Taiwan Watches Ukraine With Concern As U.S. Divided Over Best Response

Taiwan has shared its concern about the tensions in Europe amid Russia's amassing of forces along the Ukrainian border, while the American public appears reluctant to risk military lives on Kyiv's behalf.

In a written statement to Newsweek on Tuesday, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry expressed its "grave concerns about the rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border resulting from Russia's buildup of troops east of Ukraine." It was keeping abreast of the latest developments and called on relevant parties to "begin dialogue as soon as possible in order to reduce regional tensions." Taipei expects disputes to be resolved through diplomatic channels, "peacefully and in a manner consistent with international law," said ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou.

With the United States playing an inevitably crucial role in NATO's response to demands by Russian President Vladimir Putin, observers are drawing future parallels with how Washington might react to similar moves on Taiwan by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Ukraine and Taiwan may represent markedly different U.S. interests in terms of strategic importance and economic interdependence, but it's the question of American credibility that's driving certain sections of the debate.

Some argue that anything short of a full military response would be perceived as weakness in Moscow and therefore in Beijing, too. A U.S. that is reluctant to commit militarily to Ukraine may be seen as unwilling to protect Taiwan if it's threatened by its cross-strait neighbor, a scenario that may result in miscalculation in Beijing.

However, others believe China would like nothing more than for American forces to be bogged down and distracted by a months- or even years-long war of attrition on the European continent. This appears to be the dilemma facing decision makers in Washington as they mull over diplomatic, economic and military responses to Russia's escalation.

Taiwan Compared to Ukraine In Credibility Crisis
Tuo Chiang-class corvettes ROCN Ta Chiang (R) and ROCN Tuo Chiang (L) take part in a naval demonstration on January 7, 2022. Amid ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia Taiwan has expressed "grave concern" and called on parties to restore dialogue. military News Agency / Ministry of National Defense, Taiwan

A recent poll by the Trafalgar Group and the Convention of States Action found fewer than one in six Americans were in favor of deploying troops to Ukraine if Russia further invaded the country. Only 15.3 percent of respondents preferred U.S. boots on the ground when given the choice alongside options including the provision of supplies and weapons (31.1 percent); diplomatic pressure (30.5 percent); and sending military advisers (23.2 percent).

The same survey asked a simplified version of the question regarding Taiwan and whether the Biden administration should use "U.S. military assets" to defend the island in the event of a Chinese invasion. 58.1 percent answered yes, while 41.9 percent said no, according to the poll of 1,081 likely general election voters between January 12 and 14.

It's difficult to identify the precise rationale behind the public's willingness to commit American forces to one but not the other, but it may relate to how Taiwan's security is viewed as a national interest. The island's strategic significance in the Pacific is well known, but less is said about its economy and industry, including its role in the world's semiconductor supply chain.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Taiwan was America's ninth largest goods trading partner in 2020, responsible for $90.6 billion in two-way trade. In 2019, Ukraine was the 67th largest, with $3.7 billion in two-way trade. A Census Bureau report said Taiwan was the U.S.'s eighth largest goods trading partner for the year until November 2021, accounting for $103 billion—or 2.5 percent—of total trade over the period.

Despite the heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait in recent years, a China-Taiwan conflict would appear to be among the less urgent flashpoints in 2022, a year of national and personal import for China and Xi. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics begin in early February and will be followed by two more sporting events in the summer and autumn. Before the year's end, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th National Congress, where Xi is expected to secure a third term as leader.

On Monday, both China and Russia denied a Bloomberg report that said Beijing had urged Moscow not to invade Ukraine in 2022. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was "made up out of thin air," describing it as an attempt to "drive a wedge in China-Russia relations."

Taiwan believes China is unlikely to engage in a military campaign in the near future.