Analyzing Ambiguity: Implications of the Russo-Ukrainian War on Taiwanese and Chinese Security Prospects
BY: Andrew J. Harding
Andrew James Harding is a Contributor for the U.S.-China Strategic Studies Organization and undergraduate student enrolled in The George Washington University’s Double Degree program. For his first B.A., Andrew is double majoring in Asian Studies and International Affairs. For his second B.A., Andrew is majoring in Political Science and minoring in History. Andrew has professional experience in defense, intelligence, legislative, and communicative affairs.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has been a tragedy in the making for nearly a decade. In fact, I would personally know. In the summer of 2012, my family and I moved to Moscow, Russia. While attending the Anglo-American School of Moscow, I was able to experience some of the most memorable times of life. Not all memories, however, were pleasant. Beginning in late 2013 and early 2014, Ukrainian civil unrest began with the removal of then-President Viktor Yanukovych and subsequently Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The back-and-forth sanctions between the West and Russia further destabilized our living conditions and safety. Ultimately, in the fall of 2014, my family and I were forced to evacuate. As we held our breaths leaving Russia, the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War dramatically shaped my initial understanding of international conflict.
Now, almost eight years later, Russia has brought war back to Europe not seen since World War II. On February 24, 2022, Russia re-entered Ukrainian territory by sending “peacekeepers” to Donetsk and Luhansk, bringing tensions between Russia and the West to levels not seen since the Cold War. Since then, and at the time of publication, over 250 Russian missiles have launched, over 2,000 Ukrainian casualties have been recorded, thousands of heavy pieces of equipment have been destroyed, and over 1.4 million refugees have fled Ukraine. Not only has the European security environment been radically altered, but countless lives will forever be bound by irreversible trauma. As a result, the United States—alongside North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies—is under extraordinary pressure to respond appropriately.
As those in the West keep a watchful eye on U.S. leadership, those in the East are paying equal attention. Specifically, Taiwan and China are closely following any and all U.S. actions taken regarding the developing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Simply, decisions made by the United States to defend Ukrainian sovereignty and confront Russia may shed light on how the United States could defend Taiwan in the face of Chinese assertiveness, including a full-scale military takeover of the island. It is important to note that the security environments and strategic values of Ukraine and Taiwan differ in many ways. Following a thorough assessment of U.S. relations with Ukraine and Taiwan, however, a key similarity overshadows potential differences: the lack of binding defense agreements gives the United States flexibility in any response to military conflict, meaning both Taiwan and China have significant interest in U.S. precedents set with Ukraine.
Taiwanese American Archives
The Taiwan Relations Act
To offset the United States normalizing relations with China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act was signed into law to maintain de facto relations with Taiwan that same year, and established a complicated relationship between Taiwan and U.S. military operations. Section Three of the Act indicates that the United States will provide “defense articles and defense services” that Taiwan may need “to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” These articles and services will be determined by the President, Congress, and military officials. Generally, this portion of the Act has been interpreted to justify arms sales to Taiwan — a practice that has been supported and carried out by all U.S. administrations.
The final part of Section Three — part (c) — creates a degree of ambiguity. Specifically, the Act states that, should there be “any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States,” then the “President and the Congress shall determine…appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.” Given the subjective nature of the word “appropriate”, the United States allows itself significant flexibility in defining what the appropriate action would be while Taiwan and China are left guessing as to how the United States may be willing to militarily defend Taiwan.
The primary driver for Taiwan’s and China’s interest in U.S. actions regarding Ukraine is the U.S. stance of “strategic ambiguity.” Strategic ambiguity is the practice of purposely lacking clarity on elements of foreign policy. This ambiguity is considered “strategic” because the policy, or lack thereof, allows a state to keep its options open to achieve its interests, and potential competitors are forced to guess what option the state may select. Strategic ambiguity is heavily associated with Taiwan because, as established above, the term “appropriate” opens the door for various interpretations that may, or may not, include direct military support.
U.S. strategic ambiguity, however, has not checkmated China. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and official Chinese government documents have heavily reduced–or even eliminated–their use of the term “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan. As China’s military continues to grow, Section Two of the Act is growing in importance. Given that the United States and its official recognition of China is dependent on “the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” and any action “other than peaceful means” is “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area,” a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan can trigger a domino effect of U.S. military and diplomatic actions towards China. Since the Act permits the United States to “maintain the capacity” to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize…the people on Taiwan,” any U.S. response to Chinese aggression must be carefully calculated, executed, and strategically sound.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Taiwan Relations Act uses the term “people on Taiwan,” rather than “people of Taiwan?” This is because if the Act used “of,” it would imply Taiwanese sovereignty, but that would contradict the “One China Policy” that recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole governing body of China. 3
The Budapest Memorandum
Shifting to the European front, a somewhat similar policy is shared with Ukraine. On December 5, 1994, the United States and Ukraine — along with Russia and the United Kingdom — signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The Budapest Memorandum offered Ukraine security “assurances” in return for surrendering its physical control of nuclear weapons within its territory. These assurances included the signatories respecting “the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” refraining “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense.” Notably, the signatories also agreed to “provide assistance to Ukraine…if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.” Importantly, the term “assurances” is used, rather than “guarantees.” This distinction is critical, for if the agreement included security guarantees, then the U.S. military would be obligated, by an international agreement, to defend Ukrainian sovereignty if it were to be threatened. Simply, as with the Taiwan Relations Act’s usage of “appropriate,” the Budapest Memorandum’s usage of “assurances” can be subjectively interpreted and lacks hard commitments.
Unlike the Taiwan Relations Act, however, the security assurances of the Budapest Memorandum have been tested. The 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War witnessed Russia technically violate Ukrainian territorial integrity through its generally unrecognized annexation of Crimea — a strategic peninsula along the Black Sea — and support of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s actions hypothetically violate the Budapest Memorandum, which is an agreement Russia is a signatory of. Therefore, the following question can be asked: what did the United States do in response? In short, the United States issued punishing economic sanctions and multiple diplomatic punishments. No direct military operations were conducted despite the “assurances” promised to Ukraine.
The 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War has flipped security politics on its head. Rather than just supporting pro-Russian separatists, Russia has invaded Ukraine, conducted deadly military operations that have killed civilians and children, is actively encircling Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, and aspires to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a pro-Russian regime. In response, the United States has stationed a total of 90,000 U.S. service members in Europe, including 9,000 troops in Poland, nearly 2,000 in Romania, and moved multiple aircrafts– including eight F-35 Lightning II aircraft– to Eastern Europe. Notably, the Pentagon, along with NATO member states, has maintained its position that it will not send troops into Ukraine—a stark blow for the Ukrainian military that, while impressively resisting ongoing Russian offensives, remains outnumbered and outgunned versus the powerful Russian military.
Instead, the United States, NATO, and European Union unleashed the most powerful combination of economic and diplomatic punishments in history. Russia’s largest banks have been cut off from Western financial systems, including SWIFT; the Russian ruble has lost over 25% of its value and is now worth less than one U.S. cent; Western companies have cut ties with Russian companies and limited their abilities to operate in Western states; Russian oligarchs, as well Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, have seen their personal assets frozen; Western states have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft; and Russia has been banned from multiple sporting competitions, to name some of the most significant actions taken.
Despite these economic and diplomatic punishments, an unfortunate fact still exists: Russia is physically occupying Ukrainian territory and ignoring Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukrainians, as well as observers, could argue that the United States is failing to assure Ukraine of its territorial integrity, given its calculation that it is not in its best interests to militarily confront Russia, despite agreeing to “assure” Ukraine of its integrity. While the economic and diplomatic efforts are certainly necessary, as the war continues, the decision to not commit military personnel to Ukraine will likely be questioned for years to come.
Taiwanese and Chinese military strategists are glued to their seats, carefully watching every U.S. move. Simply, U.S. actions to defend Ukraine may offer some insight into what the United States may do if China invades Taiwan. While the two policies considered certainly have their differences—as well as different actors involved, a key similarity is shared: the United States has flexibility in its actions to defend both Taiwan and Ukraine. The question, then, is if the United States will reproduce its actions regarding Ukraine with Taiwan.
Walid Berrazeg / Hans Lucas / Redux
How will Taiwan and China React?
Depending on what actions the United States ultimately takes, both Taiwan and China may fairly ask how such actions may impact their own security situations. Again, the security environment in East Asia in comparison to Eastern Europe is vastly different. For starters, one could argue that Taiwan possesses far more strategic value to the United States than Ukraine. From economic to geostrategic considerations, American interests would likely be impacted more severely if Taiwan were to be attacked than if Ukraine were to be attacked. Additionally, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) — the military alliance between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia — is not as influential and powerful as NATO. The “Asian NATO” lacks the institutional and cultural structures that NATO possesses, and while the QUAD is certainly expanding its capabilities to militarily challenge China, the alliance has somewhat hindered member states’ economic ties to China. Finally, any armed conflict over Taiwan would be a very different experience than conflict in Ukraine. While conflict in Ukraine prioritizes land-based warfare, such as heavy armor, artillery forces, and cyber operations, conflict over Taiwan would heavily prioritize naval and air forces. This forces the United States and relevant states to have very different strategies in their respective theaters of conflict. Despite these caveats as well as many others that certainly exist, both Taiwan and China will understandably evaluate their positions.
Taiwan will likely experience a slight degree of concern with the United States prioritizing economic and diplomatic responses, and offering military aid instead of directly joining the war. Given that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen ordered a task force to “study how the confrontation thousands of miles away in Europe could affect [its] longstanding conflict” with China weeks ago, Taiwan is aware that U.S. actions with Ukraine, or lack of, will impact its own security situation. The fundamental interest that Taiwan holds is that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict serves as a test of Taiwan’s strategic belief that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan during an attempted Chinese invasion of Taiwan. While Ukraine and Taiwan are of different values to the United States, the actions, statements, and overall posturing of the United States sends signals to how the United States may interpret ambiguous language when push comes to shove. Put bluntly, it is easy for the United States to publicly state its support of Taiwan, but in the face of a Chinese invasion, Taiwan will want to see U.S. action that warrants its words.
Additionally, with President Putin confirming Russia’s recognition of Taiwan as “an inalienable part of China”, following a heavily publicized meeting with President Xi, an emboldened Russia may support Chinese efforts to coerce Taiwan. As previously mentioned, Section Two of the Taiwan Relations Act is growing in importance, and should China continue to harass Taiwanese airspace, for example, Taiwan may feel as though the United States is not as heavily committed to defending the island as previously thought. During a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, the United States would not have the same economic leverage to use against China it is currently leveraging against Russia—given China’s overall economic might. This may force the United States to either defend Taiwan militarily, or to hardly defend Taiwan at all. Should Russia have its way with Ukraine, then, understandably, Taiwan may feel very uneasy.
The rapid intensification of sanctions and punishments against Russia may be a silver lining for Taiwan. The United States, EU, NATO, and allies—notably Japan—have closely cooperated with each other to collectively punish Russia. In fact, many European states have broken long-standing traditions to support Ukraine, including Germany sending military arms and Switzerland ending its well-known stance of neutrality by siding with EU allies. The United States and NATO are considered to be more united than ever before, and, should Taiwan be facing Chinese coercion, then Taiwan would certainly hope for the same degree of unity developed regarding Ukraine. While NATO would not be as involved in a Taiwan contingency, democratic states alike may be willing to weigh economic and diplomatic punishments against China. Understandably, a conflict in East Asia carries different implications than an Eastern European conflict, but the West has set a precedent for how it will respond to war. Taiwan will expect similar support—at the minimum, should it find itself in its own fight for survival.
Comparatively, China will likely be more receptive with what it is witnessing in Ukraine. Independent of its plans for Taiwan, China will appreciate Russia pulling the United States’ focus away from East Asia. While in the grand scheme of strategic planning, this temporary shift in U.S. attention offers little in the short term, but, with a long-term perspective, Russia’s ability to grasp U.S. attention highlights a bigger theme: the United States has to actively compete in two major geographical areas—a problem China nor Russia currently have. As the United States balances its interests and security commitments around the world, China has the ability to, at times, take advantage of a U.S. military that is stretched thin. This may turn into tempting opportunities for China. While the Taiwan Relations Act may be considered ambiguous in certain aspects, other states scattered throughout Asia do not have this same degree of ambiguity. Notably, the United States has collective defense agreements with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Meaning, states that have heavy influence over the Malacca Strait—undisputedly China’s most important trade artery, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, may be vulnerable to Chinese influence and cannot completely rely on U.S. military support. Thus, should the United States determine that defending states in Southeast Asia with military personnel is not worth the risk of a military confrontation with China—the policy it has adopted regarding Ukraine and Russia, then China stands to gain in Southeast Asian influence.
Focusing on Taiwan, China also stands to gain. Following the United States’ retreat from Afghanistan, China immediately pounced on the opportunity to correlate U.S. policy decisions in Afghanistan to how the United States would botch any attempt to defend Taiwan. Should Russia successfully control Ukraine, then the United States’ attempts at diplomacy and economic coercion, though certainly impactful, will have not been enough, and China will make Taiwan aware. Independent of the influence strategies, the United States’ unwillingness to directly confront the Russian military would likely apply to the Chinese military. From a Chinese perspective, if the United States does not want to confront Russian infantry and artillery, then why would it be willing to challenge a rapidly improving Chinese navy and air force—especially over a territory roughly 100 miles away from mainland China? Assuming China can develop the necessary capabilities to successfully invade Taiwan, as an advisor to President Xi believes to be possible within five years, then it may become less likely for the United States to militarily defend Taiwan. Given that the United States calculated that it is not worth losing American lives on Ukrainian soil, the odds of the United States being willing to sacrifice American lives in Chinese waters may decrease in likelihood—both now and in the future. Therefore, this restraint of force in Ukraine may embolden China to increase pressure towards Taiwan, for a lack of military deterrence hinders the United States’ primary tool to influence Chinese military decisions.
Finally, should military conflict over Taiwan break out, the United States’ economic tools of coercion will not only have a limited impact on China, but any usage of such tools would also likely hurt the United States more than it would hurt China. The U.S. economy is heavily intertwined with the Chinese economy—namely in strategic industries, including semiconductors, energetics, batteries, and composite materials. Should the United States attempt to use targeted economic sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals—as it is using against Russia, then not only will China likely retaliate against the United States through possible sanctions, but it could also hit the United States far harder than once thought possible through disrupting supply chains and international trade. Russia, excluding its oil and natural gas industries, does not possess this ability; hence why economic coercion is a preferred choice of deterrence. Comparatively, China, in many aspects, has tied the United States’ hands in just how far it can challenge it. While China is likely to continue its observations of U.S. actions regarding Ukraine, it is set to feel more comfortable with its attempts to influence Taiwanese affairs.
The West, however, has proven its willingness to accept limited losses in an attempt to pressure Russia to end its hostilities. As previously mentioned, the United States and NATO are more unified than ever before. While China could calculate that states would rather allow it to take Taiwan than have it damage markets and supply chains, Germany’s willingness to halt Nord Stream II and EU members’ willingness to remove many Russian entities from accessing SWIFT are two examples of democratic states willing to prioritize their support for a democratic state under existential threat. China, therefore, must be cautious with any Taiwan strategy, for while China’s economic power is easily its greatest strength to dictate the behavior of other states, this calculation may lose its value, should such states be willing to accept economic hardship in return for supporting a democratic Taiwan.
Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine has grabbed the world’s attention. As the thunderstorms of war have struck Europe, an overcast continues to develop between Taiwan and China. How the United States and its allies react to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will set the standard for how it may handle other brewing conflicts. While U.S. strategy will change, based on the opponent, it is difficult to fundamentally reorient the entire playbook. Both Taiwan and China will be impacted, but, as it stands, China will likely feel more emboldened to pressure Taiwan and its surrounding areas. With President Tsai noting Taiwan’s ability to “empathize with Ukraine’s situation,” the unraveling of Ukraine may not only impact Taiwan’s empathy, but also its potential relatability.