As Russia invades Ukraine, China looks at its Taiwan options

At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of my contacts in Taiwan suggested that China will be watching the conflict closely. Its eye will be on its own long-held desire to invade Taiwan and bring it back into the Chinese fold—an ambition with enormous implications for the tech industry and every aspect of life that relies upon it.

Early on, when it looked like Putin’s Ukraine adventure would be a David-versus-Goliath battle that the Ukraine had little chance of winning, some military analysts I know suggested that China might be emboldened to invade Taiwan, a small island 100 miles off its coastline.

After all, Ukraine and Taiwan bear some striking historical and geopolitical similarities.

Vladimir Putin justifies invading Ukraine by claiming Ukraine is part of Russia, and that the democratization of Ukraine was illegal. Before glasnost, the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. But the breakup of the USSR made it possible for many countries under the broader USSR leadership to become independent countries and sever their ties with Russia in terms of leadership. Poland, Ukraine, and others now have their own presidents and democratic forms of government.

This argument has some of the same features as China’s argument that it should retake control of Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province. This is how that idea came to be.

Before World War Two, Japan controlled Taiwan, but China took control of the island after Japan lost the war. After the war, civil war broke out in China and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party ousted Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) government. Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to Taiwan in 1949, as a history published by the BBC details:

This group, referred to as Mainland Chinese and then making up 1.5m people, dominated Taiwan’s politics for many years – even though they only account for 14% of the population.

Having inherited an effective dictatorship, facing resistance from local people resentful of authoritarian rule and under pressure from a growing democracy movement, Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, began allowing a process of democratization. President Lee Teng-hui, known as Taiwan’s “father of democracy,” led constitutional changes towards a more democratic political layout, which eventually led to the election of the island’s first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian, in 2000.

The politics behind the China-Taiwan conflict is messy. For political reasons, the US has not recognized Taiwan as a separate nation since 1979. That year, the Carter administration signed a diplomatic agreement with the People’s Republic of China stating that “the Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”

Here’s Joshua Keating writing for Slate:

Every administration has nominally adhered to the so-called “One China” policy since then. A nonprofit known as the American Institute in Taiwan, not an official embassy, ​​represents US interests in Taipei. This strange and hypocritical agreement has benefited both the US and Taiwan. Taiwan has maintained its de facto independence—unlike in Hong Kong or Macao, Taiwanese citizens and institutions are mostly free from Beijing’s influence—and recent decades have brought a transition to democracy and rising prosperity. The US, meanwhile, has been able to maintain a valuable alliance while avoiding a military confrontation with another nuclear-armed superpower.

But in the last two years, Taiwan–and especially its tech and semiconductor industry–has become more strategically important to the US and US companies, who don’t see Taiwan coming under the rulership of China anytime soon.

While the Russian-Ukraine war still rages on, there has been a turn of events. The US, Canada, the European Union (EU), and many other countries that have joined Ukraine’s fight to keep Russia from winning the war. Also, an unified NATO makes the alliance a more powerful deterrent to Russia in general. Add the punishing economic sanctions Being placed on Russia, which threatens to ruin the country’s economy, and this is no longer a Goliath vs David conflict, but one that has brought tremendous new power to Ukraine’s quest to remain independent.

China is watching

This turn of events has surely been watched closely by Chinese officials, whose stand on the Russian/Ukrainian war has been to take no stand. But China has to be watching much of the world rally around Ukraine.

This may present a concern for China in its quest to take back Taiwan in the near future. Should China try to invade Taiwan, much of the free world could respond in similar unity. Developed countries around the world, especially those within the EU, rely on the advanced semiconductors (such as from TSMC) and other technology (such as from Taiwanese designers and manufacturers) for their businesses, consumer products, and militaries.

It is still unclear how the Russian/Ukrainian war will play out. What is not in question is that the US, Canada, the EU, and NATO have become a powerful force for dealing with tyrants like Putin if they threaten free and independent countries.

Similarly, we have seen the US, Japan, Australia, the UK, and France developing an unified approach to deterring China from moving on Taiwan. The Ukraine conflict has also raised the possibility that other EU countries could join any conflict caused by China invading Taiwan.

Because of all this, China is very likely revisiting its calculus on Taiwan. And the world can only benefit.

Tim Bajarin is the chairman of Creative Strategies, a high tech research and consulting firm based in Silicon Valley. He has been covering the technology industry and market for 40 years.

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