The fact that the Kremlin failed in repeating its quick takeover of the Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine is not deterring Beijing from invading Taiwan. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are seeing in the West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—along with the fall of Afghanistan, the weakness of Europe and Washington’s erratic policies under Biden—a scenario increasingly conducive to invading Taiwan. Whether imminent or not, the threat is real and ambiguous deterrence will not stop it.
For Xi Jinping, what the Russo-Ukrainian War demonstrates is that the U.S., the European Union, and the United Kingdom (whose combined economies are 25 times that of Russia), not only failed to deter Putin from invasion but that European energy dependence on Moscow weakened sanctions on Russia making them now late and incomplete and unsustainable for economies such as Germany in the near future.
Beijing has been planning to invade Taiwan for decades and to set the stage it began by diplomatically isolating Taipei. Now Beijing thinks that no one will dare to seriously sanction China because it is the second-largest economy on the planet and too many supply chains and countless critical stages of production of Western economies depend on them.
Moreover, Beijing was emboldened by the collapse of Afghanistan. As Kabul fell, the propaganda tabloid Global Times claimed that the United States could not stand up to China because it could not even deal with the Taliban and that, when war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei’s defenses would collapse within hours and the U.S. military would not come to its aid.
On April 15, Beijing sent fighter planes, bombers, and frigates of its Eastern Theater Command to the strait, and stated in a statement that “Taiwan is a sacred and inalienable part of Chinese territory” and “there is no room for any foreign interference on the Taiwan issue.”
The military mobilization was in response to the visit to Taipei of six American legislators led by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen and other senior Taiwanese officials.
The unannounced two-day visit was described as sneaky by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense as its Eastern Theater Command spoke of “wrong signals (…) bad actions and tricks are completely futile and very dangerous” by Washington on “the Taiwan issue.”
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the raid was “a countermeasure to the US negative actions recently, including the lawmakers’ visit to Taiwan.” The Global Times claimed that the drills were not only a “warning” but went “beyond deterrence by preparing for potential, real actions that would resolve the Taiwan question once and for all when necessary.”
The strategic ambiguity whereby Washington does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state but also not as a territory of the People’s Republic of China is untenable. China’s arcs of containment in the Indo-Pacific were seriously weakened by the disaster in Afghanistan, and the fall of Taiwan would break them definitively, handing the region over to Beijing.
In January, I explained here why defending Taiwan is vital for the United States. Now I will add that it is urgent for Washington to: arm Taipei more and better; declare that it will defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion; negotiate between Washington, Tokyo and Sydney a regional defense treaty that includes Taipei; and, as proposed by former Secretary of State Pompeo, recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
Deterring Beijing would still be possible if costly, but the cost of surrendering the Indo-Pacific to it would be far greater. The Biden administration will not confront China unless politically forced. When the time comes, Taiwan will be the great test of Washington’s credibility and Beijing’s power.