Xi Jinping’s recent pledge to “resolutely contain the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist activities in any form” has commentators and politicians worried that tensions may be rising. Indeed, given that this comes only two months after Taiwan’s presidential election – where Beijing’s preferred KMT candidate, Eric Chu, was convincingly beaten by pro-independent candidate Tsai Ing-Wen – cross-strait relations could possibly enter a new phase beset by tension and acrimony.
Although one should refrain from reading too much into analogies, historical or geographical, Ukraine’s experiences over the past three years offer some interesting – yet potentially frightening – lessons for Taiwan. In my research on Ukraine, I argued that the crisis was, in part, precipitated by geopolitics as Ukraine resided between two larger powers (EU/NATO and Russia) in a setting with no agreed security architecture which caused considerable instability.
According to Buzan and Waever[i], regions that are home to competing powers, what they call ‘regional security complexes’, are more unstable and prone to rivalry and conflict because security threats minimize significantly over distances. In an emerging multipolar world where America’s influence as the international system’s dominant power and arbiter of a liberal international order is weakening, regional security complexes (particularly rivalries over smaller, third-party buffer states) across the globe will likely become more contentious and prone to competition.
The similarities between Ukraine’s situation and Taiwan’s are, on the surface, striking. Firstly, Taiwan, like Ukraine, represents a smaller power located at the intersection of the spheres of influence of two much larger powers, China and the United States. The Western Pacific, over the past decade, has become far more geopolitically complex and tense; this is evident in the emergence of a multitude of disputes involving China and numerous other Asian countries (Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia South Korea and Taiwan). Not only has China asserted itself in the region, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, but the United States’ is currently undertaking a pivot to Asia, which suggests further competition, and maybe confrontation, is on the horizon.
Taiwan is arguably the centerpiece of a hypothetical clash between China and the United States in the West Pacific. As it currently stands, China views Taiwan as nothing more than a renegade province under the sovereign control of China while the United States is the de jure security guarantor for Taiwan against potential Chinese military action. These relationships, although not incompatible, are hardly complementary either. Taiwan’s increasingly precarious geopolitical position could – as was the case in Ukraine – narrow its foreign policy options and reduce its agency and autonomy. So far Taiwan has remained independent, democratic, and prosperous despite the pressures and risks but if the Ukraine precedent is any guide, Taiwan could be a risk in the foreseeable future if geopolitics become unhinged.
Secondly, similarly to Ukraine (Russia), Taiwan lies in the shadow of a much larger authoritarian country (China). Both Russia and China have experienced authoritarian regressions over the past decade – Russia has clearly been worse, to date, but China, under Xi Jinping, is also regressing – which have coincided with stronger regional foreign policies. Authoritarian regimes, unsurprisingly, are wary of popular discontent and use a mixture of largesse, coercion, nationalism and disinformation/propaganda to maintain their rule. This anxiety often manifests itself in foreign and in both Russia and China has resulted in efforts to undertake regime promotion in their neighborhoods as a way of insulating their regimes against the diffusionary power of democracy; resulting in a policy akin to autocracy promotion.
Arguably, Ukraine’s greatest threat to Russia was its potential subversive effect on Putin’s regime. The logic here is that, with the help of the EU, a democratic and economically prosperous Ukraine would undermine the authoritarian and economically insipid characteristics of Putin’s Russia. Given Ukraine’s history of failed democratisation efforts, it is arguable that Russia significantly overestimated this threat. However, Taiwan, which has undertaken impressive democratisation over the past two decades, may have a potentially greater subversive effect on a CCP regime in China that is suffering from poor economic performance – an essential source of legitimacy. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s extraordinary meeting with then Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou, in Singapore in late 2015, arguably to help the KMT win the upcoming elections, gives this assumption some credence.
Lastly, Taiwan, like Ukraine, has long attempted to pursue something of a multi-vector foreign policy, which has enabled it to achieve some important policy outcomes; such as having a pragmatic relationship with China and good informal ties with the United States also. However, although pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy can be a smart strategy for a small power wedged between two larger ones, it also presents clear challenges, particularly when the smaller power represents a vital national interest to one or both of the larger powers. Furthermore, when regional security complexes become more competitive and contentious, aggressive multi-vectoring can backfire enormously.
Ukraine’s President before the crisis which erupted in late 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, was an aggressive balancer between Russia and the West. Yanukovych clearly misread the geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe as he brazenly played the EU and Russia off against one another throughout 2012 and 2013 to achieve a more advantageous outcome. Whether Tsai Ing-Wen represents a similar “balancer” is hard to assert at this early juncture of her administration. However, given that she uses pro-independence rhetoric and is not afraid to question Taiwan’s relationship with China or its current position in the security architecture of East Asia, it seems plausible that she could be an agitator in the relationship like Yanukovych was in Ukraine.
Of course, Ukraine’s experience does not necessarily mean that great power rivalry will similarly afflict Taiwan because analogies are always indeterminate. However, Taiwan, not to mention both China and the United States, can learn a lot from the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine. Maintaining the currently acceptable if not entirely agreeable security architecture – with Taiwan’s position within it clearly defined – is a pressing requirement to ensure future relations do not succumb to geopolitical pressures as they have in Eastern Europe. Without a stabilising security architecture in East Asia or the West Pacific it is not unreasonable to speculate that Taiwan risks becoming a victim of a potential great power rivalry between China and the United States.
[i] Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Image courtesy of Bryan.