Ukraine is currently embroiled in a violent conflict between a beleaguered democracy and a repressive, irredentist, authoritarian regime bent on subduing it.
Taiwan could face a similar confrontation tomorrow. Oriana Skylar Mastro is probably correct in her assertion that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine does not portend a Chinese attack on Taiwan. However, applying lessons learned from the current crisis could be crucial in defending Taiwan in the future.
While the invasion of Ukraine is still in its early stages, it has already shown how the US and its allies can prevent a Chinese invasion from becoming the world’s next major crisis. Rather than accepting that a Chinese victory is unavoidable, Washington should begin planning in peacetime to ensure a swift, coordinated military and economic response to any potential attack. Policymakers in allied states across the region should also brace for a massive refugee crisis, which will be exacerbated by Taiwan’s geographic location. To bolster these efforts, the US and its allies can focus intelligence gathering to better understand Beijing’s intentions while also anticipating the unexpected ways an invasion could reshape the political landscape from Canberra to Tokyo.
There will be no surprises.
Satellite images shows Russia bulking up its soldiers on Ukraine’s border months before the invasion. While many believed that Putin would avoid confrontation, the West should have seen his preparations as an invasion threat. If China decides to attack Taiwan, it would almost certainly have to prepare on a massive scale that will be difficult to hide. Aside from missiles, the Chinese military would most certainly need to create an amphibious armada, planes, paratroopers and soldiers, as well as logistical support capabilities that would be difficult to conceal. These preparations, on the other hand, might mark the commencement of a massive exercise or an invasion. As a consequence, it will be necessary to keep a tight eye on military movements. It will be difficult to tell the difference between a drill and an invasion. Certain logistical preparations, such as stockpiling higher supplies of food, gasoline, and ammunition and establishing a large number of field hospitals, are presumably something China would do for an invasion but not a large-scale drill. Similarly, those troops that seldom engage in East China Sea drills may be called up and relocated east in preparation for an invasion. This shows that active, real-time intelligence may be the most important aspect in warning the globe of an invasion.
The more allies keep an eye on Chinese moves during future drills, the better they’ll be able to spot invasion preparations. Taiwan should continue to commit its satellites and other sophisticated intelligence collecting assets to this endeavour, while the US and other like-minded nations should build strong intelligence linkages with Taiwan to achieve this goal. They may guarantee that crucial information obtained from foreign sources is widely disseminated, preventing surprise assaults and assisting with targeting cues in times of conflict. It will be impossible to create a meaningful deterrent in the area by the time it becomes clear that a “exercise” is a cover for an invasion. As a result, it would be advantageous for the US and its allies to retain a strong military posture, including logistical and sustainment assistance, to make it apparent that China will not be able to accomplish its objectives by force, or will do so at great expense.
Prepare for a Fight
It’s still too early to make any judgments, but the Ukrainians have done a remarkable job of defending themselves. Despite projections that they would be unable to block Russia’s quick push, Ukrainian soldiers have remained defiant in the face of a numerically bigger and better equipped Russian military. Russia suffered devastating repercussions as a result of its miscalculation of the Ukrainians’ skill and willingness to fight. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan may be doomed by the same arrogance. National identity, as in Ukraine, might be an issue. A large majority of Taiwanese people identify themselves Taiwanese, as opposed to mainland Chinese, which may be a significant motivator to fight. Making them into a territorial defense force might help them become more deadly. Tactically, an invading force pushing from Taiwan’s western coast to Taipei may face many militants ready to spring ambushes and destroy vehicles with anti-tank weaponry similar to those employed in Ukraine. Rather of fighting the People’s Liberation Army head-on, Taiwan would be better off waging an asymmetric guerrilla war in which citizens and military troops battle from urban areas, where they can hide and resupply. Similarly, guerilla tactics might be used to protect vital choke points such as bridges or valleys, with mountains or rivers acting as impediments. The more efficiently civilian and army teams collaborate, the greater the task for Chinese troops. Russia is already dealing with similar concerns in Ukraine, including resupply issues. The longer the Ukrainians resist, the greater the difficulties Russia will confront. The same would be true for China, which would be exacerbated by the fact that any resupplies would have to be transported over the Taiwan Strait from the mainland.
Aggressors should not be overstated, just as defenders should not be underestimated. Despite having a powerful military, Russia was unable to compel Kyiv’s speedy surrender. There’s still a lot the West doesn’t know about Putin’s operational strategy, and it’s unclear which of his generals’ assumptions about force readiness and training turned out to be incorrect. Ukraine demonstrated that even a well-planned invasion that has been telegraphed in advance may suddenly derail. China’s military, like Russia’s, is perceived as a 10-foot behemoth at times. But, if Russian troops with recent operational experience in Chechnya and Syria can struggle, why should we expect the People’s Liberation Army to succeed in its first combat action since the 1979 border conflict with Vietnam? China may select a more aggressive and fatal strategy from the start in order to assure victory at all costs, but a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is far from certain.
A successful large-scale amphibious attack across a coastal strait would need a lot of things going well, and hence a lot of chances for things to go wrong. Whether it’s choppy seas across a 100-mile strait, a botched amphibious landing, strained supply lines, or combat errors, the People’s Liberation Army faces tactical blunders that might lead to operational disasters. The more other nations assist Taiwan, the more potential for disasters like this will arise. In peacetime, the more these allies plan and coordinate their force postures and capabilities, the more effective their assistance will be.
The best way for Taiwan to prepare for this operation is to ensure that it has the right defense strategy and capabilities. “Systems that are short-range and defensive, capable of withstanding an initial bombardment from a bigger foe, and suited for deployment close to home in defense of the island should it come under siege or assault,” according to Drew Thompson. Given the likelihood of an assault by water, sea mines and anti-ship cruise missiles might be prioritized. Similarly, air supremacy might be vital for any Chinese amphibious assault to succeed, in addition to successfully injecting paratroopers into Taiwan. Anti-air capabilities would be prioritized as a result. Finally, passive-defense tactics and a large supply of ammunition may be required. Last year, Michael Hunzeker stated in War on the Rocks that Taiwan and the US should concentrate on accumulating a huge number of tiny and inexpensive asymmetric assets, such as coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defenses, naval mines, and drones.
Because Ukraine is not a NATO member, allied nations have said unequivocally that they would not protect it. Instead, European nations have stepped up with military aid aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defense, with the UK, France, the Netherlands, and even Germany, among others, sending Ukraine with a wide range of weaponry. If Taiwan is attacked, several European nations may follow suit: they do not even legally recognize it, and it is geographically far. These factors may lead to a scenario in which friendly governments, especially certain European countries that have begun to make operational inroads into the Indo-Pacific — such as France, the United Kingdom, or Germany — are less likely to give operational assistance to Taiwan in the event of a crisis. If they continue to supply military aid to Taiwan, like as anti-air missiles, the distance between them plus the fact that Taiwan is an island would make it considerably more difficult. If China obtains air dominance and a sea quarantine of Taiwan, Chinese troops will be able to intercept or prevent such help from reaching the island. As a consequence, before a conflict begins, this support will be more effective. In times of peace, Taiwan should be encouraged to stockpile — or acquire — essential capabilities.
An Economic Response That Is Both Quick and Coordinated
Despite some early disputes over issues like as military assistance and SWIFT exclusion, the US assisted in the swift coordination of a multinational coalition to punish Russia politically, economically, and financially. It was also the first to provide military aid to Ukraine. If Taiwan were to be attacked, an equally swift and coordinated response would be required. While it is feasible that the US, Japan, and Australia might engage directly or indirectly to support Taiwan, it is probable that other nations would find it difficult to do so. Nonetheless, these nations may be included in a concerted international reaction to penalize Beijing.
As the Ukraine crisis has shown, war is fought on two fronts: one between soldiers and the other between states, banks, businesses, and people. While Russia looks to be gaining a military edge over Ukraine, Western allies are hammering Russia with banking sanctions and other forms of economic punishment. Because of China’s worldwide commerce and abroad interests, targeted, coordinated sanctions might have a significant negative impact on the Chinese Communist Party, which is extensively engaged in the economy. Of fact, given China’s bigger economy and closer involvement with the global economy, such measures might have a greater effect on certain partner economies than Russia’s sanctions. To put it another way, the global economic ramifications might be huge – considerably worse than what we’ve seen with Russia.
Western nations, on the other hand, should be prepared to adopt many of the same actions employed against Russia. Cutoff of Chinese banks from SWIFT, penalties on Chinese exports, and secondary sanctions on nations eager to deal with China are all possibilities. Furthermore, Western nations may block Chinese aircraft and ships from their airspace and ports, forcing Chinese individuals to stay confined to China. This type of isolation would stifle international commerce and perhaps cause the yuan to collapse, resulting in major economic contraction for a globally linked economy like China’s. The harm caused by government sanctions may be exacerbated by company activity. The oxygen would be squeezed out of the Chinese economy if global firms abandoned their joint ventures in Chinese enterprises, stopped their economic links with China, or withheld Western goods. While none of this is likely to convince China to stop attacking Taiwan, the agony inflicted on the administration may jeopardize its legitimacy and authority. Taiwan’s friends and partners should plan their economic reaction in advance, just as they did with military help, to ensure that they can respond as fast and efficiently as feasible.
A More Serious Humanitarian Crisis
Ukraine’s population was estimated to be at 44 million people in 2020. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website, about three million Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia. More than a million people are trapped inside the nation. There are rising fears that the situation may deteriorate into a humanitarian disaster. However, since Ukraine is surrounded by land, anyone who can handle it may flee by train, automobile, or foot. In Taiwan, however, this is not the case. Taiwan’s population was estimated to be over 23 million people in January. Where will these folks go if there is a conflict? By sea, the Philippines and Japan are both too far away. According to the National Immigration Agency of the Ministry of the Interior, there were roughly 765,000 foreigners on the island as of September 2021. Noncombatant evacuation efforts would be particularly difficult since there are no practical ways to transport any of these individuals off Taiwan during a crisis. In addition to the high number of individuals who would choose to leave, supplies would be difficult to get. Delivering humanitarian aid will become more perilous if Taiwan becomes an active conflict zone.
Given the potential for a catastrophic humanitarian disaster, the US and Taiwan should concentrate on storing key resources and relief supplies. Japan, as Taiwan’s most competent ally and closest neighbor, would play a critical role. The US, Japan, and Taiwan should start talking about how Japan can best welcome civilian refugees during a crisis during peacetime. This would include finding potential Japanese air- and seaports that could manage big influxes of people and storing crucial supplies there ahead of time.
Unintended Consequences Will Occur
While policymakers should aim to avoid surprises, they should also be aware that there will be unexpected effects. Russia’s conflict has brought about dizzying shifts that appeared unthinkable just a month ago. Belarus changed its constitution to enable nuclear weapons to be stored there. Finland and Sweden have expressed a desire to join NATO. Germany has also taken extraordinary measures to boost its military budget and equip Ukraine.
Regional nations may undertake similar measures in reaction to a Chinese offensive against Taiwan. A Chinese invasion, for example, might bring together US partners and friends in the Indo-Pacific. This might lead to a quasi-alliance between Japan and Australia, as well as force many countries closer to the US, such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, who have been seeking to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing. Even South Korea may conclude that the cost of attempting to make friends with China is no longer worth it.
A confrontation, like the one that forced Germany to reconsider its global strategy, may drive Japan to do the same. The Ukraine crisis has already prompted Tokyo to take exceptional measures to prepare for the consequences of Russia’s actions. A confrontation over Taiwan might force Tokyo to assume its first combat involvement since WWII, as well as make significant adjustments to its military strategy. Political elites may be ready to host US ground-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles or a Multi-Domain Task Force from the US Army. Given recent talk among Japan’s political elite about the necessity for a nuclear-sharing agreement with the US, there’s always the risk that a conflict with China may drive Japan into a position where it believes a nuclear deterrent is required.
Chinese officials are learning from the Ukraine war, not just from Russia’s actions, but also from the West’s reaction. The US, Taiwan, and other like-minded allies should also be studying. They may assist assure that Beijing emerges from the present crisis with a better understanding of the dangers that striking Taiwan would entail.