• Taiwan is Not Ukraine is Not Taiwan

    March 5, 2022 // 6 Comments »

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was issuable to any member of the military, or civilian employee of the federal government, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two states only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created after WWII are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s instant invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the new nation states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak border states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) Historically at some point in time all those borders were just glaciers, so it is always possible to argue some slip of history means somewhere used to be owned by someone going all the way back to mastodons. The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders created by his adversaries, something now possible as Russia has been allowed by the West to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member was a threat to Putin and he this week is taking care of that. Americans live in a country that essentially has no border threats and fail to understand this time after time. We believe when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geopolitically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s proof-of-concept, his 2014 takeover of Crimea, assured him NATO would not militarily intervene. About the only real obstacle he faced was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off a couple of weeks and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. The U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism. Taiwan grew into an economic powerhouse and in that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous amount of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, visits among relatives, and other ties that indicate a growing, positive relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. The total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is in the world economy after so many years of sanctions. Really, what’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers already showed much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. if U.S. sanction drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply integrated into the global economy and vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculatable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would represent something larger than the Normandy D-Day landings. Whereas the Ukrainians have limited ability to respond to a blitzkrieg land invasion, Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Militarily there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are very likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia outweigh the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

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    Posted in Biden, Democracy, Military