After a military buildup near the Ukrainian border starting in 2021, Russia moved its armed forces into separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine on February 22, 2022, and then launched a full-scale, still-ongoing invasion of Ukraine two days later. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been widely condemned by Western countries, including by entire blocs like the European Union, which have issued some of the toughest sanctions ever on Russia. News outlets and experts have been quick to publish a range of analyses drawing comparisons between the Russo-Ukrainian War and the ongoing tensions between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. This was not just limited to pundits or news outlets, however. World leaders also offered their own Taiwan takes. British prime minister Boris Johnson, for example, stated that “echoes” of the Ukraine situation “will be heard in Taiwan.”
Although seemingly understandable, statements like these are the result of lazy thinking and bad history, often blurted out by those who have little experience with East Asia. In reality, there is little similarity between Ukraine and Taiwan, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to point this out. Regardless of where one personally stands on the matter, the Russian invasion of Ukraine means little when it comes to analyzing cross-strait relations. There are four reasons for this.
First, there is geography and demographic makeup.
In regard to the former, Taiwan is an island, though it is 100 miles off the coast of China. Ukraine, on the other hand, is bordered by seven different European countries, and its access to the world’s oceans is limited. This makes a serious difference when it comes to military strategy, logistics, and so forth. China cannot send troops over land as Russia has in its invasion of Ukraine. Due to geography, any campaign by Mainland China to retake Taiwan militarily would be naval in nature, which is significantly riskier and less straightforward than a spirited charge across open steppes. For the Russian military, Ukraine is a neighboring country whose climate is similar to parts of Russia’s own. It also has many entry points over land from which to invade. For China, Taiwan is instead an island fortress—one that is now armed to the teeth and surrounded by waters that know no master. As any military strategist knows, battles over land and sea are entirely different. The Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan learned this lesson the hard way when, in the thirteenth century, despite having conquered as far west as Europe through a series of successful land wars, they attempted to conquer Japan. The endeavor was a disastrous failure.
When it comes to demographics, the situation is, again, incredibly different. Ukraine, a country with an estimated population of around 41.2 million, is the eighth most populous country in Europe. Ethnically, it is inhabited by some 77 percent of Ukrainians—an ethnic group that is distinct from Russians. The remainder of the population is an assortment of different ethnic groups, including an estimated 17 percent Russian. This makes Ukraine and Russia two ethically different states. Compare this to Taiwan, which is highly similar ethnically to Mainland China. Taiwan is inhabited by a much smaller 23.45 million inhabitants, of whom 95 to 97 percent are Han Chinese.
Second, there is history, language, and culture. Ukraine has a tumultuous history stretching far back into the Middle Ages. It’s been a kingdom, a vassal state of the Mongols, annexed by Polish King Casimir III the Great, existed as part of the Russian Empire, experienced rough periods as a Cossack Hetmanate, engaged in experiments with socialism as the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and even become a founding member of the Soviet Union. It is only relatively recently, in the eyes of history, that it became independent as we know it today.
Compared to Ukraine, Taiwan’s history is much simpler. In the seventeenth century, Han Chinese immigration began to Taiwan when it was then a Dutch colony. It was annexed as early as 1683—339 years ago—by the Qing dynasty, and then ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895. When the Qing were overthrown, the new Republic of China, run by the Nationalist government, took control of Taiwan in 1945. It then engaged in a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, lost, and retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
Mainland China and Taiwan thus share strong cultural and linguistic ties. These are deep enough that, despite the current political situation, Taiwanese residents who travel to the Mainland can attain a document popularly called the “Taiwan Compatriot Permit.” This permit accords Taiwanese residents with many of the same legal rights and access to social services that Mainland Chinese enjoy. Likewise, Mainland Chinese also have a similar document for traveling to Taiwan. Nuances like this change the cultural context of potential conflict with Taiwan drastically.
Third, there’s the treaty situation. Lazy comparisons between the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan forget that Ukraine and the United States are not bound by any treaty, whereas such is indeed the case with Taiwan. Although the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, Washington and Taipei are linked through the Taiwan Relations Act. Passed in 1979, it requires the United States “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The fact that this treaty exists between the United States and Taiwan, and that no such similar arrangement exists between Ukraine and the United States, changes the situation on the ground entirely. It means that China would face a vastly different set of consequences should it decide on the armed military reunification of Taiwan. Putin does not have any treaties like this hindering him as he invades Ukraine.
Fourth and finally, there is public support. Most Americans sympathize with Ukraine and are in support of sending financial aid, but are against sending American troops to defend it. Taiwan is different. Alarmist, hawkish headlines and risky policy promotion by American officials have led a slight majority of Americans to favor sending troops to Taiwan. Just like treaties, this shifts a hypothetical Chinese conflict with Taiwan into a vastly different arena than the one unfolding in Ukraine. Yes, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is against international law. Yes, it’s against everything the liberal international rules-based order stands for. But will the West send soldiers to fight and shed blood, sweat, and tears? Highly unlikely. This might not be the case in Taiwan.
Regrettably, officials like U.S. Air Force commander Kenneth S. Wilsbach have also jumped the bandwagon and claimed that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine provides China with a playbook for Taiwan. But far away from Washington and armed with the facts, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine does not provide China with any meaningful “playbook.” Continuing to insist that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something that can be compared with Taiwan is an ideological statement not at all based on empirical evidence. Putin is weathering international condemnation, fury, and heavy sanctions for his decision. But it is unlikely he will see any meaningful military pushback from the rest of Europe or its allies. Ukraine is a conflict Putin will, for better or worse, likely win.
China risks much more if cross-strait relations turn hot. It would have to endure everything that’s been thrown at Putin, yet at the same time also contend with a military conflict possibly involving foreign forces deployed in Taiwan’s defense. Although China will likely win, as suggested by war games conducted by the U.S. military, this is still a different scenario with dramatic consequences—one no Chinese leader would blindly take.
Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a regrettable turn of events and a humanitarian crisis, in regard to Taiwan, it means little. Comparisons that claim Putin’s invasion is a turning point for Taiwan are simply not based on evidence. Defense experts, foreign policy analysts, and other interested parties would do better focusing their attention and comparisons elsewhere.
Symington W. Smith is an Adjunct Fellow at Tsinghua University’s Center for International Security and Strategy, Vice President of the Beijing Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, and an award-winning global affairs expert and business executive with over a decade of experience in Asia. His work has appeared in The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, The House of Lords International Relations Committee, and more. He holds a BA in Chinese Language and Literature from Peking University, an MS in China and Globalization from King’s College London, and an ML in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy from Tsinghua University.