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An authoritarian nuclear superpower invading a smaller but determined American armed neighbor is no longer a theoretical war game.
As defense ministers from around the world travel to Singapore to attend Asia’s top security conference this weekend, they will be acutely aware that the war in Ukraine has given additional intensity to discussions on Taiwan and a possible invasion by China.
In an event that would potentially offer the highest direct contact between the US and Chinese militaries under President Joe Biden’s administration, Defense Ministers Lloyd Austin and Wei Fenghe will participate in the Shangri-La Dialogue which runs from Friday to Sunday. .
Either side is unlikely to be candid given the escalating tensions on the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own. China has already fumed in protest at Biden’s surprisingly outspoken pledge last month to defend Taiwan. In Singapore, expect coded messages and Taiwan to be more of an elephant in the room.
“Ukraine has led threat perceptions to rise across Asia,” said James Crabtree, executive director of the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organizes the Shangri-La event. “Defense establishments suddenly thought geopolitical calamities previously considered highly unlikely were suddenly possible, with Taiwan simply the most obvious potential flashpoint in a region riven by potential tensions.”
These “threat perceptions” after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine fell into two broad categories for China. Beijing must make both military calculations to take on a country backed by Washington and also weigh the global economic impact – on supply chains and its own exports – if China were hit by US, European and Japanese sanctions like was Russia. The lesson from Ukraine for Chinese President Xi Jinping – on both counts – is that the risks are extremely high.
China has considerable military superiority over Taiwan – as does Russia over Ukraine – but an amphibious assault on an island 100 miles away is not easy. Supported by the United States, Taiwan would be able to hit the ships making the crossing and any landings against well-entrenched troops could be dangerous for the untested People’s Liberation Army. Xi will not want to suffer the huge losses suffered by Russia in Ukraine.
Conversely, on the other side, many Taiwanese strategists have been shocked by the speed of Russia’s military buildup and the devastating consequences that can result.
For now, the general mood in Taiwan is one of scrutiny. The island’s spy chief said last month that Beijing would be “more cautious” about its war plans, given Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine. “Similarly, Taiwan will learn to progress,” said Chen Ming-tong, head of the National Security Bureau.
There is no doubt that events in Eastern Europe are at the forefront of the planning in Taipei. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said the government was “taking the war in Ukraine in very serious internal discussions”.
“One of the tactics that has been successful so far is asymmetric capability. And that’s something we’re learning from and want to discuss further with the United States,” Wu told NPR.
Top policymakers gathered in Singapore will attempt to assess Beijing’s thinking, runic as it may sound in Wei’s remarks.
Publicly, China has repeatedly called for “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but has also threatened to seize the island by force if necessary. There is no specific timeline as to when this might happen – but US officials before the war in Ukraine speculated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next six to ten years. Tensions were not eased by Chinese fighters and bombers making repeated incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
President Xi also laid out his unequivocal plan. In a way not unlike Putin, when explaining his “special military operation” to eliminate “Nazis” in Ukraine, Xi told the Taiwanese public in a major speech in 2019 that “we are not giving up not to the use of force and we reserve the right to take all necessary measures. This is to guard against outside interference and a small number of separatists and their separatist activities for “Taiwan independence”. This is in no way aimed at our compatriots in Taiwan. “
Microchips and Supply Chains
Beijing is also increasingly belligerent about Taiwan’s leading role in semiconductors. In a frowning speech, a leading Chinese economist this week openly called on Beijing to “seize” the island’s leading microchip maker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).
“In case the United States and the West impose destructive sanctions on China like these sanctions on Russia, we must get Taiwan back. Especially in the reconstruction of industrial chains and supply chains, we must seize TSMC – a company that belongs to China – in the Chinese market hands,” said Chen Wenling, chief economist at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a research group overseen by the National Development and Reform Commission. The speech was published on the Chinese news portal Guancha.
The difficulty for China is, of course, that the penalties for an invasion may well be severe as the West has shown itself to be more united in the face of Kremlin aggression than many expected. China will have to assess whether the West will be less likely to sanction it because its supply chains are much larger than Russia’s.
China’s own economic model, however, relies heavily on selling goods in wealthy markets such as the United States, Europe and Japan.
And they are – for now – deeply skeptical of Xi’s leadership.
The White House moved quickly to try and backtrack on Biden’s pledge to defend Taiwan last month, but to Chinese ears at least, the US president had ventured beyond the ‘strategic ambiguity’ that Washington is attempting. normally maintain regarding Taiwan.
Elsewhere, military support from Taiwan is limited, although the situation in Ukraine is hardening the position in other countries. In April, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called on NATO – rooted in Atlantic security but increasingly eyeing China – to “ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves “.
In Asia, Japan is seen as Taiwan’s strongest backer, with politicians in Tokyo becoming increasingly vocal about the security threats Taiwan faces.
Curiously, even Singapore itself, host of the Shangri-La summit, has conducted semi-secret joint training exercises with Taiwan.
Much now depends on Xi’s appetite for ultra-high risk. Almost everyone will analyze Chinese Defense Minister Wei’s speech on Sunday for any sign of this.
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