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I have read on the news that the US military and the President have vowed to protect Taiwan if China invades the de facto independent, sovereign nation.

China arguably has a stronger claim to Taiwan than Russia does to Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan still calls itself China: its official name is the Republic of China. There is no ethnic Taiwanese population in the way that there is an ethnic Ukrainian population or a Taiwanese language (they speak Mandarin in China). Taiwan is more ethnically Chinese (97% Han Chinese/Taiwanese) than mainland China (92% Han Chinese).

Why is the US military and government vowing to protect Taiwan when they won't protect Ukraine? Is there an alliance Taiwan is part of that provides insurance from other countries in the event of an external invasion like NATO that Ukraine is not part of anything similar that would give it American protection?

I am not arguing that it is okay for China to invade Taiwan for these reasons. I think such an invasion would be devastating for world peace and the world order of respecting sovereign boundaries which is under attack by Russian imperialism in Ukraine and has the potential of being further attacked by Chinese imperialism.

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    I should note there's no "vow" to protect Taiwan. President Biden raised eyebrows in saying something to that effect
    – Machavity
    Oct 21, 2022 at 14:27
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    "they won't protect Ukraine" - might be true de jure, but it is true de facto for quite a few years: "...training the Ukraine military has received since Russia first invaded the nation in 2014, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a press conference ...".
    – Alexei
    Oct 21, 2022 at 14:58
  • 3
    4) What is your point about "or a Taiwanese language"? When you take the Taipei MRT you hear announcements repeated in three very different dialects; Mandarin, Hokkien ("Taiwanese") and Hakka as well as English, with Japanese and Korean at a few stops as well. Yes those first three are dialects and not different languages proper but unless one learn them, a speaker of one can't use the other. So I'm not sure how this factors in to your question.
    – uhoh
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:40
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    "There is no ethnic Taiwanese population in the way that there is an ethnic Ukrainian population" I don't know what "like Ukrainian" means, but the island of Formosa does have an indigenous population that is considered ethnically distinct from the mainland. Oct 22, 2022 at 17:31
  • 7
    Ethnicity is a pretty subjective, multifaceted phenomenon, but the existence of a Taiwanese state, with a people many of whom calling themselves Taiwanese, seems to imply the existence of a Taiwanese ethnicity, in just the same way as it does for Ukraine.
    – ajd138
    Oct 22, 2022 at 22:59

6 Answers 6

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The main reasons for the difference are likely:

  • Taiwan's economic importance is more obvious. It does a great deal of high-tech manufacturing, and includes the world's leading computer chip manufacturing company, TSMC. Ukraine's grain exports are also important, but less so to the US than to other parts of the world.

  • The US has a long-standing commitment to Taiwan, made when the US was vastly more powerful than the PRC. Nowadays, the military power of the two states is closer to equal, but the US does not want to back down.

  • It's quite practical for the US to intervene in a PRC-Taiwan conflict, because Taiwan is an island, and the US has a powerful navy. In contrast, basing US troops in Ukraine would be seen as menacing Russia in new ways. Having ships near Taiwan is somewhat less threatening, and ships are far easier to move than armoured divisions.

  • If it came to a naval battle in the Taiwan Strait, that doesn't immediately lead to a US invasion of mainland China or a Chinese invasion of the USA, so the risk of nuclear escalation is low. If the US based troops in Ukraine and they defeated the Russian forces there, nothing would prevent the US invading Russia, so the nuclear risk is high.

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    Of course TSMC gets ~half of its semiconductor neon from Ukraine. What are the ways in which semiconductor-grade neon is critical for manufacturing? It's as if the whole world was somehow interconnected... :-)
    – uhoh
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:27
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    Expanding on the third point, US intervention in the Taiwan Strait has a far lower escalation potential than an intervention in Ukraine. A naval battle in the Strait can't turn into an American invasion of the Chinese mainland or a Chinese invasion of America, so there's no reason to go nuclear. A ground battle in Ukraine looks an awful lot like a precursor to an invasion of Russia or Poland, depending on who wins.
    – Mark
    Oct 23, 2022 at 5:05
  • Your second bullet is probably the most important. The US has a long-standing protective relationship with Taiwan and almost no similar history with Ukraine. There's a huge difference between maintaining a status quo and entering into a new alliance.
    – JimmyJames
    Oct 24, 2022 at 20:54
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I take somewhat of an issue with the framing of this question.

when they won't protect Ukraine?

This seems like a bit of a willful misrepresentation of the situation.

The level of support for Ukraine, and pushback against Russia, seems almost unprecedented for the West, even during the Cold War.

You can contrast that with the various invasions the USSR carried out in Europe (and Afghanistan) - they got nowhere near that level of pushback.

Short of putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, against a nuclear state, to defend a state that it has no alliance with, the West is doing quite a lot.

As it should - I don't have problem with aiding Ukraine, only with the formulation of this question.

Who knows what help Taiwan will end up getting, if it ever comes to that?

Regarding putting boots on the ground, there is also the problem of NATO not doing a great job of signaling, in 2014. When dealing with nuclear states, you need to be somewhat clear on what your red lines are (but not necessarily on what your reactions will be). Had the EU and NATO pushed back harder in 2014, we wouldn't be where we are today. Suddenly doing it now, essentially retroactively, is not good crisis/expectation management between nuclear states.

One could even nominate Germany's wishy-washy statements about Nordstrom 2 in the weeks leading up to the invasion as another opportunity lost. Not that Obama's message that no one was going to war for Ukraine, nor Trump's pro-Kremlin "diplomacy" are heroes of this sorry tale. Nor are Berlin and Paris pushing of the Minsk accords. The West couldn't have done 2022 in 2014, Ukraine wasn't ready to defend itself, nor was it very unified against Russia. But the West needn't have been quite so 1938 and tolerant of Putin since.

Just like the Cuban missile crisis came around because the USSR misread what it could get away with (quite possibly because the US had been doing the same thing in Turkey).

Not a great way to minimize nuclear extinction risks.

The Taiwan situation is, for now, much better managed, as per John Dalman's answer. China knows it can expect significant opposition if it invades, it shouldn't be surprised if it happens.

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    "Who knows what help Taiwan will end up getting, if it ever comes to that?" Exactly, words are cheap (and can be used for deterrence). Nobody really knows how much support Taiwan would really get if it comes to the worst case. On the other hand the current support for Ukraine is real and substantial. This question may simply be asked too early. We should wait until such an invasion happened and then compare actual support levels. Oct 24, 2022 at 6:47
  • Really pedantic point, but I'd object to the term 'nuclear extinction risks' on the basis that nuclear war doesn't present a credible threat of human extinction. Certainly a catastrophe grossly worse than anything that has occurred before, but not extinction. Jul 19, 2023 at 19:32
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While I agree with some of the points in the other answer, some of the points (while true) are not the cause of the commitment.

The main reason for the difference of approaches is inertia.

How the support for Taiwan started

The commitment to defend Taiwan was made when Taiwan was still considered "China," while China (i.e., PRC) was still commonly called the "Red China."

Supporting the the containment of China, as a Communist country, was in line with general policy of "containment" of the Communist regimes.

The Communist regimes were defined as regimes ruled by the Communist Party (an organization which, despite national differences, considered itself an international political organization) which had an explicit stated goal of world domination.

In light of this "containment" policy, the support for Taiwan was just another support for a country which some specific Communist country targeted for a take over. This was no different from supporting South Korea against the North Korea or supporting South Vietnam against the North Vietnam.

Change from "containment" to the Reagan Doctrine

During the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan, in 1985 State Of The Union address made a refinement to the containment doctrine in a statement that became known as the "Reagan Doctrine."

we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.

This doctrine meant that the United States would not only contain the Soviet attempts at military expansion along national border lines.

It allowed arming countries/movements fighting against invasions by the Communist regimes inside the countries which were invaded. However, it meant assistance, but not direct defense, for countries willing to attempt to fight off the invading armies or Communist proxy governments.

The combination of both

Today, there are

  1. some countries which are under the US "nuclear umbrella" (commitment to retaliate with a nuclear strike if a nuclear weapon is used against them),
  2. some countries which have US defense commitments (e.g., South Korea and Taiwan, all NATO countries, etc.),
  3. and some countries which get heavy weapon assistance while having no commitment of direct military assistance. Israel is probably the oldest member of this list, but a number of other Middle Eastern countries are on it, too. Ukraine is probably on its to remaining on this list unless it joins NATO.

There is no universal reason why the countries in the 3rd category are not in the 2nd. It's different for each one. The relationship which resulted in their being added to that list arouse independently for each individual country.

Why Ukraine

It has come as a surprise to most people that the Communist expansionism has not gone away despite many countries rejecting Communism as their state ideology. The fact that the USSR's expansionism has been co-opted by Russia's new imperialism is not too far a leap though.

Ukraine's cause has been a surprise for a lot of people. So much so, that it is even a cause for dismay for some of them. Largely is has not yet settled in that Ukraine squarely fits the criterion stated in the Reagan Doctrine.

However, the political class clearly believes that it does (and I personally agree), so this is a case of the political class actually being ahead of the culture on seeing the change in the world.

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    It should also be emphasized that Ukraine was part of the USSR when all this Reagan stuff was happening, and the US was obviously not going to pledge to defend one part of the USSR from another. The earliest point at which the US could plausibly have pledged to defend Ukraine from Russia was December 1991 (or thereabouts), long after Reagan left office. But that marked the de facto end of the Cold War, so there was far less interest in this sort of thing at that point.
    – Kevin
    Oct 22, 2022 at 18:57
  • @Kevin why would that matter? The USSR hasn't existed for 2 generations now. But the doctrine has not been rescinded. It's not necessarily specific to the USSR. Willingness to fight to secure their own rights is the central qualifying criterion.
    – wrod
    Oct 22, 2022 at 23:58
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    @wrod If it's not necessarily specific to the USRR, what is it specific to? Reagan doctrine could be explained by the necessity of containing a world power who, allegedly, wanted to convert every country on Earth into a communist state. Once the red threat is over, what sustains Reagan doctrine now? Anti-russian xenophobia? It is nice to say that the West is supporting Ukraine against an invading army, but Russia says it is "liberating" the country from a fascist regime just like the US liberated Iraq and (briefly) Afghanistan from "wrong" regimes.
    – Rekesoft
    Oct 24, 2022 at 10:00
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    @Rekesoft What Russia claims (and what the US claimed in Iraq and Afghanistan) are borderline meaningless. The actual facts of the situation are relevant, and the fact that we have an authoritarian nation invading a democratic nation whose population is overwhelmingly against the invasion is not contested by serious outside observers. Jul 19, 2023 at 19:40
  • @Rekesoft re: "what is it specific to?" I answered this in the next sentence: "Willingness to fight to secure their own rights is the central qualifying criterion." re: "Russia says it is 'liberating' the country..." What an aggressor says is not an objective criterion. Anyone can say anything. It's been assessed, after quite a bit of examination, what Russia is actually doing. What it is says has no bearing on it.
    – wrod
    Jul 24, 2023 at 6:07
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The difference is simple: Ukraine is at war, while Taiwan isn't.

I think most of the other answers take this for granted without spelling it out enough.

Regarding Taiwan, the USA is trying to deter an attack. So they make a lot of grand claims, but at the same time keep them vague enough so they aren't forced to do anything specific if war comes. They are trying to imply that they would fight a full scale war against China if China invades Taiwan, but won't actually commit to it.

In Ukraine, the USA is trying to weaken Russia without provoking an escalation that would hurt the USA. That's the next phase: After your claims that you would intervene failed to deter an attack, people get to see what they are actually worth. In the case of Ukraine, those claims are worth a whole lot: If the USA did a lot more to fight against Russia, it's quite possible it would end in a nuclear war (no one knows - even now it's a possibility, how remote of a possibility is debateable).

Of course the process doesn't just have those two steps. It's an endless cycle of threats and partial (or full or completely non-existent) execution of those threats.

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  • "trying to deter an attack." <- Many would argue it is trying to provoke an attack. Which is something it has also done in the Ukraine.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 11, 2023 at 13:07
  • @einsupportsModeratorStrike That's a ridiculuous conspiracy theory.
    – Nobody
    Aug 11, 2023 at 19:21
  • Who is conspiring with whom in this supposed conspiracy theory?
    – einpoklum
    Aug 11, 2023 at 19:43
  • I like how you tried to argue against the technicality of it being defined as a conspiracy theory, instead of it being an unsubstantiated, unscientific, nonsensical claim. In this case, it would be the US government conspiring to start a war. Or to cover up their failures. But who is conspiring with whom in flat earth theory? Or Young Earth Creationist theory? Nov 2, 2023 at 7:32
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For Ukraine, the most crucial Russian demand throughout the years since the US-led provocation at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, which solemnly declared that Ukraine will join NATO, basically amounted to making Ukraine a neutral, buffer state between NATO and Russia. Before the 2022 invasion, they did not seem to intend to occupy and incorporate any parts of Ukraine. This goal rather evolved after the invasion (as frequently happens during wars).

For Taiwan on the other hand, China claims the island as its own. This is different from Russia's meager pre-war claims in Ukraine. Moreover, Taiwan is a cornerstone of the so-called "First Island Chain", which is basically the encirclement policy that the US has been implementing since the Trump administration. The idea is to encircle China with sentinel states that are armed to the teeth in an attempt to curb its expansion. The US is currently the most powerful state in the world with regard to its influence in foreign countries and it will therefore try to maintain this status at all costs. Currently, the only country that can challenge the US here is China, hence the tougher stance.

A third and lesser reason regarding the more aggressive US stance in Taiwan would then be the importance of Taiwan from a resources perspective. But I would like to emphasize that containing China is a far more important objective for the US here.

Finally, it is worth mentioning what Chomsky has been pointing out, namely that it seems to be official US policy to prepare for a war with both Russia and China. So since they got the former, it now makes sense to strive for the latter according to Machiavelli's principle "If the war is to be now or later, I'd rather have it now (before China gets any stronger)".

It cannot be emphasized enough that the current status quo regarding Taiwan (i.e. strategic ambiguity) is constantly being encroached upon by the US and not China.

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    Russia has occupied Crimea since 2014, and was using Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic as proxies to hold more of Ukraine. All this before the 2022 invasion. As for China, on Saturday, "The Communist Party of China, on the last day of a major congress that confirmed a third five-year term for President Xi Jinping, inserted a statement into the party's constitution last Saturday "resolutely opposing and deterring separatists" seeking Taiwan's independence." (From the AP article titled "German legislators oppose threats vs Taiwan") So it's not at all one sided.
    – prosfilaes
    Oct 24, 2022 at 17:26
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    My point was that "provocations lead to escalations". The Bucharest summit (among many other previous deviations) happened in 2008. That's 6 years before the 2014 incidents. Nancy Pelosi (again, among many other previous deviations) flew to Taiwan in August 2022. That's 3 months before the CPC congress.
    – Bendemann
    Oct 24, 2022 at 20:03
  • My point was that your facts were, and are, wrong. Crimea was occupied and incorporated long before 2022. "Provocations lead to escalations" is "she punched me first" type junk; in a long-running dispute, you can always define your actions as justified response to their actions, and they can do the opposite.
    – prosfilaes
    Oct 24, 2022 at 23:43
  • Downvoted for provably wrong statements that (coincidentally?) resemble Russian propaganda. "Before the 2022 invasion, [Putin] did not seem to intend to occupy and incorporate any parts of Ukraine"
    – Nobody
    Dec 4, 2022 at 13:30
  • @Nobody well, if you think Putin or his siloviki are dumb enough to go into a country that was going to give them 1001 complications (which is exactly what happened) while knowing precisely what happened during the Afghan war just 40 years ago, then you are wrong. The Ukraine invasion was a tremendous mistake (not to mention that they handed Europe on a silver plate to Washington) on their part but they seem to have genuinely thought it would be over very quickly. So no propaganda here. Welcomed to hear your arguments.
    – Bendemann
    Dec 5, 2022 at 9:28
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Public Commitments

In diplomacy, to avoid war, you want to be predictable.

Actually fighting a war to defend Taiwan isn't what the USA wants to do. It wants Taiwan to remain as it is, and no war to occur.

By committing to defend Taiwan, the practical result is it is less likely Taiwan will be invaded.

By following through on public commitments like that, you make your other commitments more likely to be believed. And thus, reduce the chance of actually having to fight wars.

Ukraine did not have public commitments on the level of Taiwan when Moscow invaded the country in 2014. It had lesser commitments by Moscow, USA and a number of other countries under the Budapest memorandum.

The invasion of Crimea to secure Moscow's black sea port was also viewed as a limited act of aggression. It isn't as if Moscow had a dozen other key black sea ports, or anything similar it could do.

USA didn't respond with a direct nuclear power on nuclear power fight; no commitments to do so.

Then Moscow invaded eastern Ukraine using irregular troops. Ukraine lost a bunch of territory.

At that point, USA started helping Ukraine build up its military. Ukraine reduced exports and increased domestic stores of weapons, started a system of territorial defence and a larger standing army with western-style trained NCOs.

Attempts to end the war in the East where conducted.

In 2022, Moscow did a full scale invasion. Again, Ukraine had no firm guarantees of collective defence.

Ukraine is getting support at a really high level. But it is doctrine to NOT have an open direct confrontation between nuclear armed states unless a public commitment was made prior to the war in order to avoid accidentally escalating to Mutually Assured Destruction.

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    @uhoh Moved the "anti-MAD" to the end and expanded, should be clearer now.
    – Yakk
    Oct 24, 2022 at 14:44

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