There has been a flush of media statements on the implications of the Ukraine-Russia war for future Taiwan-China relationships.
Does the reaction of the US over Ukraine somehow act as an indicator of likely US reactions in the case of a possible Taiwan-China armed conflict? That is a question put without any qualification.
However, what is argued is whether the two cases are in sufficient contrast to make any deductions from the one or the other. The contrasts are enormous, but perhaps require some elaboration and focus.
First, the Ukraine-Russia war is in Europe, and involves Ukrainian borders of tremendous importance and sensitivity to a variety of nearby nations — in particular Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and, of course, the huge Russian border, more than 1,500km in length.
Second, history and geography point to the strategic position of Ukraine. For the vast part of its history, it was an important part of Russia itself.
The Tsars of old could rely on Ukraine for entry to the warm-sea ports of the Black Sea, the bone of contention that was the background to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, embroiling the most powerful nations of Europe at that time — Russia, Britain, France and Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire more generally.
Placed between the West and the East, between the growing industrial powers and the great grain supplies of Russia to the East, Ukraine then became the backbone of Russian modernization, especially of heavy industry based in fast-flowing river transport, the Black Sea international outlets for trade, and the great deposits of coal and iron feeding into railroad building and steel-based military hardware production.
With its present population of 44 million and its size comprising more than 600,000km2, as well as its strategic location, Ukraine incorporates an area of massive psychological importance to Russia. Also to this add the ambitions and volatility of Russian President Vladimir Putin, probably the nearest equivalent to former US president Donald Trump.
The huge imports into Ukraine of machinery, fuels, chemicals and foodstuffs are supplied primarily by China, Russia, Germany, Poland and the EU generally, which makes it highly internationalized, but against this Ukraine and Russia have suffered very low rates of economic growth for some time.
All such points might lead one to think that Ukraine is of great importance to the US when compared with Taiwan, but this is not necessarily the case.
At least four elements render it difficult to argue, from the Ukraine-Russia conflict to possible US reactions, that any outbreak is coming between Taiwan and China.
First, whatever US President Joe Biden might say today, as the days unfold it is possible that the US could allow NATO to do the work of war assistance to Ukraine through armaments and logistics, even with air and land warfare if or when Russia transgresses NATO territory.
Through the Trump administration to present, whatever the fluster of comments from the White House, the US tendency has been to withdraw from armed conflicts, evidenced especially in the messy, disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as encouragement of a more Europe-based NATO.
This means that any foreign engagements are likely to be at a low ebb for the US for some time. Indirect involvement through NATO is the best option for Washington. NATO was formed for this very purpose, to defend the so-called Western alliance on European ground and around its frontiers.
Second, there is no comparable mediator or method of diffusion similar to NATO in the US-Taiwan situation, except the relatively weak one of UN. The latter has, as a whole, usually lagged the members of the UN Security Council in emergencies. The individual nations of the council tend to go it alone when it comes to a real crisis. This says more about the failure of the UN than about the US, Ukraine or Taiwan. This means that the US would see itself as the lone effective defender of Taiwan.
Third, and of great global importance, the US gains more soft power from defending Taiwan than from interfering in Ukraine. Taiwan is a major democracy outside of Europe and the US, its GDP is four times that of Ukraine, and it has a historical alliance with the US of great strength, if also periodic uncertainty.
Most college students in the US learn something positive about Taiwan in their civics courses, and it has high general visibility. Taiwan is ranked 78.6 on the Economic Freedom Index of Random House, 4 points above that of the US itself. In contrast, Ukraine sits at 54.2, slightly below China at 58.4.
It is difficult for Ukraine to redress this contrast. Although it might well be that Ukrainian democracy has been hindered by violent conflict with Russia on the eastern frontiers of the Donbas region for some years, this is not enough of an excuse for the weakness of Ukraine as a democratic system, especially in comparison with the clear democracy of Taiwan.
Since the popular outburst of liberalism in Ukraine in December 1991, and again the November 2004 Orange Revolution that brought in general elections, democracy in Ukraine has wilted. There has been a secular retreat from media freedom, but an increase in corruption at all levels.
In addition, anti-Russian policy has not been consistent, and even before 2014 there were moves in government toward “controlled democracy.” From 2015, the pro-Russian movement in eastern regions has seemed strong, reforms have slowed down and the economy has not fared well.
Fourth, among the present independent states that were formerly part of the USSR, all of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia are pro-Russian on many grounds, but especially trade and commercial union, as illustrated with their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union since 2015.
This could well be the route for a quick spread of the Ukraine-Russia conflict among a host of interests and powers east and west of Ukraine. This makes the situation ill-defined and not one that the US would wish to engage with.
In frankness, most NATO countries are seen as thankful that Ukraine was not allowed into NATO before this warfare, as their governments do not wish to be drawn into the country’s physical defense. Although Ukraine is playing the democracy card, it is not so convincing.
A long period of peace is probably necessary to allow entrenchment of liberal institutions and social policies, but Ukraine is not such a suitable case for US-determined intervention, as is the successful democracy of Taiwan, where warfare is less likely to embroil a myriad of regional powers.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS University of London, a senior fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, and a historian and political economist who has taught and researched at universities in Taiwan, Australia, Britain and Japan.
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