Military helicopters carrying large Taiwan flags do a flyby rehearsal on October 5, 2021, ahead of National Day celebrations amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

As Russia’s war on Ukraine entered its sixth day, a senior delegation of US defense and security officials — led by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen — arrived in Taiwan.

The world’s focus might be on the conflict in eastern Europe but American security officials are keen to show that their attention won’t be wholly diverted from the threat of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan – an event US officials warned late last year is an increasing possibility.  

“Today, Ukraine, tomorrow, Taiwan!” is a slogan now being spread on social media by many Taiwanese. 

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine last week, nationalist netizens in China have appealed to their government to launch a similar quick-strike invasion of self-governing Taiwan.

Chinese president Xi Jinping has never ruled out the use of force in a “reunification” with Taiwan, which has become one of his key stated aims since taking over the Communist Party a decade ago. 

Both sides, China and Taiwan, have so far been keen to stress that the war on Ukraine has no bearing on their own tensions. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said last week that comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine showed a “lack of the most basic understanding of the history of the Taiwan issue.”

“Taiwan is not Ukraine,” she said, adding that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China’s territory”, reiterating Beijing’s claims that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the mainland.  

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has also been keen to point out the differences. “The Taiwan Strait provides a natural barrier, and Taiwan has its own unique geostrategic importance,” she stated last week.  

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at a democracy-themed event for the Double-Tenth National Day, at an airforce base, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, 9 October 2021. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Ceng Shou Yi

Indeed, there are obvious differences. Some 100 miles of water separates mainland China from Taiwan, whereas Russia and Ukraine share a 1,200-mile land border. Taiwan, the world’s largest producer of semiconductors, is far more enmeshed in the global economy than Ukraine. 

The United States also has closer security ties with Taiwan than Ukraine. While not guaranteeing US defense of Taiwan, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides some “strategic ambiguity” over whether Washington would go to war to defend the self-ruled island. 

But analysts say Russia’s war on Ukraine does have a direct bearing on Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan. “The result of the Ukraine war will serve as a strong reference, and almost a playbook, for China on Taiwan,” says Yun Sun, China program director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

The apparent stalling of Russian troop advances across Ukraine, especially as they face stiff resistance from Ukrainian army and civilian fighters, may force Chinese defense strategists to think twice about how easy an invasion of Taiwan would be. 

“China might notice that even though Russia is so much more powerful than Ukraine, it seems perhaps more difficult than expected to take control of the country. So the military lessons are the first cautious takeaway,” said Richard Q Turcsanyi, a senior researcher at Palacky University Olomouc.

China’s defense policymakers may now be less inclined to think a full-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan would be the best option, some analysts say. 

They will closely track Russia’s hybrid warfare playbook, for instance in how Moscow has combined disinformation with cyberattacks. For many Taiwanese, the lesson of the Ukraine crisis is their greater need for self-reliance.

Beijing has also been able to observe Putin’s early mistakes. For instance, by amassing more than 100,000 of his troops on Ukraine’s borders in November and camping them there for months, it provided Western democracies and their allies time to communicate their joint sanction and other punitive responses.   

China might have also been surprised by “the speed and the level of the Western sanctions, as well as the unity and foreign policy adjustments on the side of many countries,” said Turcsanyi.

Last Sunday, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced his normally pacifist country will contribute more than 2% of GDP spending to its defense and will spend US$113 billion this year through a special fund to immediately modernize Germany’s armed forces. That could make Germany the largest military power in Europe. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is cranking up a military budget and sending arms to Ukraine. Image: Screengrab

Finland and Sweden have spoken with renewed vigor of joining NATO. Neutralist Switzerland has joined in EU sanctions on Russia. The European Union has allocated $500 million to pay for weapons to be sent to Ukraine, the first time the bloc has sent lethal munitions to a besieged country. 

Western leaders have also upped their rhetoric since the Russian invasion of the world being divided between democracies and autocracies, a dichotomy clearly intended to include authoritarian China. 

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” US President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. 

Coupled with strong words, the West and its allies — including Asian partners Japan and Singapore — have rallied to impose a long list of sanctions on Russian officials and institutions that appear to be quickly crippling the economy.   

Export bans have severely decimated Russia’s businesses. Its central bank has been unable to access much of its foreign currency reserves, as they were stored offshore. Its banks are banned from using SWIFT, the international payment messaging system, while several European countries and the US have sought to crack down on money stored in their countries by Russian oligarchs tied to Putin.  

Major Western companies have also either divested their interests from Russia or severed their ties with Russian firms, while Western tech giants have banned Russian state-aligned news outlets. Russian sporting teams have been banned from international events. 

On the one hand, that’s not all too relevant for Beijing. Ian Johnson, the senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, notes that China has a much larger economy and is not as dependent on exports and imports as Russia. 

“If the sort of sanctions we’ve seen on Russia would be implemented on China, it would cripple Western economies so I don’t think China will be deterred by that,” he said. 

Moreover, Johnson added, is the scale of unity that democracies are showing in the face of Russian aggression. 

“So it’s really a question how the open societies of the world — the ones that however imperfectly still support the existing international order — are reacting,” he said. “And that reaction has been quite fierce. I think this should make China pause to consider what would happen if it attacked Taiwan.”

Taiwanese soldiers on a armored vehicle in Taiplei during the National Day Celebration, following Chinese President Xi Jinpings vow to unify Taiwan by peaceful means. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

The Stimson Center’s Sun agrees. “The Chinese have to take into consideration a strong and broad coalition against the aggressor, including not only Western developed countries but also developing countries,” she said. 

“For Taiwan, it means that China could end up as the international pariah if it decides to take actions,” Sun added. “So militarily and politically, what has unpacked in Ukraine does not translate into encouraging signs for Beijing’s military invasion of Taiwan.”

On the other hand, Western sanctions against Russia may have given Beijing some idea of how the international community would react if it tried to invade Taiwan, potentially allowing the Chinese government to better insulate itself from punitive measures. 

The sanctions on Russia will encourage the Chinese leadership to continue trying to develop alternatives to the Western financial system, said Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. 

That includes moving away from dollar-clearing through New York and the SWIFT messaging payments system, and to stop holding its currency reserves in foreign banks. 

This is nothing new. For years, the Chinese government has been attempting to wean the country’s economy off Western banking and financial mechanisms, including by producing its own centrally-run digital currency and creating the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), a rival to the Belgium-based SWIFT payment scheme. 

Analysts are still unsure of how far along China is with its efforts. “While many people and countries dislike the dollarized neoliberal financial system, few international corporations or governments are likely to trust a system run by the Chinese government as an alternative,” he added. 

“This won’t stop China trying to push the idea,” Hayton said. “The result might be a partial decoupling between a ‘free and open’ financial world and China’s ‘community of shared future’.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could push it closer to China financially. Image: Facebook

For all of this, America’s distraction in eastern Europe may be the biggest takeaway for the Chinese government. 

Beijing was likely pleased to hear that Biden’s State of the Union address this week only mentioned China twice, and neither Taiwan nor the Indo-Pacific were referenced at all. If Xi reckons that Washington cannot focus on two “fronts”, especially when American troops aren’t even on the ground in Ukraine, it may give Chinese confidence a considerable bump. 

“Russia creating wars and violence in Europe will force the US to divide its attention between China and Russia, and between Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” Sun said.  “It means that the US will be distracted no matter what it says or wants.”