TOKYO – Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine is, most observers agree, an assault on democracy, sovereignty, and human rights. For the United States and its NATO allies, the Kremlin’s aggression demands a powerful response, including unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and huge amounts of military aid to Ukraine. But the West will stop short of any direct intervention, lest it be viewed as a declaration of war against Russia.
The contours of America’s policy toward Taiwan remain far less clear. And that is precisely the point: by refusing to say whether it would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, the US has helped to deter China – which does not want to risk a war with the world’s leading military superpower – without making any promises it might not want to keep. The question is whether this policy of “strategic ambiguity” can offer Taiwan the kind of protection that Ukraine clearly lacked.
For former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, the answer was no. Following his assassination, it now remains to be seen whether that stance survives him among Japanese leaders. In April, Abe argued that while strategic ambiguity worked in the past, its success always depended on two factors: the US being strong enough to maintain the policy, and China being “far inferior” to the US in military power. Neither condition applies today. In Abe’s view, the policy has thus become “untenable,” and an unequivocal US commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression is now urgently needed.
The US has not changed its Taiwan policy
In light of America’s failure to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine, Abe’s call for greater clarity is understandable. And the following month, US President Joe Biden seemed very nearly to heed it: on a visit to Japan, Biden declared outright that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if needed. But the White House was quick to walk back Biden’s statement, asserting that America’s policy toward Taiwan has not changed.
To be sure, that does not mean that Biden’s statement was untrue. Perhaps the US really does plan to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. The fact that Biden himself prefaced his statement by noting that US policy had not changed could suggest that defending Taiwan might have been the plan all along. But, even if that is the case, it is clear that US policymakers do not want to say it outright.
Chinese forces may well have to land on the island before the world finds out where the US stands. But how likely is a Chinese invasion? In attempting to answer this question, it is worth comparing the dynamic between Russia and Ukraine with that between China and Taiwan.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that whereas Ukraine is universally recognized as an independent country, Taiwan is officially considered to be a part of China. Though this would make little difference from a humanitarian perspective in the event of an invasion, it would change how any conflict is regarded under international law.
Taiwan is also both smaller and wealthier than Ukraine. While Ukraine’s population is less than one-third of Russia’s, Taiwan’s is just 2% of mainland China’s. But, despite Ukraine’s considerable agricultural resources, its GDP per capita is only about one-third that of Russia, whereas Taiwan‘s is nearly 2.5 times that of China.
TSMC provides for Taiwan’s prosperity
Taiwan owes much of its prosperity to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company – a world leader in its field and a poster child for industrial policy. In fact, TSMC’s stock-market capitalization is not much smaller than the island’s GDP. Thanks largely to this powerful growth engine, the Japan Center for Economic Research predicts that Taiwan’s per capita GDP will exceed Japan’s in 2028.
Despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping share a similar disregard for life and other humanitarian issues, there are significant differences between the two geopolitical situations. In Ukraine, the aggressor is not only larger, but also significantly wealthier. That would not be the case in Taiwan. And even if China did manage to subjugate the island through military force, it could well end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. At a time when China is under severe economic pressure and growth is slowing sharply, this is the last thing it needs. My only worry is that Xi’s ambition to build a geopolitical hegemon would make him blind to economic – as well as human – sacrifices.
China and Taiwan might thus have a shared interest in avoiding conflict. And on that foundation, a compromise may be built – with or without an explicit US commitment to defend Taiwan militarily. In fact, shared interests may well be the most potent deterrent of all.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.