Does the Russian invasion of Ukraine have the US reconsidering Taiwan? 

Many watching the events unfold in Ukraine have drawn parallels to the precarious affairs of Taiwan.. The Russian invasion has been likened to Chinese imperial interests on the island since its acquisition from the Japanese following World War II. 

But there’s a lot more to unpack regarding Chinese ambitions in Taiwan. After all, can Xi Jinping risk severe disruption to China’s global economic integration and gamble with the fate of the international economy? 

Ukraine has rekindled various tensions across Europe, the effects of which reverberating halfway across the world in Taiwan. A relatively small democracy devoured by its authoritarian whale of a neighbour that seeks sovereignty over the former. 

It sounds eerily familiar. 

Of course, Taiwan isn’t Ukraine. China’s global market integration and growing ties with the US economy has diminished Taiwan’s geopolitical value. However, as China teeters on the edge of economic hegemony, the likelihood of the two coming to blows over Taiwan has skyrocketed. 

As the self-appointed guardian of liberal democracies, US commitments to ensure Taiwanese stability are critical for revitalising American diplomatic relations in East Asia. Should the US renege on promises to defend the island, its regional Japanese and South Korean allies may re-examine their association with the stumbling superpower. 

Retaining control over another multiparty democracy in Asia has been a central US ambition over the past two decades. As a once authoritarian one-party state, Taiwan resembles a diminutive glimpse into the global transformation into American democratic values that the US has long pursued. 

Taiwan is also crucial in assessing Chinese retaliations as it scales the power ladder and the stability of US authority as it falls from its post-Cold-War pedestal. Ukraine is merely a visualisation of how hard a hit the US can take and how mighty a punch it can throw. But if it continues to compromise on longstanding commitments in order to evade clashes with the Chinese, it risks emboldening Beijing to pursue a greater imperialist agenda.

What could that mean for the splintering liberal world order? 

As of yet, the US response to Russia’s violation of international law has been exclusively economic. Despite events that prove Russia’s indifference to economic sanctions, the US has obviously yet to learn from previous lessons. Former US President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 grain embargo on the former Soviet Union following its invasion of Afghanistan did little to sway the republic’s morale. Moreover, the EU and US suffered greater hits to their economy from western sanctions that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

Still, the US is hesitant to take action beyond the economic sphere. While hypothesising the downfall of American hegemony may seem premature, the limitations to US power are clear as day in their reluctance to face Russia head on. 

As sanctions aggravate the Russian economy, the international market remains heavily dependent upon Russian energy sources. Waging economic wars is apparently not as easy as it used to be, especially in a modern, interdependent economy. Sanctioning China, for example, would be unthinkable, considering it holds over US$ 1 trillion of US debt. 

The US refuses to send military support but readily supplies Ukraine with armaments and funding, even marshalling an entire international coalition to support their economic isolation of Russia. But US President Joe Biden has made it clear that the US will not militarily intercede on behalf of Ukraine, stating plainly that they “will not fight the third world war in Ukraine” – a war the US is reluctant to wage. A nation dependent on its economic and military superiority is now at its most vulnerable and unstable in over half a century. 

If this is the bulk of American might, then the US will need all the help it can get in its upcoming confrontations with the Chinese to maintain its international reputation and presence. With the better part of US forces in the Western Pacific located in Japan, an ideal counter-invasion campaign would materialize in American bases on Japanese grounds. In fact, the Ryukyu island chain – comprising the westernmost islands of Japan – is central to America’s preparation for a clash with the Chinese. 

Ishigaki, in particular, is close enough to mainland China and Taiwan to be considered a threat, yet far enough to avoid over-exposure. Under the guise of protecting the islands from Chinese provocations, the Japanese SDF plans to deploy anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles in Ishigaki between late 2022 and early 2023, followed by a contingent of up to 600 troops to operate them. 

Such plans were interpreted by Taiwan as a promise of protection as the US could establish more operation bases across the islands and toward Taiwan. But considering the lack of recent efforts

made to deter Russia, both Taiwan and Japan are likely re-evaluating what US allegiance would cost them down the line. 

China, having the weaponry and manpower, is capable of both withstanding and initiating an assault across the Taiwan Strait. But the US has proven that one more blow could be fatal for its global military dominance as it confronts another mulish superpower. 

Such challenges to US authority are incongruous to those seen before: rather than just another threat to long-standing US hegemony, this could be a decisive end to the liberal world order established after the Cold War. 

Of course, who’d have thought a few years ago that US phone calls would be declined by long-term partners, the Saudis and Emiratis, amid pleas to increase oil production? A greater surprise is the resurfacing of US-Venezuela diplomatic ties, despite previous hostility toward the Maduro regime, in hopes of alleviating soaring energy price shocks. 

The global system seems to be surrendering to a more pluralistic world order, one that would eradicate US monopoly of democratic criteria, redefine political standards, and reform economic and military alliances. 

That said, Could Taiwan be the preface to the hegemon’s bitter drop from international dominion? 

If the US cannot face Russia head on now, then the rise of a more formidable opponent like China surely means the worst is yet ahead for the Americans. Clearly, the chances of the US holding China back from sinking its teeth into Taiwan are slim.