The Ukraine-Taiwan Analogy: Real Fears And False Correlations
The United States has no treaty obligation to send troops to protect Taiwan against China, but it has a "fairly clear" commitment to aid its defense, unlike in Ukraine. The economic stakes are also a source for worry.
Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the flight of Chinese jets near Taiwan provoked jitters around the world. The worries were unnecessary as Taiwan's air defense identification zone, where the jets had flown, is effectively bigger than its airspace.
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Also, the incursions were not unusual, having occurred 900 times since the air zone was created. Any comparison between the cases of Taiwan and Ukraine overlooks the fact that — beyond the current context — Taiwan is actually more important to the United States than Ukraine.
For example, while Taiwan is its ninth trading partner, Ukraine is 67th on that list. The world's main semiconductor firm is in Taiwan, and its products play a crucial role in international supply chains.
In terms of security, Taiwan is in the first of two strings of islands on which the United States would call in any bid to contain China's naval expansion.
But if Ukraine were, ever, to join the NATO military alliance, it would be only one of five NATO members sharing a frontier with Russia (Poland and Lithuania also border the Kaliningrad enclave). The frontiers of Latvia and Estonia are in turn closer to Moscow than the Russia-Ukrainian border.
A Taiwanese protester holds a sign in support of Ukraine.
When the United States decided to establish diplomatic ties with communist China, it adopted what it termed a policy of Strategic Ambiguity toward Taiwan (the Republic of China). The ambiguity resided in the fact that the United States, while accepting Taiwan as part of a single Chinese state, did not adopt a specific posture on the issue of its sovereignty.
In terms of security, this ambiguity is enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which commits the United States to assist Taiwan in its defensive capacities, without explicitly committing the United States to intervene militarily to defend the island. It does state that any bid to determine Taiwan's future by non-peaceful means would be of great concern to the United States.
United States has a formal commitment to Taiwan's security, which is more than can be said of Ukraine.
There is nothing ambiguous of course about opting for ambiguity. On the one hand, it aimed at dissuading Taiwan from acting provocatively toward China, bolstered by security guarantees from the United States.
On the other hand, it was also meant to ensure the Chinese remained wary of the consequences of testing that ambiguity, as happened during the crises in the Taiwan Straits in the 1950s (when China had underestimated the likelihood of U.S. intervention).
No clear NATO commitment
But even with the ambiguity, the United States has a formal commitment to Taiwan's security, which is more than can be said of Ukraine.
NATO's conduct toward the latter is an example of what economists call perverse incentives. On the one hand, at the Bucharest summit of April 2008, the alliance promised Georgia and Ukraine they would join NATO, which fanned Moscow's security concerns (and these are real, even if exaggerated).
On the other hand, 14 years after the pledge, NATO has not even begun to process their entry nor given them security guarantees for this transition period. It is no surprise then that Russia's military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine happened after the Bucharest Summit. Lessons abound in Russia for how the West should look at China.
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