What Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Really Means For A Potential Chinese Invasion of Taiwan

Aadit Pareek, Jun 24, 2024

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, observers around the world have become increasingly wary of a, supposedly, impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. went so far as to amend its foreign policy regarding Taiwan; President Biden vowed that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China, seemingly ending the U.S.’ decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity regarding a potential war between the two. This ostensible policy shift, as well as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping’s similar authoritative tendencies and outlooks, have stoked fears of an increased risk of an invasion [1]. This article seeks to negate such arguments by showing that however similar Putin and Xi may seem in their revanchist views or methods of governance, many other factors indicate there is no increased likelihood of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 


Russia and China’s Differing Use of Their Military Overseas

Over the last 50 years, Russia and China have deployed their military overseas in differing fashions. Russia has deployed its military in force for various purposes in the last 30 years. It quelled the Chechen resistance beginning in 1999, invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, and intervened against the Islamic State in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government in 2015. 


China, on the other hand, has famously not fought a war since its invasion of Vietnam in 1979. While the Chinese military has engaged in minor skirmishes, most recently with India along their disputed border between 2020 and 2021, as well as with Filipino fishing vessels in the South China Sea since 2012, it has not fought full-scale wars. They have, however, deployed their military overseas. All of these deployments have been contributions to UN peacekeeping operations, notably in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 to deter piracy along the Somali coast. 


As seen in these examples, the two countries use their militaries in different ways. Russia, in the last 30 years, has used its military aggressively, often for territorial gain. Conversely, China has avoided full-scale wars and has primarily deployed its military overseas for peacekeeping operations. China is far less likely to invade another country and risk severe casualties by engaging in a protracted armed conflict.


U.S. Support for Ukraine and Taiwan

While the U.S. has always supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and aspirations of NATO membership, it has not deployed troops to fight in the war in Ukraine. This was despite the U.S. ordering 5,000 American troops in Ukraine to be on high alert in the months preceding the 2022 Russian invasion. Furthermore, Congressional support for U.S. aid to Ukraine has dwindled in the last year, on both sides of the aisle. It took a significant amount of political maneuvering for the latest aid package to be passed by Congress, and with the U.S. presidential election coming up in November, a second Trump term is likely to lead to a decline or total end of monetary aid to Ukraine. While the U.S. has expressed support for Ukraine, steadfast support may not be guaranteed long term.


The same cannot be said about Taiwan. In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, President Biden offered rhetorical support for Taiwan, and Congress moved to insulate the U.S. economy from a possible slowdown in Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing. While the Inflation Reduction Act and Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science acts boost U.S. manufacturing, the U.S. will still remain reliant on Taiwanese manufacturing, ensuring continued U.S. support [2]. The steadfast American support for Taiwan creates a deterrent for China that did not exist with Russia before its invasion of Ukraine. 


If Biden loses the election in November, Trump and the Republican Party have maintained that China is the principal threat to U.S. interests, suggesting they would follow through on Biden’s pledge to defend the island [3]. The U.S. will likely remain a defensive partner of Taiwan no matter the outcome of the presidential election, deterring a possible Chinese invasion for the foreseeable future.


The ‘Security Dilemma’

Various political scientists view the Russian invasion of Ukraine to be a result of a security dilemma that faced Russia. They assert that Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO constituted a security threat to Russia, who launched a preemptive conflict to prevent Ukraine’s accession to NATO. While there is conflicting evidence for this security threat, assume it is true for argument’s sake. Does China face a legitimate military threat with Taiwan? Taiwan’s own armed forces are approximately a tenth the size of China’s per 2019 estimates [4]. Furthermore, the only American military presence in Taiwan are Green Berets from the 1st Special Forces Group that conduct training exercises with Taiwan’s amphibious forces [5]. Taiwan also has no nuclear weapons, while China is a nuclear state. 


Putting these facts together, China faces no security threat from Taiwan as long as they do not engage them militarily, in which case the U.S. would intervene. This contrasts with the situation with Ukraine and Russia [6]. Ukraine’s accession to NATO would result in NATO gaining a significant foothold in Eastern Europe, with troops right on Russia’s doorstep. Furthermore, Ukraine would likely fall under the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella, similar to non-nuclear NATO states like Poland. Ukraine joining NATO could lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S. while China would have to invade Taiwan for it to risk a similar confrontation with the U.S.


Xi and Putin: Are They Really Similar Leaders?

Putin’s entire career preceding political office was spent as an intelligence officer in the KGB. Xi’s career has been as a bureaucrat and a politician, making him someone who understands the importance of public perception. Putin rules Russia with an iron fist and by his own rules, maintaining a number of close advisors and oligarchs whose primary goals are to serve his ends. Xi, on the other hand, relies on the Communist Party’s construction of a one-party system to institutionally insulate his rule from political opposition and must work within the confines of his government’s established norms.


Putin is set on restoring the U.S.S.R. to its former glory, referring to its dissolution as the “greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” He has shown a willingness to use force to achieve this goal, as seen in his military invasions of Ukraine, Georgia, and Crimea. Xi maintains similar goals with regard to his One-China Policy, maintaining Taiwan is China’s sovereign territory [7]. However, his foreign policy has remained a lot more positive, with a goal of amassing soft power. This is clear through his Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the establishment of Confucius Institutes of cultural exchange worldwide. He understands the importance of having goodwill with foreign nations and not spending political capital on unnecessary bloodshed. That said, he has ensured China remains an assertive power by maintaining an active role on the world stage through ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. This brand of more confrontational and uncompromising foreign policy rhetoric has seen China challenge the West’s long-established status quo without threatening violence. Putin, however, does not seem to care about poor perceptions of himself, his regime, or his country abroad, as long as his goals are achieved. A number of his closest advisors were reported to have been against his invasion of Ukraine, but his adamance prevailed. 


Their domestic policy differs too. Xi has prioritized economic development over militarist expansion. China’s economy has grown exponentially under his administration, becoming a manufacturing and technological powerhouse. He has also taken steps to alleviate corruption, pursuing harsh anti-corruption laws to quell the issue [8]. Putin, on the other hand, relies on corruption and the oligarchy to maintain his power internally. Furthermore, his questionable foreign policy decisions in the last decade have resulted in severe sanctions from the West, hampering his ability to stimulate economic growth.


On the surface, they seem to be two peas in a pod: authoritarian leaders, close in age and outlook, looking to reclaim their countries’ glorious pasts. However, when we dig a little deeper into their methods of governance and objectives, stark differences arise that suggest Xi is unlikely to use force against Taiwan [9]. 


Where Do We Stand?

Having analyzed various contributing factors, we come to certain conclusions. Russia and China differ in the use of their militaries overseas; there are significant differences in the history of U.S. support for Ukraine and Taiwan; the security dilemma facing China regarding Taiwan differs from that which Russia potentially faces with Ukraine; and most importantly, Xi and Putin differ significantly in their leadership styles. 


These factors suggest a stark difference between the buildup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the current situation between China and Taiwan. Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not suggest an increased likelihood of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.


[1] Entringer, Irene, et al. “Expert Poll: Does Ukraine Offer Lessons for Taiwan?” Foreign Policy, February 6th, 2024. https://foreignpolicy.com/2024/02/06/russia-ukraine-taiwan-china-invasion-poll-us-experts-academics/.

[2] Maizland, Lindsay. “Why China-Taiwan Relations Are So Tense.” Council on Foreign Relations, February 8th, 2024. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations-tension-us-policy-biden.

[3] Khrestin, Igor. “The Russo-Ukrainian War: Implications for Taiwan.” Global Taiwan Institute, June 28th, 2023. https://globaltaiwan.org/2023/06/taiwanese-perspectives-on-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-and-its-implications/.

[4] Dotson, John. “Taiwan’s “Military Force Restructuring Plan” and the Extension of Conscripted Military Service.” Global Taiwan Institute, February 8th, 2023. https://globaltaiwan.org/2023/02/taiwan-military-force-restructuring-plan-and-the-extension-of-conscripted-military-service/.

[5] McCartney, Micah. “Taiwan Confirms US Troops on Front-Line Islands Near China.” Newsweek, March 19th, 2024. https://www.newsweek.com/taiwan-confirms-us-troops-front-line-islands-near-china-1880865.

[6] Scobell, Andrew, et al. “China Is Not Russia. Taiwan Is Not Ukraine.” United States Institute of Peace, March 4th, 2022. https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/03/china-not-russia-taiwan-not-ukraine.

[7] Ripley, Will. “The dangerous parallels between Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine and Xi’s claims on Taiwan.” CNN, February 26th, 2024. https://www.cnn.com/2024/02/27/asia/putin-ukraine-xi-taiwan-parallels-analysis-intl-hnk/index.html.

[8] Tønnesson, Stein, and Pavel Baev. “Are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping Two of a Kind? – PRIO Blogs.” PRIO Blogs, August 29th, 2022. https://blogs.prio.org/2022/08/are-vladimir-putin-and-xi-jinping-two-of-a-kind/.

[9] Aron, Leon. “What Putin and Xi Have in Common.” American Enterprise Institute, February 14th, 2024. https://www.aei.org/op-eds/what-putin-and-xi-have-in-common/.