Ukraine war is 'stern reality check' for Chinese plans to invade Taiwan: think tank

·Senior Editor
·6 min read
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 01: The Guard of Honor of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA)  escorts the national flag during a flag-raising ceremony at the Tian'anmen Square to celebrate the International Labor Day on May 1, 2022 in Beijing, China. A US think Tank noted  that the
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 01: The Guard of Honor of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) escorts the national flag during a flag-raising ceremony at the Tian'anmen Square to celebrate the International Labor Day on May 1, 2022 in Beijing, China. A US think Tank noted that the "very visible struggles" of the Russian military in Ukraine should serve as a "stern reality check" on Chinese military confidence and forestall any similar action by China in the near-term. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

China’s combined force military unreadiness, United States and global resolve to support Taiwan as they have Ukraine, and the huge potential economic costs of Ukraine-like sanctions for China, makes an invasion scenario "exceptionally high risk" and thus more remote, according to a new report by US think tank The Conference Board (TCB) released in April.

The report, entitled Taiwan ≠ Ukraine: A Pragmatic Assessment and authored by TCB's senior vice president for Asia David Hoffman, noted that the "very visible struggles" of the vaunted Russian military in Ukraine should serve as a "stern reality check" on Chinese military confidence and forestall any similar action by China in the near-term.

"The way the Ukraine situation is developing for Russia makes the probability of a Chinese invasion and occupation-type move on Taiwan in the near-term more remote, not less," noted Hoffman.

Noting that the Chinese leadership has historically been happy to bide its time on the Taiwan issue as long as the status quo is maintained, he concluded, "For all these reasons and more, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is considered improbable – whether sometime soon, this decade, or even farther out."

China's military readiness

Hoffman noted that in recent years, the Middle Kingdom has unilaterally dismantled the “one country two systems” model in Hong Kong and all but erased the democratic norms enjoyed by the territory that China had officially agreed to abide by until 2047.

The Hong Kong experience suggests that China will pursue certain strategic and political goals if they believe they can do so without serious consequences. Many therefore think that China’s current ruling group intends to undertake forceful action toward Taiwan reunification, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will embolden China in this regard.

There have also been frequent and threatening Chinese military drills, many of late simulating invasion scenarios, as well as People's Liberation Army (PLA) air force sorties adjacent to Taiwan airspace that have become an "almost daily occurrence".

However, warned Hoffman, the Chinese leadership would need to have supreme confidence that this course of action would yield a quick, decisive, and low-cost victory. "Credible defense experts estimate that China is at least five or more years away from having the requisite military capability necessary for such a complex and risky undertaking," while the PLA has not seen combat since 1978.

While China’s defensive capabilities are "unquestionably top notch", Taiwan is considered a much harder target for China than Ukraine is for Russia. Hoffman noted the nearly 100-mile ocean crossing and the island's heavily fortified beach landings, as well as its sophisticated heavy weaponry and highly mountainous terrain.

And even though "China could easily destroy Taiwan", doing so or risking huge loss of life and materiel for China would not serve the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategic interests in any way.

US and global resolve to support Taiwan

Hoffman noted that the Ukraine crisis has galvanized an "exceptionally high level" of US and global resolve to resist authoritarianism, specifically its Russian and Chinese forms. The recent parade of “unofficial” visits by US and European dignitaries to Taiwan also demonstrates the level of western support for the island.

Furthermore, over the last two years, high-level US government meetings with allies in Europe and Asia have all included important statements insisting on peaceful cross-straits relations and non- aggression/non-coercion on “the Taiwan issue” from China. In addition, there is "strong solidarity" on this position with, in particular, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

"This spells bad timing for China," said Hoffman. "Leaving aside the unknowable question of whether the US and allies would go to battle in defense of Taiwan, support such as what we’re witnessing for Ukraine – arms, funding, intelligence, sanctions, and possibly embargoes – are... much more significant deterrents for China than they’ve been for Russia.

In addition, Japan, which would be most impacted by a Taiwan incursion, is slated to update its National Security Strategy for the first time since 2013. The update is expected to include a significant buildup of its “self-defense force”, possibly including the development of deep strike capability to protect its regional air defenses.

The economic costs of sanctions

The prevailing assumption for business thus far has been that the US and its allies would not impose significant sanctions on China due to the self-harm they would necessarily inflict on their own companies and economies.

However, Hoffman argued, "Given their intellectual property and economic endowments – people, resources, finance, markets – western firms and economies would eventually recover. China would not."

The speed and breadth of the sanctions imposed by the newly unified West on Russia were a huge surprise for many policy experts, and certainly so for the Chinese leadership, he noted. "The possibility of facing a united front of sanctions is a daunting deterrent for China, especially the specter that sanctions could be expanded to include embargoes that curtailed critical food and energy supplies that the country absolutely needs, literally for survival."

A sanctions regime like what is being imposed on Russia would be "utterly devastating" to China’s economy, and very likely introduce acute domestic social and political risks for the CCP.

On the technological front, China’s dependency on core technologies from the West remains significant, not least for leading-edge semiconductors that are required in all modern industrial goods and that power all major new economy service sectors.

On the finance side, the disconnection of the Russian central bank and the largest Russian commercial banks from SWIFT, the global financial messaging service, is a "watershed development" that had been considered "unthinkable" by the US and European Union in 2019 in the Hong Kong context.

But the possibility is now very real that Chinese military action against Taiwan would yield some disconnection from SWIFT, and possibly a shutdown of the Fed window for the Bank of China Hong Kong and thereby Chinese access to US dollar transactions globally.

Noting the long list of domestic challenges facing China – from acute economic pressures to the current, debilitating COVID-19 surge – and as China prepares for the 20th Party Congress this Fall and an unprecedented third term for President Xi Jin Ping, Hoffman concluded that "the potential of very negative consequences for the Party argues strongly against making a military move on Taiwan".

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