By Published: Feb. 10, 2023

There are parallels between the Russo-Ukrainian war and China’s conflict with the United States over the status of Taiwan, but important differences as well, CU Boulder political science professor contends

In the aftermath of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, oil prices spiked and stock markets wobbled, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians became refugees, and the United States and many western European countries began providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Additionally, Russia’s invasion interrupted Washington’s intention to pivot to Asia to focus on China, as the war has at least in the short run diverted U.S. resources and distracted U.S. attention from Asia. Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion has also pushed Moscow and Beijing closer together. Both China and Russia realize that should one of them suffer a serious setback, the other will become even more the target of U.S. strategic headlight. On balance, the Russo-Ukrainian war has made direct U.S. military intervention less likely in a future confrontation between China and Taiwan. 

That’s the assessment of Steve Chan, University of Colorado Boulder political science professor and College Professor of Distinction Emeritus, in a late 2022 published paper in Asian Survey, an academic journal. The title of Chan’s paper is Precedent, Path Dependency and Reasoning by Analogy: The Strategic Implications of the Ukraine War for Sino-American Relations and Relations Across the Taiwan Strait

In a recent interview, Chan expounded on key points from his paper while also offering some insights as the war in Ukraine has dragged on. His responses below were lightly edited. 

Question: In your paper, you note that the United States was in the process of making a strategic pivot to counter China. But with the war in Ukraine, how likely is that to happen now? 

Chan: Let me use an analogy: The Korean War, which pitted the United States against China, caused the estrangement of these two countries for the following three decades—to the benefit of the Soviets. 

The Ukraine war is likely to have that same effect. That is to say, it will be a long time— decades, maybe—before relations between Washington and Moscow can be restored to business as usual. The estrangement is deep. … 

In the meantime, the U.S. faces adversaries on three fronts: Iran, Russia, and China, putting it in a predicament that once faced the powerful Habsburgs, whose decline was accelerated by its decision to crush opposition to its dominance from multiple fronts and simultaneously, thereby dissipating its energy and resources. 

Steve Chan, University of Colorado Boulder political science professor and College Professor of Distinction Emeritus

Steve Chan, University of Colorado Boulder political science professor and College Professor of Distinction Emeritus

The U.S. knows that in the long run China is the more formidable adversary. But it was China’s “good fortune,” in quotation marks, that in 2008-2010 the U.S. was facing a financial crisis brought on by the housing bubble, thus postponing its confrontation with China. Earlier, the 9-11 attacks also distracted the U.S. from focusing on China, and indeed, inclining Washington to solicit support from Beijing to combat international terrorism. Timing is critical in international affairs, as in other aspects of human life. British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury had lamented London’s missed opportunity to prevent the rise of the American behemoth due to its failure to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. He commented ruefully that it was too late to stop the inevitable U.S. rise thereafter. 

And in some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine could also give China an extension, giving it a breathing space, by mitigating an exclusive U.S. strategic focus on it. 

Question: You see some inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy when it comes to Ukraine and Russia regarding Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty vs. China and its conflict with Taiwan, correct? 

Chan: You may recall that the United States government criticized and condemned Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and subsequently annexing these two breakaway republics, even though in these territories as well as Crimea there were plebiscites taken by the people living there, many of them were Russian-speaking and identify with Russia. Washington claimed that Russia’s actions were a violation of international law, arguing that these territories’ secession from Ukraine had to abide by that country’s constitution and to be approved by its entire population. 

Now, why should that be relevant to Taiwan? Of course, China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province in much the same way that Ukraine views its eastern oblasts. Taiwan, however, is different from Ukraine because an overwhelming majority of countries (including the U.S. itself) recognize this island to be part of China and its status is a matter of China’s domestic affairs (only fourteen minor or micro states have diplomatic relations with Taiwan). In contrast, Ukraine is a sovereign country recognized by the international community, meaning that Russia’s attack on it constitutes an interstate war. 

So, the U.S. position on Ukraine puts it in a legal bind, because, in effect, it is playing the same role as Russia in recognizing and supporting the de facto independence of Taiwan and prolonging and sustaining it as if it’s a separate legal entity. Importantly, this distinction between Ukraine and Taiwan also explains Beijing’s reluctance to fully support Moscow’s position: it does not want to recognize or condone secessions by those Ukrainian territories (including Crimea), thereby creating a precedent for Taiwan to do the same. 

Question: You see the West as bearing some responsibility for the current state of affairs regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war, correct? 

Chan: The West bears some responsibility. The war in Ukraine is not entirely unprovoked. From Moscow’s perspective, it had made many important concessions and accommodations, including allowing its former satellite countries to join NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), especially NATO membership for a reunified Germany. It accepted the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and even facilitated the introduction of U.S. military bases in central Asia to combat terrorism. 

The Russians have objected to the West’s promotion of various “color revolutions” in its near abroad (including the overthrow and exile of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych), and its attempt to push NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s border (by including Ukraine as a member state). These events were viewed with distrust and apprehension by Moscow, which sees Ukraine as within its sphere of influence. 

How would the U.S. react if Mexico were to become a Russian or Chinese ally? Naturally, Washington’s reaction to Cuba backed by the Soviet Union should be instructive for understanding Beijing’s views on Taiwan as a U.S. ally (albeit an informal one because the U.S. and Taiwan do not have a formal security treaty). 

Question: If you are the Chinese, and you’re looking for lessons from Ukraine, what are some of the takeaways? 

Chan: Beijing would naturally try to draw lessons from Russia’s experience in the conflict in Ukraine. For example, it would be natural to ask specifically about what the U.S. reluctance to intervene directly in the Russo-Ukrainian war portends for a possible conflict between China and Taiwan. 

From the start, the U.S. and its allies made clear that they would not commit their own troops to a possible Russo-Ukrainian war. Beijing is likely to feel cautiously optimistic that there would be a similar avoidance in a situation involving Taiwan. Like Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies do not have treaty commitments to defend Taiwan. If these countries really intended to deter a Russian attack on Ukraine, they would have made these treaty commitments and stationed their own troops on Ukrainian soil to demonstrate their determination to defend that country (such as what the U.S. has done in NATO countries, South Korea, and Japan). 

The current war in Ukraine is likely to be perceived by Beijing as a war by proxy, whereby the U.S. is seeking to tie down and exhaust Russia’s resources without directly involving itself in the conflict. 

As time goes by, we may see more evidence of fissure among the Western allies, because the Europeans are much more dependent on Russia for trade and energy. They therefore bear more of the cost burden of sanctioning Moscow. In Asia, U.S. allies and neutral countries are much more economically beholden to China. They have more extensive economic ties with China—much more than the Europeans vis-à-vis Russia. So, it would be more difficult for the United States to organize a coalition against China in a contingency involving Taiwan. 

Another lesson from Ukraine is the importance of unmanned drones. the Chinese have learned that, in a future conflict, unmanned drones will be a very important element. It’s much cheaper to produce these drones and to deploy them. Still another lesson is that it will be more difficult for the West to supply Taiwan with armament, because as an island it lacks the easy land access available to Ukraine. Moreover, the Europeans will have less “skin” in a possible conflict across the Taiwan Strait compared to Ukraine, and they are thus even less likely to involve themselves directly in such a contingency. 

Question: Is one lesson also that it’s possible for a smaller power to maul a bigger one on the battlefield? 

Chan: Yes, indeed it is. This is what happened to the U.S. in Vietnam and Afghanistan. However, as just mentioned, it is much easier to supply weapons and other resources to the Ukrainians, because there are railways and land routes connecting them to their neighbors, whereas, if war breaks out across the Taiwan Strait, it is far more difficult for the United States or any other country to provide armament to Taiwan because shipping would be certainly vulnerable to being attacked. So, that’s a very big difference. … 

An even more important consideration pertains to the resolve of the warring parties. The smaller one may be more determined to fight for its cause and to suffer the necessary costs of this fighting than the bigger adversary. Vietnam and Afghanistan, after all, are far from the U.S. geographically, economically, and emotionally, and they are not in the final analysis vital to U.S. national security. 

Note, however, Ukraine is right next to Russia and therefore impinges on Russia’s national security more directly. In other words, the stakes are higher for Russia in Ukraine than the U.S. in Vietnam or Afghanistan—and for China than the U.S. in a prospective conflict over Taiwan’s status. Ipso facto, having a larger stake also implies a greater resolve to stand one’s ground. 

Question: You mention in your paper that, after seeing how Russia has struggled in Ukraine, China might opt for a blockade of Taiwan rather than a full military assault? 

Chan: Taiwan, of course, is economically vulnerable because it is heavily dependent on foreign markets and supplies for its export and import respectively. 

For the Chinese, a Normandy-type landing would be very costly and difficult to pull off, but a quarantine, like the U.S. blockade of Cuba in 1962, would be plausible. The key consideration is not necessarily the actual military effectiveness of the blockade, but rather its psychological impact on Taiwan’s people. … People there will panic, and critical material like gasoline could run out in a matter of months. Geography makes a huge difference between Ukraine and Taiwan, rendering the option of a blockade impossible for Russia in the former case. 

And I should add, it will be much more difficult for the United States to mobilize domestic and foreign support to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf in the event of a Chinese blockade, because there's no all-out military invasion. 

Question: President Biden has said the U.S. is pledged to defend Taiwan. However, the State Department and White House have walked back the president’s statements. What is China to make of the U.S. position on Taiwan? 

Chan: As you alluded to, the U.S. has spoken with different voices. On four different occasions, President Biden, responding to media questions, indicated that the United States would indeed come to the aid of Taiwan without, however, giving details about the nature of U.S. assistance. 

But on each of these occasions his own government—the White House and the State Department—walked back his statements, declaring that there has been no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. This implies that that was not simply a slip of the tongue, and that, in fact, it’s a further step in creating ambiguity. 

Obviously, the intent of the president’s response to media questions is to indicate support for Taiwan—and yet at the same time, having his statements retracted suggests that the United States government still wants to maintain a certain degree of ambiguity rather than boxing itself in a predetermined course of action. 

Question: Some people might interpret the president’s statements as him shooting from the hip, so to speak, but you don’t believe that’s the case here? 

Chan: There is the idea that he (the president) is not in sync with his own bureaucracy—that he misspoke. Shooting from the hip—you could see it happening maybe once or twice, but not on four different occasions. So, I think it was coordinated. 

It was, in fact, a deliberate act, trying to signal U.S. support for Taiwan and to defuse Republican criticisms of being soft on China, without making an explicit or legal commitment to bind the U.S. to an irrevocable course of action. 

Question: The United States has long had a policy on Taiwan known as “Strategic Ambiguity,” which effectively means the United States has not committed itself to any set course of action. What purpose does “Strategic Ambiguity” serve when it comes to the United States and Taiwan? 

Chan: The whole idea of “Strategic Ambiguity” is to ostensibly apply dual deterrence: to deter China from using force to invade or conquer Taiwan—and at the same time, to deter Taiwan from declaring formal independence, which would cause China to attack. So, it is intended to deter both sides from taking unwanted actions. 

If Taipei believes that Washington is definitely committed to its defense, it will be inclined to believe that it has a carte blanche—that the U.S. will have it back, which could embolden it to declare formal independence, thereby bringing about a war that the U.S. has wanted to prevent in the first place. 

Social scientists call this “moral hazard”, which means that a policy can have an unintended effect that contradicts its original purpose, such as when a no-fault policy for automobile accidents can encourage more reckless driving because motorists no longer have to worry about paying liabilities with their own money. 

Naturally, a declaration by Washington that it will not defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China will have the effect of encouraging that very attack. Thus, the rationale for a policy of strategic ambiguity. 

Question: In your paper, you made note of two recent surveys taken in Taiwan. In the first survey—prior to the invasion of Ukraine, a majority of Taiwanese said the United States would or is likely to come to Taiwan’s assistance. However, in a later survey, these views dropped significantly. What do you make of that? 

Chan: Well, if I may, let me give you an analogy: If I want to deter a stranger from hurting or harassing my daughter, the way I would try to prevent that event happening is to make it very clear publicly, emphatically, and repeatedly that I would definitely take action—I will hit this guy with everything I have. 

I would not, in other words, pursue a policy of “strategic ambiguity”—declaring that I may or may not respond by pummeling that guy if he attacks my daughter. In the jargon of social scientists, deterrence involves a binary decision, either I will fight or I will not fight. Any hedging of a commitment (such as by introducing “ifs” and “buts”) harms the credibility of a deterrence threat. Because words are cheap, tangible actions are necessary to make a deterrence threat credible—such as by committing one’s own troops in a fight to protect another country. 

The Taiwanese have seen very clearly that the U.S. and its allies have declined to do so in the war in Ukraine, limiting their involvement to the supply of armaments (and even then, there are disagreements about which armaments to provide to the Ukrainians as attested by the recent controversy about the provision of German and American tanks). 

Question: Is it correct to say that the situation in Taiwan is more unclear than in Ukraine—because most countries don’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country? 

Chan: On the contrary, the situation about Taiwan’s status is as clear as that involving Ukraine. Ukraine is a sovereign, independent country but Taiwan is not. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world recognize China as the legitimate government—and that Taiwan is part of China—including the United States. In various communiqués with Beijing, Washington has indicated that it does not challenge Beijing’s position that Taiwan’s status is a matter of Chinese internal affairs. 

In the case of Ukraine, it’s a clear case of international aggression, with Russian troops crossing Ukraine’s international borders to invade another sovereign country recognized as such by the world. 

So, that’s really a key difference—which makes it much more difficult for the United States to mobilize international support for Taiwan should there be a crisis over its status. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it is ludicrous for us to go to war with another country where we have an ambassador over a territory that we acknowledge to be theirs. The Chinese moreover point out that the U.S. settled its own civil war by bullets rather than ballots, with little consideration for the right of self-determination by the Southerners. 

Question: What are the differences in security arrangements between Europe and Asia, and what that could that mean for Taiwan? 

Chan: In Asia, there are bilateral defense treaties between the United States and South Korea and between the U.S. and Japan. … There is no security commitment by any country to Taiwan. 

In Europe, there is NATO. Article 5 of this defense pact commits all its members to the defense of all other members. Importantly, Ukraine is not a part of NATO. Equally significant, an attack by Russia on any NATO member is a very unlikely event, today and even during the height of the Cold War. Precisely because there is a much greater danger that the U.S. (or its NATO partners) will actually have to deliver on its (or their) promise to defend some other countries, it (or they) has not entered into a defense pact with these countries such as Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. 

As already explained, NATO has limited its role to provide weapons to Ukraine without committing its own troops, turning this conflict into a war of proxy. NATO is seeking to sustain this conflict—making sure that Ukraine does not lose, and at the same time, tying down Russian troops and depleting its resources. 

Of course, proxy wars have happened before, such as when the Soviets supported the Chinese and North Koreans to oppose the Americans in the Korea War, the Chinese and Soviets supported the North Vietnamese to fight the Americans in the Vietnam war, and more recently, the Americans supported the mujahadeen to resist the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan. 

Question: It doesn’t sound like you are optimistic on a positive outcome for the Russo-Ukrainian war, at least for the near term? 

Chan: Well, as far as the Ukraine war is concerned, it’s currently a deadlock; it’s a stalemate. Russia cannot walk away, nor will Ukraine be able to enter into any negotiation that requires it to cede its territories. So, I do not see any exit map—for now. 

The time to entice or force the Ukrainians and the Russians to the negotiation table was perhaps a year ago. As the saying goes, it is easier to start a war than to end it. The longer the war stretches, the more entrenched the belligerent states’ positions may become. 

This said, there are already talks in the West about an end game whereby Ukraine will cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for a peace settlement. In other words, the West’s support for Ukraine may erode over time. As this fatigue sets in, the prospects for a negotiated settlement may improve. Unlike the West, where public opinion is an important consideration, Russia as an authoritarian system may be better able to weather decreasing domestic support for its war in Ukraine. 

We currently have a war of attrition—entailing rising costs in blood, sweat, tears, and of course, money and other resources. In this contest, the belligerents’ respective “burn rates” are an important consideration. How much of these costs can they bear before they reach the point of exhaustion or, as just suggested already, before serious domestic opposition to the war and depletion of support from abroad set in? 

Even when peace is restored (no war can go on forever), the rebuilding of Ukraine will be expensive. Will the West be willing to finance this rebuilding? How long will it be willing to guarantee Ukraine’s security, which has to live with Russia as its immediate neighbor? 

At the same time, a weakened Russia will be driven closer to China, making it a supplicant for Beijing’s support. Will the West benefit from this closer Russo-Chinese alignment? 

So, the fallout from the war in Ukraine appear now to be more negative than positive for most of the parties that are directly or indirectly involved. 

Question: What do you say to people who believe it’s imperative that the United States helps defend Ukraine and Taiwan? 

Chan: That’s the question: How vital is Taiwan, and is Ukraine, to vital U.S. interests? Are they peripheral? Secondary? Or are they primary? To what extent will U.S. national security be compromised or even threatened if conflicts involving them were to take a nasty turn? 

I remember when people said how vital Vietnam and Afghanistan were for vital U.S. national interests. But when you turn your back and leave these countries, you take a much more serious hit to your reputation than otherwise … and we had actually made things even worse than before by our intervening in countries such as Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Somalia. We caused more turbulence and more misery, and we created enemies that did not exist before. And after all the efforts and resources we had spent, we did not alter the outcomes of the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts. 

There is so much even a good doctor can do. Even more importantly, one should remember the Hippocratic oath. It says that the first imperative is to “do no harm.” Not to others and certainly not to oneself.