Washington, DC – The seemingly interminable Ukraine conflict has brought renewed attention to another long-brewing geopolitical crisis – that of Chinese irredentism vis-à-vis Taiwan. Many in China have gleefully watched as a veto-wielding UN Security Council member has resorted to military force with outright disregard for the UN Charter and customary international law, with the apparent motive of annexing the territory of a non-nuclear and smaller country. Especially encouraging for Beijing hawks has been the international community’s refusal to entertain the prospect of committing military forces to oppose the Russian juggernaut. The parallels are obvious for similar Chinese military adventurism – with Chairman Xi Jinping having stated in no uncertain terms China’s determination to ‘reunify’ with Taiwan, which it considers a renegade regime. The Chinese have long contemplated military action to bring Taipei to boot, and the latter has long prepared for just such an eventuality, focusing on building up its air power as a deterrent. With the Ukraine conflict unfolding, the Chinese apparently have a first-hand assessment of the Western world’s stomach for a fight, which doesn’t entail boots on the ground. The West has poured in military aid to Ukraine, but that was possible because of shared land borders with NATO countries. Taiwan is an island making aerial resupply the only viable option. Being located in China’s backyard, resupply by sea in the face of the burgeoning Chinese Navy would carry unacceptable risks. In Beijing’s calculus, no significant aid could be provided to Taiwan by its allies if and when the PLA makes its move.
Aside from geography, another crucial difference exists between Ukraine and Taiwan. While Ukraine has no formal military alliance with any country, Taiwan does. Washington’s stated policy remains that it will commit military force in defense of Taiwan, should such a need arise – arrangements similar to those it has with Japan and South Korea. All three are US ‘allies’ though not NATO members. However, China has not failed to grasp the importance of the US and NATO’s extreme aversion to casualties. First Afghanistan and now Ukraine have made it apparent to Beijing that the risks of direct military confrontation with the West over Taiwan would be manageable and may not even be a factor if a Chinese lightning offensive overwhelms the island’s defenses while the West ponders its options, rendering the ‘reunification’ a fait accompli.
However, the Chinese intelligentsia has not overlooked the myriad challenges faced by Moscow as its campaign has sputtered, dragged on, and metamorphosed into something resembling a quagmire. What was intended to be a short, sharp campaign resulting in an easy victory for the Russian Army has instead led to a constant bleeding of men and equipment. While no official figures are yet available, and both Moscow and Kyiv have offered widely divergent casualty figures, neutral estimates put the number of Russian dead in the several thousands. Significant quantities of heavy and light equipment have been expended or destroyed in the campaign, along with the loss of several air assets. The pride of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet – the behemoth Moskva (MOCKBA) – which fired the opening shots of the war upon Snake Island – now rests at the bottom of the sea. The Moskva’s loss quickly turned into a propaganda victory for Ukraine, whose troops ingeniously defeated the battleship’s formidable air defenses by exploiting weather conditions, skillful use of drones as a ruse de guerre, and the wallop packed by Ukraine’s indigenously built Neptune anti-ship missiles. To add to Moscow’s troubles, eleven general staff officers of the Russian Army have been killed thus far, an astonishingly high toll of generals.
Of course, none of these facts imply that the Russian military will eventually fail to achieve its aims. On the contrary, Moscow has signaled clear intent and political will to continue its offensive, notwithstanding the fallout. And the fallout has indeed been severe, especially on the economic front, with sweeping Western sanctions targeting the who’s who of Russia and the entire gamut of its industry. None can doubt that these have hurt Russia badly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But the Chinese economy is very different from Russia’s, and sanctions of a similar kind are as likely to hurt the West as they are to inflict pain on China. Beijing has been closely watching events unfold as it contemplates a similar ‘adventure .’ The red flags are obvious – the possibility of dogged resistance from the Taiwanese, a long-drawn conflict carrying increasingly ominous casualties and destruction of equipment, the vulnerability of warships to land-based air attacks, and the direct exchange of fire with Western military forces. The last of these could quickly spiral out of control.
China is also a veto-wielding nuclear power, but as the Ukraine conflict has shown, making ill-advised threats of using tactical nuclear weapons is counterproductive. In any event, since China considers Taiwan as part of its own territory, the use of nuclear weapons on its ‘own’ population is inconceivable. That being out of the calculus then, simply possessing an overwhelmingly large force is not a guarantee of a quick victory, as has often been the case with post-World War II conflicts. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ukraine stand as warnings to great powers who seek easy victories over adversaries they perceive as inferior. And this appraisal applies not only to Taiwan but also to China’s ever expanding military adventurism in the South China Sea, with its littoral neighbors and its ongoing high-altitude standoff with India. The Chinese are themselves considerably more casualty averse than they reveal, already contending with an aging population and the impact of decades of the one-child policy. Beijing would do well to keep its hawks in check and seek diplomatic solutions to its various territorial disputes. Territorial aggrandizement and irredentism can quickly backfire and spin out of control.