Photo illustration by John Lyman

Ukraine Should Matter to Americans. Just Not as Much as Taiwan.

There is reason to worry when the two most powerful states in the world, China and the United States, elevate their rhetorical warfare. A trade war, muscular speeches on the shifting international power balance, and naval and aerial military exercises in the Taiwan Strait are just some factors that have world leaders pondering war in the region. Some even point to the Thucydides Trap, which theorizes that an irresistible rising superpower altering the world order can provoke aggression from a declining and nostalgic power as an inevitable and approaching reality.

With the situation in Ukraine garnering most of the public’s attention, some scholars like Dan Blumenthal, author of The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State, warn that “Chinese President Xi Jinping might emulate his Russian counterpart’s strategy.” More specifically, Blumenthal worries that even if China might not be interested in an invasion per se, by attempting to “engineer a crisis that would compel Taiwanese concessions through the threat of full-scale war,” the Chinese Communist Party can achieve its desired goals.

Others speculate that as Western involvement in Ukraine increases, China may take advantage of an apparent too many eggs in one basket scenario. Although it is erroneous to jump from that claim to positing an outright invasion anytime soon, it remains true that much more comes into decision-making than calculations regarding military capabilities and that situational characteristics influence how states react to evolving events. A sincere evaluation of international relations, considerations for each actor’s domestic and global constraints, and questions about elasticity and reciprocity more broadly all impact foreign policy. When these are taken into account, there is no doubt that cross-strait tensions will grow or at least the nature of such strains will change, and evidence for this presumption already exists.

Last Sunday, Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s Defense Minister, accused the United States of attempting to “hijack” the support of actors in the region “under the guise of multilateralism,” which, of course, should not be surprising. But asides from this claim made the day before at the Shangri-La Dialogue, accompanied by the increased military activity in the area, Wei Fenghe labeled the United States a “bully” while claiming that Taiwan is first and foremost China’s Taiwan and that China will “not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end” to stop secession.

Roughly two weeks earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a lengthy speech at George Washington University. He labeled China “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.” Although some would prefer the firmness of Pompeo and others may yearn for less China talk in general, Blinken’s statements are yet another of the claims made in accordance with the State Department’s promise to defend America’s national interest, whatever that might be.

“We will invest in the foundations of our strength at home — our competitiveness, our innovation, our democracy. We will align our efforts with our network of allies and partners, acting with common purpose and in common cause. And harnessing these two key assets, we’ll compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.”

For the public, all this, combined with article titles like “Zelensky calls for international support for Taiwan before China attacks” and “China’s Taiwan Invasion Plans May Get Faster and Deadlier,” may spell disaster. Still, besides the fact that uncertainty will always exist, more likely than not, this war will remain rhetorical while tensions continue to fluctuate.

China is not Russia, and Taiwan is not Ukraine. Broad-brush similarities exist, and how these situations impact each other can be examined. Of course, the aggressors are both Eurasian autocrats, and the failures of one power can influence the decisions of another. As William Burns, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency posited at a Financial Times event in Washington, Xi’s government is taking notes on Ukrainian resistance.

“I think the Chinese leadership is looking very carefully at all this — at the costs and consequences of any effort to use force to gain control over Taiwan,” said Burns. However, he forewarned, “I don’t for a minute think that this has eroded Xi’s determination over time to gain control over Taiwan.”

Besides how aggressors themselves differ, it is also crucial to contextualize the dissimilarity between the victims and the United States. As Kharis Templeman suggests, American interests in Ukraine are “recent, limited, and subsumed under broader concerns about Russia’s challenge to the post-Cold War European security order.” On the other hand, although many, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, criticize America’s decision to not officially recognize the island nation, the relationship between both is storied, stronger, and more beneficial for America.

“The United States approach to Taiwan has remained consistent across decades and administrations,” the State Department stresses. To put it simply, Taiwan’s economy not only punches well above its weight, but in 2020, it was also America’s 9th-largest trading partner, with $106 billion in two-way trade in goods and services, dwarfing its European counterpart whose trade is $3.8 billion, making it 67th on the list.

As a pioneer in chip manufacturing, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, vaulted Taiwan to the top of the international market, effectively securing dominance over 84% of it. This renders Taiwan geopolitically significant to the U.S. and China, both of which are dependent on TSMC’s supply. With the U.S. incentivizing TSMC and others to enter its shores and relieve its dependence on overseas suppliers, China is left fuming. China’s chip dependency could be satiated by seizing Taiwan, but that’s not without the cost of devastating consequences to the global economy.

For those worrying about the effects of the war in Ukraine on the world economy, a plausible invasion of Taiwan would result in an incomparable supply chain catastrophe. The tumult would not be even close since one nation’s main import is natural gas and oil, which are important, but not necessarily scarce, and the other controls one of the most vital markets of the 21st century. In America’s eyes, a Taiwan invasion would translate into allowing China to attain a comparative advantage in global trade while granting the upper hand in cybersecurity efforts.

This is not to say that interest in Ukraine is worthless. Still, if we care about honesty, then we should stop talking about signals and critical tests and say the truth: Taiwan is more important to the United States than Ukraine. Additionally, as illustrated by Alan Wachman in Why Taiwan? the geostrategic significance of the island, in terms of maritime commerce and naval power, is of extreme interest to our main rival on the world stage. Hence, the disparities in our interests.

With these considerations in mind, we must rebuke the lazy analysis of those who try to take advantage of our cognitive shortcuts. Fears may make it easy to conclude that Taiwan will just become Ukraine 2.0., but thoughts say otherwise.
As citizens, we should avoid enamoring ourselves with mellifluous narratives and continue to demand a foreign policy that asks the tough questions: What is in our interest? What do we win? What do we lose? Why is it our mission? What else can we do?