Taiwan Is No Crimea, But…

by Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang
April 22, 2014

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

April 22, 2014

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has received limited public attention in Taiwan, largely because of Taiwan’s self-perceived weak influence over major international events and, more specifically, its distraction with political turmoil at home. The rapid change of status of Crimea came at a time when Taiwan’s political parties and general public were sharply divided over whether the Legislative Yuan should ratify a controversial service trade agreement signed with China in June 2013.

Nonetheless, while the majority focused their eyes on domestic political events, quite a number of coolheaded scholars and experts in Taiwan’s foreign policy community have engaged in serious discussions on the developing situation in Ukraine. Most believe the crisis and its possible impact on relations among great powers, though seemingly remote from Taiwan, will have long-term implications that will affect Taiwan and its relations across the strait with China. At least four issues of concern have been raised in relation to the Ukraine crisis: the future of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Russia’s ability to create a fait accompli in Crimea, the nature of “core interests,” and the future of China-Ukraine military relations.

U.S. Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific

Distractions to the U.S. rebalance continue to grow. Even with the concerns over sequestration and continuous defense budget cuts, most Taiwan elites remain confident that the U.S. refocus on Asia has been based on rational economic and security calculations involving many different capabilities, hard and soft. However, one cannot deny that existing and emerging global events will make this rebalancing strategy difficult to implement. Lingering problems in Syria, Iran, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan will continue to drag the United States into many disputes in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Ukraine-Crimea situation will also keep leaders in Washington occupied in crisis-management mode, rather than focusing on Asia.

Fait Accompli

The lightning-fast actions taken by Russian president Vladimir Putin—including sending paramilitary troops to control key naval bases and airports in Crimea, encouraging a quick referendum in Crimea before the international community could react, and deploying a significant Russian force along the Russia-Ukrainian border to keep military pressure on Kiev—created a fait accompli that has proved very hard for the United States and European Union to reverse. The urgent financial aid to Ukraine, economic sanctions against Russia, and exclusion of Putin from participating in the group of eight (G-8) summit may be the most the West can do in response, but Russian control of the Ukraine situation, particularly in Crimea, has already become firm.

The Chinese military, based on lessons learned from the Persian Gulf War, has long advocated the capability of achieving a “quick and decisive victory by winning the first battle,” especially in the case of taking Taiwan by force. Putin’s swift action in Crimea and the inability of the West to react quickly will serve as a significant reference for China. If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can act quickly and put Taiwan firmly under its control, the rest of the world might have little choice but accept the fait accompli.

Core Interests

For Russia, Ukraine is a significant buffer to the expanding influence of the EU. Maintaining a pro-Russia Ukrainian government is clearly in the interests of Russia. Historically, the Crimean Peninsula has been a strategic location for Russia to gain access to a warm-water port and to the Mediterranean. In other words, Ukraine and especially Crimea are among the core interests that Russia must defend. For the West, however, Ukraine and Crimea are not core interests. This gap in strategic value has fundamentally determined the fate and reality that Ukraine faces today.

More so than Tibet, Xinjiang, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea, Taiwan has always been seen as the utmost core interest in China’s political and strategic agenda. Consecutive leaders in Beijing have never been soft on the Taiwan issue when confronting international concern or pressure. For people in Taiwan, it is quite obvious that the West does not see Taiwan as an asset or an interest that must be defended at any cost, especially as China becomes the largest trading nation and second-largest economy in the world.

China-Ukraine Military Relations

Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have been the largest sources of modern weapons systems and military technology for China’s rapid, large-scale defense modernization. Ukraine alone has provided China with significant arms such as the Liaoning aircraft carrier (formerly the Varyag), Zubr-class hovercraft, and gas turbines in the PLA Navy’s Type-052D Aegis destroyer. In addition, Chinese engineers, pilots, and navy technical experts have participated in training programs in Ukraine.

If Ukraine turns more toward the influence of the European Union, there could be setbacks for Chinese-Ukrainian military cooperation. But if Russia maintains a strong grip on Ukraine’s future, that may mean an increase of Russian leverage in China’s future arms procurement. For Taiwan, in any case, the PLA’s continuing force buildup can only tilt the military balance further in China’s favor.

Lessons for Taiwan…and China

Similar to the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea, ethnic Han Chinese constitute 98% of Taiwan’s population. Yet Taiwan is no Crimea and would not vote to become part of China even if there were such a referendum. Taiwan is more like the rest of Ukraine, dangerously and unfortunately situated in a competition between great powers and simply trying to survive.

With his quickly consolidated power and forceful personal character, Chinese president Xi Jinping has laid out a “China dream” of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Xi made his first official foreign trip to Moscow shortly after becoming president, has advocated friendly diplomacy around China’s periphery to offset the U.S. rebalancing strategy, established an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea to challenge a major status quo in East Asia, and visited the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, when most of the major Western leaders declined Putin’s invitation.

For Taiwan, the real questions to ask are the following: What will Xi Jinping learn from Vladimir Putin’s heavy-handed measures against Ukraine and Crimea? Would Xi quickly take Taiwan by force to protect China’s core interest and create a fait accompli to which the international community can hardly react? And finally, could Xi be another Putin?

Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang is a Professor at Tamkang University and Chairman of the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies in Taiwan.

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies?

    By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”

    By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But…

    By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea

    By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap

    By Seong-hyon Lee