Ukraine and Taiwan: Small Powers in the Shadow of Great Power Rivalries

Ukraine and Taiwan: Small Powers in the Shadow of Great Power Rivalries

Ukraine and Taiwan: Small Powers in the Shadow of Great Power Rivalries

Emily Holland is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and an Assistant Professor at the United States Naval Academy.

Russia’s brazen annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent military action in eastern Ukraine shocked the international community and received widespread condemnation. But the Ukraine crisis has implications far beyond Europe: at its heart, the Ukraine crisis is the story of a relatively small power adjusting to changes in a neighboring great power with which it has a complex colonial history. The similarities between these cases were not lost on leaders in both Taipei and Beijing, who closely monitored the events in Ukraine as they unfolded. Indeed, there are several important lessons that can be drawn from the Ukraine crisis and applied to the issue of Taiwan’s security. In this paper, I compare and contrast the two cases and argue that although currently China’s interests do not seem to favor direct intervention á la Russe, rapidly changing geopolitical conditions, including an increasingly erratic US foreign policy, could alter China’s incentives and grand strategy. If so, then the implications of the Ukraine crisis, particularly the lack of unified Western response in the face of a changing global balance of power, are worrying for Taiwan.

Like Ukraine’s, Taiwan’s position as a relatively small power on the border of a great power that regards itself as the sole power in its sphere of influence leads to a precarious security environment. Although there are large substantive differences, both Ukraine and Taiwan have long and complicated relationships with their neighboring great power. Further, like Ukraine, Taiwan has positioned itself as strategically important based on its orientation toward the West. While not a traditional buffer zone—a state that separates competing larger powers—like Ukraine, Taiwan’s geopolitical position at the intersection of Chinese and American power makes it extremely vulnerable to shifts in the balance of power. As China’s relative power increased, accompanied by a more aggressive foreign policy, the United States refocused its grand strategy, “pivoting” to Asia. Under the Obama administration the United States pledged to respect China’s “core interests” while at the same time increasing US military presence in the region. While President Trump’s foreign policy priorities in Asia are less clear, so far the US security commitment to Taiwan has not shifted.

Both Ukraine and Taiwan are small democracies that lie in the shadow of large and powerful authoritarian countries. Social science research argues that the states most likely to disappear from the international system are those so-called buffer states that lie between two rivals. Buffer states including Ukraine and Afghanistan have experienced invasion, loss of territory, and protracted civil war. Ukraine became the flashpoint between an increasingly belligerent Russia and the West precisely because of its position on the border between the two powers. While Taiwan is not physically straddling the boundary between East and West, its firm commitment to democracy and its close relationship with the United States place Taiwan in a less precarious but nevertheless insecure geopolitical environment. Although Ukraine is a largely dysfunctional and extremely volatile democracy whereas Taiwan is a vibrant and stable one, the presence of accountable governance and electoral freedom is troubling to authoritarian states that seek to insulate their regimes. Although Russian president Vladimir Putin ironically championed the principle of “self- determination” for the citizens of Crimea, as authoritarian regimes of multinational states, both Russia and China are careful to safeguard their interests against the unwieldy power of democracy.

Taiwan and Ukraine are relatively small powers, but the potential subversive effects of democracy have shaken their powerful neighbors, particularly during periods of economic challenge. Russia invaded Ukraine shortly after a collapse in oil prices and at the start of a protracted recession in 2014. Also suffering from poor economic performance, China’s president Xi Jinping took the extraordinary step of meeting with the then-President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore in 2015. That Mr. Ma’s party, the Kuomintang, which favors closer ties to China, lost in the subsequent general elections to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which rejects the “1992 Consensus,” the core of which is that Taiwan and mainland China are part of the same country, was certainly troubling for Beijing.

Fortunately for Taiwan, the Ukrainian comparison is not entirely parallel. One of the major differences between Ukraine and Taiwan relates to domestic cleavages: in Taiwan the potential for domestic conflict over strategic alignments is much lower than in Ukraine, and thus protracted civil war is unlikely. Further, Russia and China have vastly different grand strategies: Russia is a territorially expansionist great power, while China focuses mainly on territorial integrity and economic expansionism. Moscow’s approach to managing its sphere of influence has been markedly belligerent, whereas Beijing has focused on economic statecraft. Interestingly, taking note of Beijing’s successful strategy, in recent years Russia has begun to emulate China’s approach to investment in strategic sectors in target countries to increase its political clout. Despite these differences, however, the alignment of great power interests is remarkably similar between China and Taiwan, and Russia and Ukraine.

For Taiwan, there are two main lessons to be drawn from the Ukraine crisis. First, maintaining internal unity is crucial. In Ukraine, the predominant political cleavage was strategic orientation toward the West versus Moscow. This led to an extremely volatile domestic political system that left it vulnerable to exploitation by both sides. Many small powers on the borderlands of great powers have used the strategy of playing on the East-West divide. The Ukrainian example demonstrates why this is a dangerous strategy: not only is it internally divisive, but it also fosters a domestic political cleavage that a great power can exploit through a variety of tactics. Exiled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abused this cleavage for personal gain, with disastrous consequences. In 2013, Yanukovych flirted with signing a European Union association agreement, which included a free trade agreement and would have laid the ground for future EU membership. Right before the deadline, however, Yanukovych backed out of the deal, instead accepting a $15 billion loan from Moscow as well as a sweetheart energy deal, prompting the mass protests that became the Maidan Revolution. The East-West cleavage continues to plague Ukraine, which is now in the third year of civil war, with no end in sight. Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen does not seem to be making Yanukovych’s mistake—partly because China refuses to play along—having recently committed to a campaign to reduce Taiwan’s presence on the world stage.

Second, should China’s incentives change, Taiwan should not expect a unified Western response. The tepid and fractured Western reaction to the Ukraine crisis pointed to an increasing foreign policy schism between the United States and Europe that has been exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump. Even faced with direct military action in the heart of Europe, Western policymakers faced an enormous challenge in formulating a response to what was essentially a fait accompli.

Although Taiwan’s policy of increased engagement with “like-minded” Europe in the wake of Trump’s election is prudent, it is unlikely that European powers would do anything other than rhetorically condemn Chinese behavior. Even under Trump the United States is likely to defend Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack, but European powers are wary of causing conflict with China over a security issue they do not view as an essential threat. In the Ukrainian case, despite the dire consequences of war and invasion on the continent itself, European leaders faced enormous resistance to direct intervention and even harsh sanctions by powerful European business lobbies. Both Russia and China are too strong to challenge in their own backyards without risking global conflict, and there is little political will in Europe for this sort of confrontation.

To avoid falling victim to great power rivalry like Ukraine, Taiwan must seek and defend a clearly defined security architecture. Unfortunately for Taiwan, this requires a strong and steadfast relationship with the United States, which may prove increasingly difficult given the volatility of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s capable diplomatic corps and military should continue to engage their US counterparts on a host of issues. Perhaps the greatest lesson derived from the dismemberment of Ukraine is that capitalizing on the East-West cleavage for short-term gain is deadly; thus, despite Chinese efforts to isolate Taiwan, maintaining good relations with the United States under any administration is crucial.

[1] Thomas Graham, Rajan Menon, and Jack Snyder. “Ukraine between Russia and the West: Buffer or Flashpoint?” World Policy Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 107–118.

[2] Tanisha Fazal, State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[3] Jane Perlez and Austin Ramzy, “China, Taiwan and a Meeting after 66 Years,” New York Times, November 3, 2015.

[4] Emily Holland and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “Countering Russian Influence in the Balkans,” Lawfare, August 6, 2017.

[5] Oksana Grytsenko, “Ukrainian Protestors Flood Kiev after President Pulls Out of EU Deal,” The Guardian, November 24, 2013.

[6] Christoph Hasselbach, “Resistance Grows in EU to New Russia Sanctions,” Deutsche Welle, September 5, 2014.