In the United States, China, and Taiwan, some policy elites, politicians, and many others have a dream that has been held for quite some time. China’s dream is the reunification of Taiwan. Taiwan dreams of independence. The United States dreams it can weaken or defeat China, its most consequential competitor. All of these parties have realized the difficulty of making these dreams materialize, but a likely option for this to be accomplished would be through a war between China and Taiwan. The war in Ukraine has been watched closely by all the three parties, and it has provided a full simulation and many key lessons for a potential conflict over Taiwan. However, there has been a terrible tendency for each of the three parties to take the wrong lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Indeed, as many authors have argued, many parallels can be drawn between Taiwan and Ukraine, especially in conflict dynamics and the sources of conflict. As a result of these similarities in both geopolitics and identity politics between the invasion of Ukraine and a potential war for Taiwan, many have begun to draw lessons from the Ukraine conflict. One, that war with China over Taiwan is inevitable, and two, that such a war would be winnable or controllable enough to mitigate the consequences. Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine has made many in Washington, DC see Ukraine as a direct model for how Taiwan’s defense in a war would create similar results, weakening or even defeating China. Russia’s possible failure has also emboldened some Taiwanese to believe that it could resist China or even defeat China in a war. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Chinese nationalists openly praise Vladimir Putin’s courage and determination to launch a war. Many Chinese nationalists believe that they have waited too long to act, and they believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is much stronger than the Russian troops. Taiwan is also much smaller and weaker than Ukraine, therefore it is believed that Taiwan can be “liberated” in a few days only and the dream will come true for China’s unification and national rejuvenation.
While these are attractive dreams for the dreamers, these lessons are grossly inadequate and especially dangerous to make considering the potential consequences a war between China and Taiwan would produce.
An Unaffordable War
Compared to the war in Ukraine, a war between China and Taiwan would have consequences that are much worse than is currently imagined. For one, any war between China and Taiwan would more likely involve an intervention by the United States, unlike in the Russo-Ukrainian War where it has simply supplied military equipment and resources. A direct confrontation between the PLA and American troops, two nuclear powers and the world’s two largest economies, would be both unthinkable and unpredictable.
As we have seen with the Russo-Ukrainian War, the war has had a large impact on the world economy and its markets, especially regarding oil and food. Yet a conflict between China, Taiwan, and the United States, would cause far greater disruption. China’s economy is the same size as the entire European Union, and China is also the largest trade partner with over 120 countries in the world. Furthermore, since China is a world factory, as its manufacturing output is larger than that of the United States, Japan, and Germany put together, any conflict would disrupt the trade of goods that many of its trading partners depend on to stabilize their society and feed their people. Disruptions to the supply chain from a country that serves as a factory for many of the world’s goods would be devastating. For example, China produces a big portion of pharmaceutical prescriptions and personal protective equipment (PPE) that the American people depend on. Any conflict with China would certainly disrupt this supply of needed medicine and medical supplies. Additionally, Taiwan is a leading producer of advanced chips globally; only one Taiwanese company—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)— accounts for over 50 percent of the global chip market share. All of this makes it clear for rational people that a war between China and Taiwan should be avoided and actively prevented where possible.
Moreover, Taiwan is basically undefendable—many people would strongly disagree on this—but it is a sad reality, especially if one thinks of Taiwanese civilians and their welfare. Geography is Taiwan’s destiny. Compared with Ukraine, which is the second-largest country in Europe, Taiwan is just a little bigger than the size of Maryland and is seventeen times smaller than Ukraine. If Russia is having trouble supplying the war front in Ukraine, China will have no trouble doing so in Taiwan. Also, Taiwan would be very easy to isolate as it is an island. In the interest of the Taiwanese people, there are no readily available pathways to escape like Ukraine, as Taiwan is surrounded by water. Taiwan is also too close to Mainland China and the narrow 100-mile-wide strait makes effective missile defense for Taiwan extremely difficult.
Compared to Russia, China is the second-largest economy in the world with plenty of human and material resources that would be all focused on a collectively accepted strong vision for reunification. It would be a war that China has prepared for since 1949. For instance, the PLA has built several one-to-one reproductions of its major military targets in Taiwan, such as a major military airport and even Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building, to conduct many military exercises during the past seven decades. Numerous public opinion polls have also indicated that the Chinese have a strong consensus on national reunification with Taiwan. With decades of education and propaganda, this has become a collective belief and a part of the national identity as a group-shared objective. In terms of the determination, motivation, and public support at home during wartime, Beijing will likely upset Taipei and Washington, DC.
For Taiwan, if the war happens it will experience the worst consequences and damages, and it will be the Taiwanese that suffer the most from the war. Therefore, it is essential for Taiwan to fight for peace. Taiwanese society needs to openly debate whether Taiwan should maintain a more balanced approach toward China, including whether it belongs to Taiwan’s long-term interest to reduce anti-China sentiments and increase its neutrality in foreign relations. Taiwan could learn from Switzerland and a few other countries that put neutrality as its main principle of foreign policy. Neutrality would increase Taiwan’s security and chances for long-term peace rather than reduce them.
For China, an important lesson from Ukraine should be that launching an invasion of another democracy is unacceptable to the entire liberal international community. An invasion of Taiwan would have long and large negative consequences rather than bring China what it really wants. China needs to seriously consider the long-term consequences of governing Taiwan as unavoidable rebellions and resistances from the Taiwanese people should be expected. Moreover, Beijing’s dream to become a respected world power requires functional relations with the West. It belongs to China’s principal interest to avoid full confrontation and hostility with the entire West over Taiwan. Self-sufficiency and deepening ties with the developing world are important, but not a substitute.
For the United States, policymakers with a long-term strategic view should realize that to use Taiwan as a tool to contain or defeat China is desirable, but would be an extremely dangerous game to play as the consequences of such an action would be unpredictable. Rather than seeing its desired outcome, the United States would likely experience consequences that would be largely negative, deeply felt, and enduring. Even putting the economic consequences aside, one of the worst scenarios for the U.S. strategists would be for China to control Taiwan as this would break the first island chain of control and allow for China’s greater control of the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, even if there is failure and change in leadership as an outcome of a war, the best scenario for the United States, the next leader in line could be even more hawkish and nationalistic. History has shown how defeat and humiliation served by the West have motivated nationalistic responses in China and Russia in the past decades. Why would another war inspire anything different? Some strategists in the United States believe that providing arms to Taiwan could deter Chinese incursions. However, any arming of Taiwan could create a bad security dilemma, and could instigate and accelerate conflict between China, Taiwan, and the United States. China has been clear that its red line would include the arming of Taiwan with advanced offensive weaponry and the United States sending troops to station in Taiwan.
Concrete Measures for Making Peace
While the world has seen the consequences of the war in Ukraine, all three parties should realize that the war over Taiwan would be unpredictable and eventually unaffordable. Only after this is accepted can all three parties act to prevent war from breaking out. Promoting pathways for peace is the only way that we can all win. There are several concrete measures that the countries can take to facilitate peace rather than war.