Taiwan and Ukraine: Strategic Similarities and Differences

There are many components to national strategies in modern international politics. However, in this discussion we shall focus on what is perhaps the most fundamental of concerns: that is, national security, especially as it relates to geography. In the case of Taiwan and Ukraine, there are important geostrategic similarities and differences which weigh heavily in the calculations of security planners in the United States, Russia, and China — the major powers on which we shall concentrate here. 

First of all, it should be noted that national leaders do and would play a key role in deciding if and when to use military force in situations such as Ukraine’s relationship with Russia or Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China. A second key factor is the relative balance of power of major countries and alliances with interests in the situation. A third determining variable is the domestic political, economic, and social environment in the nations principally involved. A fourth critical factor is the historical background of the looming crisis, especially the history of the relationships between the principal parties. A fifth factor is the ideological commitment of the parties, which can be a tipping factor in deciding whether or not to pursue a particular course of action. If all of these factors line up in such a way as to make security concerns immediate and serious, then the likelihood of  a risky military confrontation can be high. In 2022 these factors did line up and precipitate a dangerous stand-off between Russia and the United States over Ukraine’s right to join NATO.

Ukraine was part of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. When the Cold War ended in late 1991, Ukraine along with several Soviet republics and members of the Warsaw Pact became independent states. Wanting to enhance their security against a possible resurgence of Russian power, several of these states joined NATO from 2004 to 2020, which expanded from 19 to 30 member countries. From around 2019, Ukraine expressed its desire to also join NATO, to which NATO responded favorably. A Membership Action Plan was then drafted to achieve this goal, which is still under consideration at the time of writing in March 2022.

Moscow strongly insisted that Ukraine could not join NATO, due to the encircling Western containment of Russia such membership would result in. In essence, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew a line in the sand, with a minimum requirement that Ukraine become a neutral country. NATO, led by the United States under President Joe Biden, rejected this Russian proposal on the grounds that Ukraine, like other nation-states, had a sovereign right to do as they chose, arguing that this was one of the pillars of the international order accepted by all members of the United Nations. Putin thereupon invaded Ukraine, with the United States, Europe, and many other members of the UN immediately imposing harsh (mostly economic) sanctions against Russia. Rather than accepting the sanctions as being too costly to pursue its policies, Russia instead began to racket up its military action in Ukraine with the presumed objective of replacing the European-friendly Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky with a leadership more aligned with the security interests of Moscow. The Ukrainian people proved to be strongly nationalistic and resisted the Russian occupation of their country. Spurred on by the Ukrainian resistance and domestic political pressure, the U.S.-led coalition increased its security assistance to Ukraine and imposed even more stringent sanctions on Russia. Putin’s response was to increase the size and intensity of the Russian attack, and a cycle of escalation ensued with little evidence of abatement on any of the sides of the growing confrontation.

With this brief summary of the current crisis over Ukraine in mind, what lessons might be drawn for Taiwan’s security in the event of a determined effort by Beijing to bring the island back to the embrace of the Chinese motherland, perhaps as early as the end of this decade?

The first similarity is the near zero-sum policy options confronting the two situations. In the case of Ukraine, its leaders and people are mostly democratic and what to choose their own course of action in international affairs. The U.S. and its coalition strongly support this Ukrainian desire, and would like it join NATO and the European Union if that were its choice. Russia, on the other hand, considers Ukraine to be an essential bulwark against NATO’s expansion on the Russian western flank. In the case of Taiwan, it too is an emerging democracy with strong feelings for personal freedom of choice and desire to fully participate as an independent nation-state in international affairs with pro-Western leanings. The U.S. considers Taiwan to be a friend and has supported its participation in international forums, within certain limitations stemming from concerns about China’s sensitives. Ukraine is a neighbor to Russia with historic ties to that country, while Taiwan is about 100 miles from China and has been considered Chinese territory from 1683. In modern times, China has viewed Taiwan as an essential guardian of its eastern coastline and has felt since 1949 that it must prevent the island from becoming a permanent U.S. base of operations.

A second similarity stems from the age-old calculations of cost and benefits in war. Both Russia and China believe that Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively, are vital to their long-term national security. The expression, “Putin feels this is a war he cannot afford to lose,” applies equally to the top-level leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S., on the other hand, has important but not necessarily vital national security interests in the case of Ukraine and Taiwan. This difference in American, Russian, and Chinese perceptions gives clear advantage to Moscow and Beijing over Washington in a test of wills over the direction and pace of escalation in their respective areas of conflict. All three major powers are nuclear-capable and all three have substantial conventional forces to deploy, with some strengths and weaknesses in their armed forces. None of these countries want to fight the other, and all have shown great restraint in direct military confrontations between themselves. So the question facing military planners and policymakers boils down to who has the most to loose or gain in a major war over Ukraine or Taiwan? 

A third similarity is a preference on the part of all five nations that their differences be settled peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. This offers hope that a major war either in Europe or East Asia can be avoided. However, the desire of the Ukrainians and Taiwanese to be fully independent states and their peoples’ expectations that their future will be one of freedom and democracy are not easily compromised. Also, the Ukrainians and Taiwanese look to the United States and other established democracies to support their aspirations. Depending upon many, mostly domestic factors, the United States and its fellow democracies want to help countries such as Ukraine and Taiwan retain their independence and freedoms from authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China.

A fourth similarity is that the crux of the resolution of the confrontation between the security interests of Russia and China and the aspirations of Ukraine and Taiwan rests upon two variables: the willingness and determination of the four countries to fight for their objectives, and the degree to which the U.S. is willing to intervene. Both of these variables are almost impossible to determine beforehand. 

In terms of differences between the Ukrainian and Taiwan situations, several stand out as being important. The first of these is the long-term security commitments of the United States to Taiwan as compared to the relative short list of U.S. commitments to Ukraine. The Republic of China, which moved to Taiwan following the ROC’s loss to the Communists in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, was an important ally of the United States during World War II, when the ROC armies occupied the attention of Japan and gave the Americans a chance to rebuild their forces in the Pacific. The U.S. and the ROC had a mutual defense treaty from 1954 to 1979, when the Carter administration ended it as a condition for establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 continued a quasi-formal political relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan, and several presidential statements, congressional resolutions, and a relatively high level of American arms sales to Taiwan have helped to cement a strong possibility of U.S. intervention on behalf of Taiwan should the PRC attempt to take the island by force. On the other hand, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine has been fairly limited and mostly comprised of weapon transfers to Ukraine during the present crisis. U.S. President Joe Biden has explicitly ruled out the possibility of American forces being deployed to Ukraine to fight the Russians; no such renunciation of direct military intervention has been given with respect to Taiwan.

A second difference between the Ukrainian crisis and a potential crisis over Taiwan is that the United States appears to be far more concerned about World War III being initiated with Russia over Ukraine than it does with China over Taiwan. Although both Ukraine and Taiwan can be viewed primarily as regional areas of conflict, and the United States, Russia, and China are all nuclear powers, there seems to be a clearer understanding in Washington and Beijing that a confrontation over Taiwan ought to be confined to the maritime regions of East Asia, whereas between Washington and Moscow there seems to be a far broader sense of the scope of the potential battlefield and a much higher probability of uncontrolled escalation. This perceptual difference may be related to memories of the Cold War and the sense that China is a country that the United States can work with whereas little trust exists between Washington and Moscow.

A third difference is that many Americans view Taiwan as being part of Greater China, whereas perceptions of Ukraine are that it is a separate country from Russia. This is reflected by the fact that Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, while Ukraine is. Also, Ukraine has an ambassador to the United States, whereas Taiwan does not. Ukraine is recognized as a country by about 180 nations. Taiwan (as the Republic of China) is recognized as a country by about 15 nations.

A fourth difference is the relative size of Ukraine and Taiwan. Ukraine borders Russia; Taiwan is an island. Ukraine’s size is roughly that of Texas and has a population of about 44 million. Taiwan is about the size of Maryland with a population of roughly 24 million. Ukraine is mostly a flat plain with an average elevation of approximately 574 feet. Taiwan is highly mountainous on the eastern two-thirds of the island and has sloping plains on the western side. The highest mountain on Taiwan is about 13,000 feet. The Taiwan Strait between the island and mainland China is about 230 feet deep. On the eastern side, the depth of the ocean is about 8,500 feet. In Ukraine, about 78% are Ukrainian and 17% are Russian. About 69% of the total population are urban with major cities located throughout the country. On Taiwan, about 95% of the population are Han Chinese, while about 2% are Austronesian. About 79% of the total population are located in urban areas, within a few cities along the western plains of the island.

What strategic lessons might be drawn from this brief comparison of the current Ukrainian crisis and a potential crisis over Taiwan in the future?

  1. The will of the aggressor and defender to persist in the struggle is critical. That will is largely determined by the nation’s leadership as well as the war efforts of the military and civilian participants in the crisis. Still, overwhelming force can usually defeat weaker countries.
  2. The role of the United States in providing military support is highly determinative of the outcome of the crisis. However, the U.S. by itself may not be sufficient. The U.S. alliance structure and support from the international community are likely essential to the success of the U.S. effort.
  3. Despite many similarities between the Ukrainian and Taiwan situations, their differences are profound enough to present different offensive and defensive opportunities to the aggressors and defenders. For example, it is far easier for Russia to amass a large ground army against Ukraine than it would be for China against Taiwan, which would require substantial naval and air forces.
  4. Merely using economic sanctions against a major authoritarian country like Russia or China may not be effective in causing their determined leadership to abandon a military course of action, when important national security interests are at stake. A large democratic nation like the United States, however, is more vulnerable to public opinion, which might be pushed to the breaking point by the domestic costs of the government imposing economic sanctions against formidable foes. 
  5. The advantages of having “boots on the ground” are such that it is difficult for non-military actions to dissuade occupying armies to leave their conquests.
  6. Military forces within nations have different strengths and weaknesses, so that opposing forces are rarely guaranteed victory in their objectives. Wars have uncertain outcomes and consequences.
  7. In modern times, the media can play an important role in sustaining or deflating efforts by governments to succeed in their military efforts.
  8. It is rare that superpowers, especially those with nuclear weapons, directly confront each other militarily due to the devastating prospects of escalation to weapons of mass destruction. Hence, mutual assured deterrence remains a viable strategy even after the end of the Cold War. This concern can prevent superpowers from intervening into situations, like that of Ukraine and Taiwan, simply because there is strong domestic sentiment to get involved in foreign wars. 
  9. Most fundamental is the conclusion that the outcome of a military confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan continues to be highly circumstantial and not likely to be determined by the ultimate resolution of the Ukrainian crisis.