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In February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine on account of "denazification and demilitarisation". In response to this, the United States and its allies did not send troops to fight in Ukraine (Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU) and sent military aid to Ukraine only.

A lot of political commentators point out that this is primarily due to the Russia and US both being nuclear powers and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

However, this also seemingly sets up a very strange precedent where nuclear countries can be aggressors and attack smaller countries without other nuclear powers interfering due to MAD.

Moving elsewhere to the situation with Taiwan (which is becoming nervous seeing what is happening in Ukraine) and China, what is to stop/deter China from invading Taiwan as the US would not want to get involved yet again?

Note - The USA does have the Taiwan Relations Act but this is strategically ambiguous (to the best of my knowledge).

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    A guess: economic stability is elevated to a much higher level of priority by Xi Jinping than by Putin, and much of the world is responding to Russian aggression with economic warfare.
    – uhoh
    Mar 2 at 22:29
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    Taiwan is not surrounded by black sea oil, nor is Xi a multi-billionaire oil baron.
    – dandavis
    Mar 2 at 23:46
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    @uhoh : please note that that "much of the world" is basically Nato countries, comprising less than 15% of the world population. And besides that, Nato countries are much more relying on trade with China, many basically having outsourced most of their industry there, so economic sanctions would be much more costly against China than against Russia. And even the sanctions against Russia are very costly to Western countries, causing no small amount of internal strife.
    – vsz
    Mar 4 at 18:04
  • @vsz Good point!
    – uhoh
    Mar 4 at 20:59
  • There is now a strategic-ambiguity tag, but I'm not sure if you'd like to add it or not.
    – uhoh
    Mar 22 at 20:44

4 Answers 4

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I would point to 2 main differences:

The US is committed to defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack

The US has a "strategically ambiguous", but also very real, commitment to defend Taiwan from any invasion. While the US officially accepts "One China", they are also very clear in their support for Taiwan, both politically and militarily, and their opposition to any Chinese efforts to take control of Taiwan. Contrast this with the lack of any American or European commitment to military defense of Ukraine.

But Mr Biden has also made clear that the Americans are not willing to fight, even though the Russians clearly are. Furthermore, he's ruled out sending forces into Ukraine to rescue US citizens, should it come to that. And he's actually pulled out troops who were serving in the country as military advisers and monitors.

Taiwan is an island, which makes an invasion much more difficult

Amphibious invasions are extremely difficult and complicated. There is a tremendous difference between invading Ukraine, where troops could simply drive across a long and unfortified border with Russian controlled territory, and Taiwan, which would involve carrying troops across 180km of water, while under attack by air and sea from both the US and Taiwan. It wasn't crazy for Putin to think that taking Ukraine would be quick and easy and could be accomplished before the West got around to major sanctions. China would be under no such illusions.

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    I guess US's committion to defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack doesn't necessarily mean they will send troops here to fight China? Supplying weapons is also counted? I am totally agree with your second point on the difficulty to invading Taiwan, though.
    – No One
    Mar 5 at 17:26
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    There's a high probability that substantial portions of the CPU, memory and other advanced bits of the device you are using to browse this were manufactured in Taiwan. If it's a component using the latest in semiconductor etching technology that component's possible sources of origin - a latest gen "fab" - are currently mostly limited to Taiwan. And South Korea, also well within Chinese malfeasance range. This makes Taiwan a much significant economic partner to the West than Ukraine (or many European countries in NATO for that matter). Mar 5 at 19:25
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Aside from the obvious "It could still trigger a war with the US" despite any US desire to not get involved, there are quite a few potential repercussions independent of US involvement should China invade and conquer Taiwan. Those don't exist, or don't exist nearly as strongly, in the Russia-Ukraine relationship/war.

First, an actual Chinese invasion of Taiwan would demonstrate to China's neighbors that they, too, could very well be the target of Chinese military aggression. The only reason Japan is not a significant nuclear power on par with China is because Japan doesn't want to be that. That could very well change should China invade Taiwan. A nuclear-armed Japan with a nuclear arsenal comparable to China's would seriously crimp China's ability to dominate east Asia. And if Japan turns the switch on a nuclear weapons program, how far behind would South Korea be?

Second, countries such as Vietnam and Philippines that have claims in the South China Sea that conflict with China's would be a lot more wary of China - Vietnam has even fought a war with China in 1979, so a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would rekindle fears of continued Chinese aggression. Note that one of the reasons China gave for attacking Vietnam in 1979 was Vietnam's then-control of the Spratly Islands, which China claims.

Note that if the US failed to act militarily to support Taiwan should China invade and likely conquer it, nations such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Phillipines, and others would certainly feel even more need to take a much larger role in defending themselves from China.

Third, there's little economic gain - Taiwan's economy, although about the 20th largest in the world, is but 4% of the Chinese economy, and the Taiwanese economy is heavily dependent upon exports to nations that would likely cease buying from Taiwanese sources after a Chinese invasion, driving that 4% even lower.

Fourth, what happens to China if the world stops buying their exports? Economic sanctions against China limiting exports could potentially be absolutely devastating to the Chinese economy.

Fifth, countries could send all the Chinese students in universities home. Or seize property owned by Chinese companies and individuals. Such actions would disproportionately impact rich and powerful Chinese - and their entire families. All those high muckity-mucks in the CCP who finally got to send their annoying, do-nothing, lazy teenagers abroad and enjoy the fruits of their long labors in peace would have to deal with boomerang college students. That may be a bit of a humorous take, but the internal dynamics of CCP senior members likely plays a huge role in Chinese national decisions.

In short, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be an expensive operation that could provoke a serious war with the US, compel neighboring powers Japan and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons, cause China to lose all trust with other east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Philippines, and if successful would likely destroy a significant portion of Taiwan's economy, making the acquisition much less valuable. And erode support for and from senior CCP officials.

None of those factors apply as greatly to Ukraine. Poland is almost certainly not going to try to obtain nuclear weapons to deter Russia, Ukraine doesn't have anywhere near as much international commerce as Taiwan, Russia only exports natural gas and oil, which as commodities are going up significantly in price as sanctions on Russian exports are put in place - which means there will be a lot of pressure soon to relax those sanctions (similar to how France moved to stop sanctioning Saddam Hussein's Iraq not long after the 1991 war in exchange for rights to Iraqi oil). How long will Germany want to punish Russia if the cost of natural gas in Germany is three or four times more than it would be without sanctions on Russia? Putin certainly knows this - sanctions will almost certainly be short-lived.

And if Russian oligarchs didn't support Putin's invasion, it likely wouldn't have happened. Or maybe Russia would have new oligarchs who did support the invasion...

Finally, the main difference.

Russia views Ukraine as a buffer against NATO, and they also view the 2014 US-led deposing of Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Yanukovych as an illegal coup. With a literal "Fuck the EU" attitude*, the US poked Putin's Russian bear right in the eye in 2014. And just in the past few months, the Biden Administration support for Ukrainian admission to NATO only poured fuel on that fire. Imagine if Russia had deposed the government of Mexico, installed a regime friendly to Russia, and then a few years later signed a treaty with that Russia-friendly government to station Russian weapons and troops in Mexico?

That's what the US did with Ukraine, and that certainly does not apply to Taiwan.

And yes, that is what the US did. BBC commentary:

Jonathan Marcus: The US says that it is working with all sides in the crisis to reach a peaceful solution, noting that "ultimately it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future". However this transcript suggests that the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals. Russian spokesmen have insisted that the US is meddling in Ukraine's affairs - no more than Moscow, the cynic might say - but Washington clearly has its own game-plan. The clear purpose in leaking this conversation is to embarrass Washington and for audiences susceptible to Moscow's message to portray the US as interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs.

Umm, the US clearly was "interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs", despite the EU knowing Russia considered such acts extremely provocative:

Jonathan Marcus: Not for the first time in an international crisis, the US expresses frustration at the EU's efforts. Washington and Brussels have not been completely in step during the Ukraine crisis. The EU is divided and to some extent hesitant about picking a fight with Moscow. It certainly cannot win a short-term battle for Ukraine's affections with Moscow - it just does not have the cash inducements available. The EU has sought to play a longer game; banking on its attraction over time. But the US clearly is determined to take a much more activist role.

The US clearly "pick[ed] a fight with Moscow", one that the EU did not want to engage in. Hence Nuland's "Fuck the EU" comment.

Jonathan Marcus: Overall this is a damaging episode between Washington and Moscow. Nobody really emerges with any credit. The US is clearly much more involved in trying to broker a deal in Ukraine than it publicly lets on. There is some embarrassment too for the Americans given the ease with which their communications were hacked. But is the interception and leaking of communications really the way Russia wants to conduct its foreign policy ? Goodness - after Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the like could the Russian government be joining the radical apostles of open government? I doubt it. Though given some of the comments from Vladimir Putin's adviser on Ukraine Sergei Glazyev - for example his interview with the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper the other day - you don't need your own listening station to be clear about Russia's intentions. Russia he said "must interfere in Ukraine" and the authorities there should use force against the demonstrators.

* - I seem to remember the reason the EU and especially Germany didn't support the US-led ouster of Yanukovych was because they viewed that act as something Russia would view as an act of war, but I can't find documentation for that. That view seems prescient, and if Russia viewed deposing Yanukovych as a less-serious act of war, you can imagine what they'd think of Ukraine joining NATO.

Note also that the expletive is a direct quote from senior US State Department official Victoria Nuland. IMO it's absolutely critical to capturing the US attitude towards interfering in Ukraine right on Russia's doorstep and therefore important in understanding differences between Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan.

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    Can you provide a source for calling the Maidan Revolution "US-led"? Your link only mentions general statements in support of the protests from US officials - pretty much the absolute least you could expect from them. Contrast this with US-expressions of support (in both words and billions of dollars of weapons) for Taiwan's government, which China sees as a rebel force occupying their sovereign territory. US support for Taiwan seems to be a much more serious thumb in the eye to China's sovereignty than the limited US support to Ukraine was to Russia
    – divibisan
    Mar 3 at 0:54
  • @divibisan I put the quotes from the BBC link in Wikipedia's United States involvement section that I linked in the question directly. BBC agrees with my assessment...
    – Just Me
    Mar 5 at 15:31
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    Not really. It shows the wasn’t a fully neutral party (which, of course they’re not!) they were making efforts to negotiate a resolution between the Ukrainian protestors and the yanukovich government, but nothing it either the leaked transcript, or the BBC analysis points to your claims that it was “us-led” or an illegitimate foreign-led coup. That’s transparent Russian propaganda
    – divibisan
    Mar 5 at 16:37
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    @JustMe No, NATO didn't follow through because France and Germany (and others possibly) didn't want it. As far as I know, Obama and Biden have not made further efforts to bring Ukraine closer to NATO membership. The Reuters link in your answer points out that Biden puts the Ukrainian decision on NATO membership with Ukraine rather than Russia. Biden does not say that Ukraine should become a member whereas Bush did encourage it at the time, per my previous link Bush said: "Your nation has made a bold decision, and the United States strongly supports your request".
    – JJJ
    Mar 23 at 23:06
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However, this also seemingly sets up a very strange precedent where nuclear countries can be aggressors and attack smaller countries without other nuclear powers interfering due to MAD.

Nuclear countries can be aggressors and attack smaller countries without other nuclear powers interfering (with arms - they still can and do with sanctions) due to MAD.

I'm not saying it's right, but that's how the world appears to work. Prior to nuclear weapons, the same applied to other disruptive military capabilities.

This is not a new precedent. It has been set in 1950 in Korea, reaffirmed in Vietnam in 1955, in Czechia and separately Egypt in 1967, Israel in 1973, Afghanistan in 1979, 1986 and 2001, Kosovo in 1998, Iraq in 2003, Georgia in 2008, Syria in 2015. Seems to be on a 5-year cadence.

It is possible that at some point, China might use force to take over Taiwan. There are disincentives to keep it from doing that for now, but long-term, it's not certain if that's preventable by any currently known means.

This is why countries create nuclear arsenals. They are expensive to both obtain and maintain, but they get one into that "force wielders" club. For some, it's about the power to invade, for others, about the safety of not being invaded, and often it's both.

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    Another weird cadence: everytime there's olympic games in russia or china: russia invades a country: 2008 - Summer games in Beijing: Russia invades Ossetia, and fights a war with Georgia ; 2014 - Winter games in Sochi: Russia annexes the Crimea, and the peoples-republics of Donezk and Luhansk form ; 2020 -Winter games in Beijing: Russia invades Ukraine
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 23 at 12:42
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Why wouldn't China invade Taiwan? Because China doesn't want to invade Taiwan.

China would much rather see Taiwan incorporated into mainland China via political means.

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    No real sources were used in this answer, and it seems opinionated Mar 3 at 20:12
  • Can you expand on this? I'm pretty sure that Russia would much rather have reunited with Ukraine peacefully (there's much speculation that this explains the weak and disorganized initial invasion) but once they decided that this wouldn't happen, invasion was the next best option. Why wouldn't China make a similar decision, if they decided that peaceful reunification wasn't going to happen?
    – divibisan
    Mar 7 at 16:11

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