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U.S. Interests and Priorities: Why Ukraine & Taiwan are Similar Yet Different Geopolitical Situations


The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has spearhead a new chapter in the world of international politics. Russian decision to wage unprovoked war with Ukraine has succeeded in dissolving remnants of pro-Russia sentiments across the globe, cultivated in the post-Cold war era. Since the invasion, the reaction of all the major powers in the world, especially the United States, has been closely observed. Amidst burgeoning debate on the future of democracies and liberal internationalism in the wake of strengthened authoritarian regimes, this crisis has been viewed as a warning for the US led order. In the quest to assess the current direction of global politics, a common comparison between Russia-Ukraine crisis and the China-Taiwan situation in East Asia has been made by onlookers. In both the cases, the essential similarity distills to a democratic country being militarily threatened by a regional power on historical grounds and America’s support for the former. US response to the Ukraine crisis has been viewed as a ‘geopolitical compass’ for its possible course of action in a hypothetical scenario of Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As tempting the similarities are in both the cases, Taiwan’s position in American political discourse is vastly different from Ukraine’s due to multiple factors. The reasons behind this difference in America’s policy approach primarily stems within the context of US-China rivalry. The State department’s latest changes on their website regarding US-Taiwan relations further signal America reassessing its long held one China policy. The website omitted the sentence ‘US does not support Taiwan impendence’ and added US relations with Taiwan is ‘guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurance’.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine & American Response

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the country has swayed between a pro-Russia and a pro-Europe political stance. This struggle reached the brim in 2013, when former Ukrainian President Yanukovych declined the idea of signing an agreement with EU, resulting into mass protests. The backlash eventually led to the forming of a new government. In 2014, Russian personnel captured Crimea, a territory the former believed to be of historical significance. Eventually, in March Crimea’s independence was deliberated in the assembly with a subsequent referendum overwhelmingly supporting union with Russia. The pro Kyiv supporters, EU and US denounced the union as illegal, but ever since Crimea has become a Russian territory. This major political victory for Russia resulted in Kremlin’s continuous support for Pro-Russia factions existing in Donetsk and Lohansk, located in the Eastern region of Ukraine. In the quest to ensure ceasefire, the Minsk Agreement was signed the same year which ultimately granted a special status to Donetsk and Lohansk. Even though peace was maintained in the region since the signing of the agreement, the Ukraine-Russia relations remained tensed.

In December 2021, US intelligence reports claimed that Russia was planning for a potential invasion of Ukraine in early months of 2022, alarming the rest of the world. Satellite images of Russia’s defense buildup around the Ukrainian borders with large portion of military & artillery units in Belarus confirmed the possibilities of an invasion. Ultimately, Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24 from Russia, Crimea and Belarus with intent to encircle the nation. Further, Russian Duma recognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent further violating the Minsk Agreement.

Amidst an outpouring of public support, governments have rallied behind Ukraine with US and EU providing military assistance and architecting one of the most stringent sanction regimes to pressure Russia into stopping the ongoing war. Even though the Biden administration reiterated that United States would not be sending troops to fight the Russians, the nation came to a bipartisan consensus to support Ukraine. According to the Defending Ukraine Sovereign Act 2022, US would provide security assistance, back Ukraine’s cyber defenses, boost Ukraine’s interoperability with NATO forces, work closely with regional partners, counter Russian disinformation activities, deepen ties with Baltic states and impose elaborate sanctions. The US authorized military equipments and weapons worth $350 million dollars, largest package in the history of the nation including anti-tank missiles and air defense systems to Ukraine. Financially, US laid out expansive constraints like restrictions on Russian banks, complete sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Russian Direct Investment Fund, VTB Bank, export controls on oil and gas etc. To showcase America’s unflinching support to Ukraine and the crisis unfolding in Europe, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin made a high security visit to Kyiv in April 2022 and met President Zelensky and his officials. America presented an intention to contribute more than $713 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine, apart from the return of American diplomats at the earliest to further facilitate humanitarian efforts.

As the events in Ukraine unfolded, the debates surrounding America’s credibility and response to Ukraine crisis gained traction. Even as the West’s unified response to Russian aggression has been welcomed, understanding American interest vis-à-vis Ukraine-Russia war and its judgment to resist unilateral decision making becomes imperative. Firstly, avoiding a World War III like situation that involves multiple countries is of top priority for the Biden administration. With Putin ordering Russian nuclear weapons on ‘high alert’ as a response to barrage of sanctions, the cries for de-escalation have become louder. In this regard, Washington’s decision to deny American participation in the war not only restates US’ post 9/11 war fatigue but is also an attempt to avoid usage of weapons of mass destruction by parties involved. Even as fringe of partisan voices and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have lobbied for US to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine which would commit American and NATO forces to bring down any Russian plane that enters the zone, Biden administration’s resistance to this pressure signals American foresight.

Secondly, the divergence of interest between US and Ukraine stems from the fact that Ukraine has never been in America’s core policy calculations, which is not the case for Russia. At the same time, American decision to withdraw from ABM treaty (2002), Open Skies treaty (2020), INF treaty (2020) and steady NATO expansion since 1991 has made Russia insecure. Furthermore due to Ukraine’s close proximity to Russia, America’s past assurances of making Ukraine a NATO member has been viewed as American encroachment in Russian sphere of influence, a matter of national security for Kremlin.  Thirdly, even though U.S has no immediate interest in Ukraine, resisting Russian win ‘at all cost’ is a wider test of American commitment at maintaining the current rules based liberal order. Beyond the narrative of ‘credibility dilemma’, the Ukraine crisis has yet again thrown light on the role of US as a security guarantor to states in various regions. This role becomes more complex for the US when dealing with allies and partners in East Asia which has been undergoing rapid geopolitical shifts.

Tensions in Taiwan Strait and the US Factor

In 2021, Taiwan (Republic of China) underwent one of the worst years of Chinese incursion in their defense zone. The situation has only become dire, with China (People’s Republic of China) sending a record number of warplanes in Taiwanese defense zone in a single day in January 2022. Expert analysis has echoed concerns of a possible war like situation, a catastrophic scenario for the regional security. The relations have especially become strained since 2016 when Taiwan elected Tsai Ing Wen, a pro democracy leader. Her reelection victory in 2020, rebuked Chinese pressure for possible reunification. Since 2012, China has witnessed a rise of nationalism, signaling country’s growing ambitions post the economic success. Out of the many national agendas, resolving the “Taiwan matter” has gained undivided attention from the Communist Party of China. Leaving the past century of humiliation behind, the new China has found itself on the path to seek great power status and ushering the Chinese Century. However for Beijing, reunification with Taiwan is critical for fulfilling the ‘Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation’, whether through appeasement or coercion. The dwindling cross-strait relations and China’s grey zone activities have posed new challenges for the regional power balance. Within the context of growing US-China rivalry, the Taiwan crisis has increasingly been seen as a possible flashpoint.

Historically, there have been instances when America being entrapped in a war with China over the island nation seemed inevitable. For example in the 1950s, PRC bombed Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu islands controlled by ROC. United States considered vast array of policy options including nuclear weapons to resist PRC’s control over these islands. Even though ultimately PRC approached US for negotiations to ease the situation due to Soviet pressure, this incident evidenced the risk of miscalculation in US-China relations. However, deteriorating security in Taiwan straits over the last two decades amidst the backdrop of growing anti-China sentiments in American political discourse across ideological spectrum sets apart the current situation from the past. Particularly, as American views on China have witnessed critical shifts in the post Trump era and as US-China rivalry has crystallized in various domains, Taiwan has further been elevated in US’ Asia strategy. America’s China policy reshaped under President Donald Trump as the belief in China’s economic success at the expense of US became a widely accepted phenomenon in Washington DC. The Trump administration levied tariffs on Chinese products and engaged in a trade war, though whether it benefited the US is open for debate. America also launched the Indo Pacific strategy framework with the aim to refocus America’s Asia policy following China’s ascendance to power and regional security developments.

As US-China relations hit rock bottom, US-Taiwan relations reached new heights during the Trump presidency. Removing past ‘self imposed restrictions’ and developing ties with Taipei beyond political rhetoric, US’ traditional stance of one-China policy has repeatedly come into question by Beijing since President Trump took office. When Trump and President Tsai Ing Wen had telephonic conversation after former’s presidential victory, America bypassed a longstanding diplomatic protocol. Even though later White House agreed to abide by one-China policy, President Trump succeeded in raising doubts about America’s likely deviation from this policy in the future if relations with China continue to sour. Some of the most important developments in US-Taiwan relations occurred during Trump presidency like: allowing senior officials to visit Taiwan (Taiwan Travel Act of 2018), increased sales of advanced weapons, supporting Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with states around the world (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019) and pushing for Taiwan’s greater participation in international organizations & providing stimulus package (Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019).

President Joe Biden continued to build on this momentum by inviting Taiwanese ambassador to the inaugural ceremony. The hopes for any recalibration in US-China relations have been thwarted as officials from the administration have maintained a hard-line approach. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterating ‘terrible consequences’ if China invades Taiwan; maintaining ties with China being the ‘biggest geopolitical test’ for US and; Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks recognizing China as a ‘pacing challenge for the US military’ paints the seriousness with which Washington has embraced the reality of great power competition.

In the face of China’s overwhelming number of reserve forces and modernized military apparatus, Taiwan’s weak tactical abilities have been a point of concern for the US. Over various administrations, America has been sending small batches of troops as low-key exchanges to prepare the island nation. However, as Chinese air and maritime activities in the region near Taiwan have exponentially increased, U.S has sent special operations and marine unit to train the Taiwanese forces in an effort to heighten their defense capabilities. The precedence of sending special operation troops has been set by President Trump, which has been sustained by President Biden.

Impetus for US Support of Taiwan

As a symbolic gesture, President Biden sent a delegation of former security and foreign officials from Bush and Obama administration to Taiwan to reaffirm American commitment to the island nation as Ukraine crisis intensified. The flurry of diplomatic exchanges between US and Taiwan in the weeks after Russian invasion of Ukraine prompts at the graveness of Taipei’s security needs, China’s political clarity on this matter and America’s determination to maintain status quo. As early as 2021 when reports of a possible Russian invasion were being discussed in policy circles, the Biden administration was quick to re-emphasize American ‘vow to protect Taiwan’ even though officially US remains committed to the policy of strategic ambiguity. The similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan’s geopolitical situation are quite a few. Both the states have powerful neighbors with nuclear capabilities, share history with Russia and `China respectively, incline towards the West (specifically the US), have adopted democracy from past few decades and have developed a unique national identity. However, geopolitically their significance in American Grand strategy vastly differs. There are primarily four factors that have led to greater attention on Taiwan over various US administrations.

First, Asia is the priority region for the US, especially since the Obama administration. The pivot to Asia, rebalance to Asia and the Indo-Pacific strategy are recent American efforts to streamline their focus on affairs of the region. The latest Indo Pacific strategy report states US determination to strengthen ‘long term commitment’ towards Asia and maintaining security interests across the region including Taiwan straits. Even though Europe and transatlantic ties remain critical, Asia remains the region of significance for the US foreign policy.

Second, the US-Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 has been the raison d’etre for America’s approach towards Taiwan. This has been fundamental in initiating legislative and executive decision making on Taipei, which includes defense and economic issues. The act has been the guiding principle behind America’s resistance ‘to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan’. Taiwan Relations Act makes Taipei an exception, unlike Kyiv.

Third, supporting Taiwan is closely associated to the American alliance structure in Asia. American presence in East Asia through military alliances has been critical in maintaining balance of power, especially amidst the rise of China as region’s hegemonic power. The US role of being a security guarantor persists more than ever for the stability of the region. Therefore, American compromise on Taiwan’s security could gravely impact the psychology of alliance framework with allies like Japan and South Korea, detrimental for US influence in Asia.

And lastly, Taiwan’s transformation from an authoritarian regime into a thriving democracy with a distinct national identity has made the possibility for reunification more complicated. The island nation has undergone alterations in political identification and cultural orientation from past few decades as majority of the public associates to a Taiwan centered identity in comparison to dual identity of being Chinese and Taiwanese. The severity of democratic recession and the onslaught of authoritarian regimes across the globe with Ukraine as the latest victim highlights the American stakes vis-à-vis Taiwan. In this regard, President Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan at the Summit of Democracy in 2021 is a step towards Taiwan’s greater integration in international community.

Conclusion

Hypothetically, if and when the reunification of China and Taiwan happens, the political path adopted by both the parties would matter more to America than its power of influence over Taipei. The greater the probability of China using military means to reunify the two states and in process violating the hallmarks of international norms and values exist, the closer this matter would feature in the ambit of US national priorities. As US and China have embarked towards a perilous phase in bilateral relations, the spillover of their rivalry and divergence of opinion on critical issues will persist.  Even though the scenario of America sending troops to Taiwan in the wake of a possible Chinese invasion remains slim or at least debatable, the strategic value of this crisis would reign supreme for White House while making critical decisions. Losing Taiwan to China via coercion would considerably extinguish America’s quest to repair its image abroad and its ability to maintain a rules based order in the Indo Pacific. Henceforth, considering that China is the ‘only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system’ Taiwan matter has carved a distinct position in US’ larger foreign policy calculations.





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