After Ukraine, what changed for Taiwan?
Taiwan is under no immediate threat of being under invasion, but ‘status quo’ just took another hit
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine I got a flurry of concerned messages from friends all over the world worried that China would take advantage of the world’s eyes on Putin to launch an attack on Taiwan. I told them not to worry…for the time being. The logistics of modern war is such that the preparation for such an act, especially with the geographic hindrance of the Taiwan straits, isn’t something the Chinese can muster overnight. However, you’d have to be an idiot not to see the enormous ramifications of a hot war on the doorsteps of the EU and the parallels with Taiwan. Ukraine will alter both the internal calculus of stakeholders and the actual geopolitical facts on the ground worldwide. We need to reckon with those changes and realizations now so that Ukraine 2022 does not lead to Taiwan 2027, if not sooner.
I will start with the most important lesson Taiwan must internalize if it is to survive as a (de facto) independent nation.
Never, ever, ever assume you know what a dictator will do next
Crazy leftist types were not the only ones assuming that Putin was not going to pull the trigger on Ukraine. Right up to the very end, I assumed that he’s simply too smart to do so. Besides, I felt like I had an inside track. My brother lived in Russia for years and his wife and kids were still there. There was nothing on Russian TV preparing the people of Russia for this. It would be devastating for the Russian economy, and all to swallow a relatively impoverished yet west-aligned neighbor who does not want to be swallowed. Why would Putin, known for his calculated cunning, pull a move like this?
But he did.
There are all sorts of post-facto reasonings for maybe why he did. Has he gone crazy from COVID isolation? Is there a strategic commodities play we’ve all been missing? Maybe he’s just getting old and have “restore the glory of the Soviet Union” on his bucket list. I don’t think any of this actually matters. There is no such thing as a perfectly rational individual. And even if Putin is (as many have argued) very rational, you still does not know how he’s going to act because you do not understand his underlying rationales for his logic.
Similarly, I have heard many, many folks…especially business people, make the case that Xi Jinping is never gonna invade Taiwan because it just doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t cost out. The return on investment is simply going to be too poor. Stop it. Don’t use your MBA brain on megalomaniacal dictators. Relatedly…
Bargaining with the devil will not bring peace
It’s kind of amazing but after all this there are still people who wondered if we only didn’t provoke Putin so much whether we could have averted the whole disaster.
How is there any doubt after Putin’s Bond Villain-worthy TV spot talking about the glory of the Soviet Union and liberating the Ukrainians from Nazism that it was never about NATO? They will keep asking for more and more concessions until they achieve their ultimate objective.
I’m not saying “don’t bargain with dictators,” I’m saying you can never reach a state of equilibrium with them through diplomacy alone. The frog can only choose when to jump from the pot, or get cooked.
No. There is a cost to appeasement. If there isn’t, it wouldn’t mean anything to Russia or China. President Tsai’s “provocations” are calibrated carefully. If Taiwan backed up into paying “lip service” to the ‘92 consensus (which is basically a work of fiction anyhow) we are ceding ideological ground and consenting to be constrained by the Chinese framework. That will lead to a crumbling first of international support for Taiwan, then of internal national identity, and finally making the formal annexation a bloodless, costless (to the Chinese) fait accompli.
There’s an idea out there somehow that the Ukrainians were fooled into standing up to Russia by western allies. I don’t think this bears up considering the remarkable amount of bravery displayed by Ukrainians after invasion. I don’t think anybody is capable of telling a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself” without thinking things all the way through.
It takes time for the cavalry to arrive
There is a lazy line of thinking that goes a little like this: The US gave up on Afghanistan and now the Ukrainians are on their own. This means the US are not reliable partners for Taiwan. This is both incorrect and defeatist.
First, the US have clearly telegraphed their intentions and rationales. With the undeniable rise of China and its increasing isolationism, the US have identified China as its chief rival and directed their resources accordingly. In a way the opposite is true: If the US were still mired in Afghanistan or sending troops in Ukraine, I would be more worried for Taiwan because they would have spread their resource thin.
You can believe the US will come to Taiwan’s rescue or not, what doesn’t make sense is changing your mind on the matter because of what happened in Ukraine.
However, what the Ukrainian situation does highlight, and rightly so, is the importance of preparedness on the ground. What is Taiwan’s ability to resist in the first 24, 48 and 72 hours? What is the morale of the population by the end of the first week? Will we be relying on the military to get the civilians water, or will it be the other way around?
In my estimation the Ukrainians do not enjoy anywhere near the amount of true international support as the Taiwanese and the reason is kind of brutal: they do not hold a vital part of the global supply chain, they do not sit in a position of key geopolitical importance and they don’t enjoy a fabulously defensible terrain. But the Ukrainians have something we need to work on: extreme willingness to take defense into their own hands. Taiwan needs to at least hold out until help gets here.
Don’t let people you don’t trust control your energy
Almost everyone agrees, including the Germans themselves now, that Russia used their position as the key supplier of natural gas to Germany as a weapon.
As much as I admire President Tsai on the diplomatic front, her energy policy is appalling. Driven by local political animus that goes back to the founding of the DPP, Tsai’s plan phased out nuclear power and increased our reliance on Liquified Natural Gas. By 2025, her plan will see Taiwan’s grid with 0 percent nuclear power and 50% LNG.
The problem with LNG is you are relying on constant supply. With our current receiving infrastructure, we can hold maybe two weeks of LNG maximum, ten days in the summer. In a blockade scenario, gas coming in from the US, Qatar and Australia would have no way of getting to Taiwan. The ability for the people of Taiwan to survive and resist will be limited by the short leash of energy.
Taiwan very recently voted against restarting the mothballed 4th Nuclear Power Plant (Lungmen) in a December 2021 referendum. But this doesn’t mean it is out of nuclear options. Both the 2nd and 3rd Nuclear Power Plant are coming up against their 40 year initial commissioned lifespans. We know that comparable plants have enjoyed life extensions of up to 40 more years in the United States. If we can overcome political barriers to doing so in Taiwan, we can continue enjoying low-carbon energy at a low cost (life extension will bring some refurbishment costs but the upside is enormous) while reducing our exposure to LNG.
We’re all in this together
I think Lithuania took the whole world by surprise, including the Taiwanese, when they came out as such staunch allies for Taiwan.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, somehow it all makes a little bit more sense. None of us little Democracies really have a chance on our own against China or Russia. And while we might each have our ‘big brothers’ like the EU for Lithuania and the US for Taiwan, ultimately the fight is even going to be bigger than that.
We are seeing now the Bear and the Panda being pushed together to becoming the most cursed of strange animal friends. China, though far from pleased or particularly consulted on the invasion of Ukraine, is dealing with it by reluctant coming by Russia’s side, declaring that they will be taking off the tariff on Russian wheat imports. If the EU do decide to kick Russia off the SWIFT system, it’s likely that China will accommodate trade with Russia through their own system, providing a lifeline.
To have a chance, somehow the rest of the world have to snap out of regional thinking and into global alliance for freedom everywhere. Lithuania saw that the most enlightened form of self-interest is to extend support to far-away Taiwan. And I’m glad to see that Taiwan in turn sees that it is in its most enlightened form of self-interest to support the Ukraine.
My hope that Taiwan will do even more by accepting a number of Ukrainian refugees.
We’re OK for now, but history will come knocking for Taiwan
We are not living in the 90s anymore, that is for sure. Will we be ready? Only time will tell.