Ukraine Is Not Taiwan

Biden's response to Putin invading Ukraine does not "embolden" a cascade of crises.


With Russian President Vladimir Putin sending troops into Ukraine, many journalists and analysts—even former President Donald Trump—have jumped to the conclusion that Taiwan is next. "Russia is in the headlines today, but China will be the spearhead of the authoritarian cause," writes the Atlantic Council's Michael Shuman.

But there is no direct link between Putin's invasion of Ukraine and China's taunting of Taiwan. 

Ukraine separated from the Soviet Union just 31 years ago. China and Taiwan have had separate governments for 73 years; they were united under the same regime for just four of the last 127 years. Taiwan is essentially united in wanting to be free of Beijing's rule, while Ukraine has had to deal with unruly separatist regions loyal to Moscow. Taiwan is a flourishing liberal democracy, while Ukraine has yet to build a lasting democratic infrastructure.

Both countries are threatened by unpredictable nearby autocrats. But they are certainly not the same, and the U.S. hasn't treated them as such. Kharis Templeman of the Hoover Institution notes that "security support for Ukraine is recent, limited, and subsumed under broader concerns about Russia's challenge to the post-Cold War European security order"; in Taiwan, by contrast, "American interests run deep." The U.S. is Taiwan's primary security partner and source of military aid, training, and arms sales. This history of engagement dates back more than seven decades, and it reflects the fact that Washington sees much more at stake if Taiwan faces aggression.

Chinese President Xi Jinping believes the U.S. is a "fading superpower" that stands in the way of Chinese power. And China and Russia did recently establish an alliance (albeit a thin one). China came to Russia's defense by supporting an end to NATO expansion, and Russia returned the favor by supporting China's claim to Taiwan. China has also provided some relief to the Russian economy after the West reacted to the invasion with sanctions.

But China appears to have been surprised by Putin's military action. Beijing's response to the war has swayed between two stances it has been trying to hold simultaneously: generally opposing the invasion, and sympathizing with Moscow's security concerns.

Officials from Taiwan have emphasized the differences between the two countries. "Trying to inappropriately link Ukraine's situation with Taiwan's is disturbing people's morale," Cabinet spokesperson Lo Ping-cheng said Monday. Beijing doesn't want people comparing the situations either, though for different reasons: When Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying declared last week that "Taiwan is not Ukraine," she was arguing that "Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China."

But the most important difference right now is a military one. "The Ukraine crisis will not influence Chinese decisions on whether or not to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion because, given the force demands, China simply lacks the capacity to do so for the foreseeable future," writes the Atlantic Council's Harlan Ullman. Putin preceded his invasion by amassing hundreds of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border. China currently shows no sign of surrounding Taiwan in a comparable manner.

And for all the fears that a restrained response to the Ukraine invasion will "embolden" China to take Taiwan, the U.S. has displayed no unwillingness here to its defend its allies and partners. Indeed, while it has wisely refused to send troops into Ukraine, Washington has been intimately involved with the global efforts to sanction Moscow for the war. In any case, as the Atlantic Council's Emma Ashford points out, America's "growing focus on China will limit what Washington can and should commit." If the U.S. is bogged down in Ukraine, that hardly makes it more likely to stop China.  

There's no reason as of now to believe that the U.S. will not maintain its long-held "strategic ambiguity" when it comes to Taiwan. Neither China nor Taiwan are drawing parallels between their situation and that between Russia and Ukraine; the United States shouldn't either.