of the Russian invasion. Even traditionally neutral Switzerland has issued sanctions against Russia. According to Yahoo! Sports, FIFA (soccer’s international governing body), UEFA (soccer’s European governing body), and the International Olympic Committee have all levied sanctions against Russia. These sanctions prevent Russia from competing in the 2022 World Cup and other international sports competitions.
Would Xi, who was desperate to use the Olympics to, in the words of billionaire investor George Soros, “score a propaganda victory,” find the threat of being ostracized globally more frightening than economic sanctions or military action. National pride is a huge deal for Xi, and it is difficult to stoke that pride when the international community shuts you out of everything.
Will any of this be enough to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? I doubt even Xi knows the answer to that at this point. This is a very frightening and unpredictable time. But one thing is for sure, the consequences to the world if China invaded Taiwan would be far greater than those felt by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As I wrote in a February 11 article for Crisis, Taiwan produces almost all of the world’s most sophisticated chips and most of the world’s less-sophisticated chips. We use these chips in everything from attack fighters and missile guidance systems, to smart phones and cars. It is terrifying to contemplate the type of influence Communist China would have once it took control of the world’s chip production. But unless we demonstrate that the world is willing to stop Xi, Taiwan might be the next country that is invaded.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]