The Taiwan Contingency in the Context of The Russia-Ukraine War

Amelia Cataldi, Jun 7, 2024

NOTE: Since this article was completed in early April 2024, President Biden signed a bill into law that provides security assistance and aid to both Ukraine and Taiwan. In doing this, the United States both reaffirmed its support for both countries and acknowledged the similar position they are in. It also indicates that the United States recognizes that its actions in Ukraine are relevant to broader international situations, which is a central argument of this article.



In light of the struggle to pass a foreign aid package in Congress, the significance of the war between Russia and Ukraine is being called back into question by U.S. legislators [1]. The economic strain of maintaining support for Ukraine in the war since February 2022 has led to a faltering in the once unwavering support of U.S. legislators. Beyond the very real concern raised by humanitarian issues resulting from the war, some of the far-reaching and global impacts of the conflict have been overlooked by the American public. One such impact is the striking parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s rhetoric surrounding Taiwan. China still views Taiwan as a renegade province, and President Xi Jinping has made it clear that he sees Taiwan as a centerpiece of China’s rejuvenation and his personal legacy. While there are important differences between the two situations, the similarities should not be overlooked, as it is likely China is taking cues on Taiwan from Russia’s experience in Ukraine. The drawn-out outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicates to China the possible outcome of and the international reaction to a forced reunification with Taiwan. Specifically, the U.S. response to the Russia-Ukraine war will be an indicator to China of the potential level of involvement they will take in a hypothetical conflict with Taiwan.  


Developments in the Russian invasion will allow China to shape its future military actions because of the parallels in Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine and China’s view of Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory. Both Ukraine and Taiwan are democracies with historical ties to powerful neighbors, and both have weaker militaries that rely on implied U.S. support [2]. Taiwan recognizes its similarities with Ukraine and has dramatically increased its military spending after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Some ordinary Taiwanese citizens have even begun some degree of survival training while others remain skeptical surrounding the urgency of invasion. It was theorized that Russia invading Ukraine will embolden China to do the same in Taiwan, but between Russia’s lack of immediate success and China’s own nuanced calculus surrounding the military capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this invasion has not yet taken place. This supports the idea common in Taiwan that the Chinese would rather grind Taiwan into submission than take it by force, because China is unsure of how the PLA would measure up against a broader war against NATO militaries if they engage in Taiwan. However, Taiwan has taken measures to secure itself against invasion by storing energy sources on the strait to become more resistant to blockades. It has also installed satellite receivers to improve the digital infrastructure on the strait to limit reliance on other nations. These actions show that to some degree, Taiwan recognizes the parallels between itself and Ukraine to be significant. The Taiwanese may not see a perfect mirror image of themselves in Ukraine, but they are concerned enough to broaden their infrastructure and prepare for a conflict.


 On the other hand, while these two situations appear similar, they are distinct, and each situation is likely to play out differently. The first divergence is in the way that leaders project their image to the international community. While Russia has more boldly extended its military reach, as seen in its relatively recent invasions of its neighbors like Georgia, Crimea, and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, China has done so to a lesser degree. However, Xi is still seeking to elevate China to regional hegemony through diplomatic leadership on the world stage, as seen by the trillion-dollar investment in the Belt and Road Initiative and the creation of regional institutions led by China. Xi’s militarization of the South China Sea through the construction of islands to house informal bases suggests an attempt to control territory that is strategically important to the region without formally acknowledging these efforts and raising serious international alarms [3]. However, China only formally recognizes one military base on foreign soil, which is in Djibouti, while Russia formally recognizes around 20 military bases on foreign soil [4]. Putin has also been more active in projecting a strongman image throughout the international community while Xi has made an effort to create an image of himself as a statesman. This is seen in Xi’s rhetoric on Gaza, where he aims to appear peaceful by calling for a ceasefire [5]. In his rhetoric on Taiwan, Xi treads the line, saying that he supports peaceful reunification but is not opposed to using force if necessary [6]. His cautiousness in threatening force in these statements while still attempting to define his resolve is an effort to clarify his position without triggering the international community to rally against him as a strongman. Beyond rhetoric, Xi has used multilateral institutions to position himself and China as responsible members of the international community. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative is an example of his diplomatic ambitions, as it represents a massive infrastructure project that seeks to expand sea and land transportation in Asia through loans to various countries in the region, making China the centerpiece of the operation [7]. China has also stepped up as a leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, as a means to position itself as a regional leader in Asia. The only Russian regional leadership analogues are its energy exports and mainly rhetorical support of the Eurasian Economic Union. China is much more concerned with its international image than Russia. 


Another difference between the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan is the nuanced role that the U.S. and NATO play. For Russia, the fact that Ukraine is not a member of NATO was significant in its decision to invade, meaning that Russia would be less likely to be attacked by more powerful NATO allies. While the Biden Administration has sought to reinforce the strength of NATO throughout Eastern Europe and provide instrumental assistance to Ukraine, the administration has also made it clear that it would not send U.S. military forces to the aid of Ukraine if Russia attacked [8]. This emboldened Putin to attack Ukraine. However, in the case of Taiwan, the United States has been decidedly vague on whether they would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion. While the U.S. has previously aligned itself with China on the issue, particularly when normalizing relations with the Chinese government in 1978, more recently the U.S. has seemed to align with Taiwan through continued trade and diplomatic relations between Taiwan’s president and top U.S. legislators. Xi likely believes that Taiwan has strong U.S. support while Putin was likely skeptical of such support for Ukraine. This separates the two situations on the basis of US foreign policy. 


U.S. support for Ukraine may have effects beyond those in their war with Russia because of the looming threat of U.S. involvement as a military superpower when engaging in international conflicts. The U.S.’ initially widespread support for Ukraine was a significant consideration for Putin when weighing the costs of the invasion, and the U.S. role in Taiwan will be crucial to China as well. In light of the uncertainty surrounding the reliability of funding for Ukraine in Congress, the parallels between that conflict and a Taiwan invasion are worth considering. In the case of Ukraine, while some Western powers attempted to deter Russia from invading by demonstrating their support, this was not ultimately effective in preventing an attack. Some argue that deterrence should have gone further with past invasions, citing a less than comprehensive response in Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea that may have later encouraged Putin to go even further in Ukraine. So far, deterrence in Taiwan has held China back from invading. The Biden Administration describes itself as upholding the One China policy that Taiwan should be seen as a part of China. On the flip side, high-ranking US officials, like former Speakers of the House Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, have visited Taiwan’s president, and the US continues to rely on their economic link with Taiwan [9]. This is evidence of the U.S. becoming more supportive of Taiwan’s autonomy while still publicly supporting the One China Policy that supports Taiwan’s reunification with China. For China’s part, they may have held off on military action because they are weighing their military capabilities against the U.S., which are becoming more evenly matched as the PLA grows stronger. The U.S. needs to be resolved in their decision to deter China. The recent faltering in support for Ukraine could be seen by Xi, as a weakening of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan. 


The war between Ukraine and Russia is similar to the conflict between Taiwan and China in that both situations involve struggles over territory complicated by political history. The preparations Taiwan seems to have taken indicate that it sees similarities between itself and Ukraine. The U.S. speaks differently about Taiwan and Ukraine, but in both cases, a resolved, implied opposition is crucial to deterring a bloody invasion. The U.S. must understand that its choices in Ukraine are being watched by China as it considers its own potential invasion in Taiwan.


[1] Foran, Clare. Wilson, Kristin. Rimmer, Morgan. Barret, Ted. “Senate passes $95 billion package with aid for Ukraine and Israel, setting up showdown in the House.” CNN politics. February 13th, 2024.

[2] Kockritz, Angela. “How tomorrow never comes: Russia’s war on Ukraine and its impact on Taiwan.” European Council on Foreign Relations. August 8th, 2023.

[3] Center for Preventative Action. “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea.” CFR Global Conflict Tracker. March 19th, 2024.

[4] Scobell, Andrew. Stevenson- Yang, Lucy. “China Is Not Russia. Taiwan Is Not Ukraine.” United States Institute of Peace. March 4th, 2022.

[5] Tisdall, Simon. “How Two-Faced Xi Jingping is Exploiting War in Gaza to Beget China’s New World Order.” The Guardian. November 11th, 2023.

[6] Lawrence, Susan. “Taiwan: The Origins of the US One China Policy.” Congressional Research Service. September 27th, 2023.,and%20other%20activities%20around%20Taiwan.

[7] McBride, James. Berman, Noah. Chatzky, Andrew. “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations. February 2nd, 2023.

[8] Collins, Liam. “U.S. Deterrence Failed in Ukraine.” Foreign Policy Magazine. February 20th, 2023.

[9] Liptak, Kevin. Fox, Lauren. “Why the Taiwan Meeting Matters.” CNN Politics. April 5th, 2023.