Over the past few weeks, Russia’s deployment of approximately 100,000 troops, as well as tanks and air-defense systems, at Ukraine’s border has unnerved NATO and American foreign policymakers. As analysts, politicians, and policymakers have tried to make sense of this crisis, the image of Taiwan has loomed large. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, raised the alarm that failing to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin would embolden autocrats and weaken U.S. credibility from “Kyiv to Taipei.” Similarly, Seth Crudson, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, warned that Russia and China are in “strategic cooperation” and made clear that Taiwan and Ukraine are interlinked as part of the “larger political competition for Eurasia.” Finally, a recent New York Times news analysis described how “Biden’s Stand on Ukraine Is a Wider Test of U.S. Credibility Abroad.”
These generalizing claims that American credibility rests on its actions in Ukraine alone are ill-founded. While both states hold great historic importance for China and Russia, the strategic lessons to be learned in a potential Ukraine conflict are limited and potentially misleading. The American decision to rule out military intervention in Ukraine reflects not a universal lack of resolve, but instead a policy of prioritization.
The parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan suffers from three main pitfalls. First, Taiwan is becoming a far more important geopolitical asset to the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Second, Russia and China’s motivations for initiating conflict differ more than many believe, which will impact how both states are likely to act. Third, Taiwan is more deeply integrated into key supply chains and trade networks than Ukraine is. In other words, the Ukraine-Taiwan analogy obscures as much as it illuminates.
Contextualizing Russian Troops on the Ukraine Border
Putin’s strategic calculations in mounting such an aggressive troop build-up are largely unknown. It remains unclear whether these troops are part of a risky diplomatic maneuver to force U.S. President Joe Biden to the table or whether Russia-U.S. negotiations are merely a smoke screen for quick military action. The Biden administration, by contrast, has made clear that it would respond with comprehensive sanctions and support for the Ukrainian military, but no boots on the ground. To many, this response has sent a clear message to the world: The United States is increasingly turning inwards and unwilling to assist even its allies in the face of Russian and Chinese expansion.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence in 1991, the exact relationship between Ukraine and the West has always been uneasy. While NATO quickly expanded into Eastern Europe, Ukrainian membership was not in the cards until 2008. NATO’s expansion into Ukraine would bring NATO right up to Russia’s borders. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns warned at the time that even the promise of future NATO membership would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
Despite this warning, U.S. President George W. Bush pushed for NATO to promise membership to Ukraine in 2008, which has subsequently stalled. As Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute told The Diplomat, “Russia’s increased willingness to test the sovereignty of states in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region” has changed dramatically since 2008. Russian hackles were raised, and when a pro-Western regime emerged in Ukraine in 2014, Russia was quick to annex Crimea. This time, the Russian build-up of forces seems to have been sparked by the renewal of anti-Russian leadership from President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as the gradual build-up of Western weaponry in Ukraine.
The Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe in U.S. Grand Strategy
U.S. strategic interests in 2022 are different than in 2008, when NATO promised membership to Ukraine. For the Biden administration, the Indo-Pacific, not post-Soviet Eastern Europe, is the key arena of contestation for geopolitical influence.
In a December speech delivered in Jakarta, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the regional importance of the Indo-Pacific. He pointed to the robust trade and investment occurring between the United States and other Indo-Pacific countries, as well as the United States’ vital military presence. His speech also makes clear that the key sites of contestation – both for influence, and even in terms of territorial claims – are in the region, lamenting China’s “unlawful, expansive South China Sea maritime claims.” Meanwhile, as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, it strengthened its strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) with Australia, India, and Japan, and AUKUS treaty with Australia and the United Kingdom.
The U.S. has limited resources to engage in conflict, requiring its leadership to choose which battles to fight. But if it’s going to pick a fight based on strategic importance alone, it is far more likely to fight a war in the Indo-Pacific than it is in Eastern Europe.
What China and Russia Want Is Different
Not only are U.S. interests in East Asia and Eastern Europe significantly different, but the motivations for the aggressors, China and Russia, are not the same either. While Russia is a declining power seeking to assert its regional authority and maintain credibility with the United States and China, China is a rising power with a much longer time horizon to achieve global influence.
“Russia’s actions in Ukraine are much more driven by domestic politics and external recognition, while China’s actions are much more dictated by realpolitik and hegemonic aspirations,” Ramani said. As Putin has sought to shore up domestic support after mass protests in 2011-2012, asserting dominance over Ukraine has been a useful strategy to gain support of conservative Russians, who view Ukraine as part of a unified Orthodox civilization.
While Russia, as a declining power, may have incentives to act aggressively now, China is more likely to play a long game, waiting until the outcome of a conflict in Taiwan would be unambiguously favorable. As Ryan Hass, the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution, told The Diplomat, currently “Beijing would not be able to assure quick or absolute victory.” Without these assurances, China is likely to play a long game, waiting until the outcome of a potential Taiwan conflict becomes less ambiguous.
It’s (Partly) About the Economy, Stupid
Beyond regional dynamics and American grand strategy, the Taiwan comparison to Ukraine breaks down in one final, critical way: Taiwan is an economic force in a way Ukraine is not.
The numbers offer a useful starting point. Taiwan was the United States’ ninth-largest trade partner in two-way trade in 2020, while Ukraine ranked 67th (in 2019). What makes Taiwan’s economy so critical to the U.S., however, is not simply the volume of trade, but its key role in supply chains essential to the American economy. Taiwan dominates the semiconductor industry, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. accounting for 54 percent of semiconductor contract manufacturing market share in 2020. Semiconductors are necessary raw components for computers, phones, and other electronics, thereby fueling the industry arguably most important for the United States to compete with China: tech.
It’s not just Washington that relies on Taiwan’s economy. Beijing is also deeply embedded in Taiwan’s supply chains. A potential Taiwan crisis would cut Beijing off from Taiwan’s semiconductor industry and other areas in which China is economically interdependent. A conflict over Taiwan “would expose [Beijing’s] own resource vulnerabilities, particularly its dependence on imports of food, fuel, and semiconductors,” Hass said. Invading Taiwan would thus impose unnecessary economic strain on China at the same time as it seeks to extend its economic influence elsewhere.
We Resolve to Move Past Resolve
That the situation in Ukraine is so different from Taiwan does not mean that China isn’t watching closely. How the U.S. responds to the Ukraine crisis will provide a useful datapoint to China on levels of American resolve, just as the Afghanistan withdrawal did a few months earlier. But it’s simply one datapoint, not a universally transferable blueprint for American interests abroad.
As the world transitions out of the American unipolar moment, debates around resolve and deterrence will only become more frequent. If foreign policy debates in the 2000s largely took the United States’ virtually unlimited power for granted, the rise of China and Russia’s geopolitical reassertion no longer makes this possible. Guaranteeing the safety of states bordering rivals will become increasingly difficult, and hard choices may have to be made based on the specific contexts. In a dynamic multiplex world, deep understanding of regional and local factors should inform selective U.S. foreign engagement. The widespread calls to equate the Taiwan and Ukrainian cases, however, indicate that too many foreign policy experts remain stuck in a binary post-Cold War thinking. These one-size-fits-all solutions risk bogging the United States down in protracted conflicts that it could otherwise avoid.