David Zweig is professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
If Xi Jinping was thinking of making a move on Taiwan, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’ll likely be thinking again. For the Chinese president, the war in Europe is playing out like a cautionary tale. The use of brutal military force in the 21st century, he won’t have failed to notice, comes with considerable risk.
Ukrainians have demonstrated that people fight hard when their backs are against a wall, and the same would likely hold true for the Taiwanese, who value their democracy and independence from their larger neighbor just as much — if not more — than Ukrainians. Taiwan’s military may be rightly criticized for its poorly coordinated forces, and its government has been hesitant to invest in its own defense, but a Taiwanese people united by a common threat could fight a lot harder than anticipated.
True, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be more motivated than the Russian forces — national reunification is a mantra buried deep in its core — but an amphibious invasion across 100 miles of sea would also be much harder to pull off than Russia’s current land invasion. And while the United States has rejected a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, as it would risk nuclear confrontation, American planes flying from U.S. aircraft carriers off the eastern coast of Taiwan could easily create a form of “no-sail zone” between Fujian and Taiwan.
The Russian invasion has also demonstrated how apparently modest leaders can rise to the occasion and rally an outgunned society into resisting an invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as an unlikely hero. Why expect any less from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose tough stance against China already earns her strong praise? One can easily envision the support she would garner around the world when facing off against a macho PLA and Chinese Communist Party leadership.
U.S. President Joe Biden, too, would have little trouble mobilizing his allies and partners to support America’s defense of Taiwan, leading to a very different dynamic than the one currently playing out in Eastern Europe. These would include the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Australia and perhaps even India — the U.S.’s partner in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
The West’s solidarity during the Ukraine crisis so far will not be wasted on Xi either. The European Union is China’s major trading partner. Running afoul of it, as well as the U.S. and Japan, would be dangerous for a leader who knows he must raise living standards at home. China’s deep integration into the global economy and the leverage of Beijing’s $1,068 billion in treasury bonds would make Western sanctions more painful to implement, but these could not be ruled out, preceding, or after, a Taiwan invasion.
With Putin wreaking havoc in Ukraine, an attack on Taiwan now would risk appearing coordinated with Moscow. Such an attack would quickly be seen as an effort by the Sino-Russian authoritarian alliance to undermine democratic forces, rolling back years of Beijing’s soft power efforts, such as the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s massive global transport and infrastructure project
Moreover, at the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party late this year, Xi will be asking the party leadership to entrust him with supreme control for at least another five years. Already, his willingness to wed China to Putin by declaring Sino-Russian relations a “friendship without limits” may have led some to question his leadership. A full scale invasion of Taiwan would further highlight the risks of empowering an unfettered dictator.
The situation is unlikely to get better for Xi after the war, when the U.S. government, heeding its own lessons from Ukraine, will likely reinforce Taiwanese defenses, strengthen its commitment to defend democracies and challenge the expansion of “authoritarian bullies.”
But if Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a warning to Xi, whether he will heed it remains to be seen. If he does, however, choose to mimic his Russian counterpart’s attempt at empire rebuilding through his own war of reunification against Taiwan, he will likely discover that even absolute dictators are limited in what they can accomplish.