Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 12 January 2023

Taiwan must not suffer the same fate as Ukraine

The parallels between Russia and China are hard to ignore — allies must act now to deter an invasion


 The writer is a former Nato secretary-general 

 This week China embarked on significant military exercises around the coast of Taiwan. It was the second such drill in less than a month and the latest in a series of provocations by Beijing designed to intimidate Taipei. This was the backdrop for my visit to Taiwan last week, the first official one by a former Nato secretary-general. I was there to declare my full support for freedom, democracy and the right of the Taiwanese people to decide their own future, in peace. It was my second time on the island. I originally visited in 1994 as a young member of the Danish Parliament. Since then, Taiwan’s economy has boomed, becoming a leader in cutting edge technologies and an indispensable link in global supply chains. Even more importantly, its democracy has become a beacon of liberty not only in Asia but for the entire world. Taiwan’s democratic transformation would be impressive under any circumstances. The fact it has happened while facing daily provocations from a nuclear armed neighbour makes it remarkable. Here, the parallels with Ukraine and Russia are hard to ignore. An authoritarian leader turning increasingly repressive at home and aggressive abroad, revanchist rhetoric about reuniting the motherland, a build-up of military equipment and personnel aimed menacingly at a smaller democracy next door. The democratic world failed to deter a Russian attack on Ukraine — we must not make the same mistakes with China. We must learn the right lessons from the war in Ukraine to prevent one in the Taiwan Strait. The first lesson is that Ukraine remains a free country because its people were prepared to fight. Weapons supplies have only proved effective because the Ukrainian people were willing to die to protect their homeland. Deterring an attack by China relies on the credible belief that any invasion would come at an immense cost. The decision by the Taiwanese President to extend military service from four months to one year is important. It sends a signal that Taiwan is serious about its own defence and its people are willing to fight for a free and democratic future. The second lesson is the importance of a strong and unified response from the democratic world. Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s allies have supplied weapons and imposed economic sanctions. If we had shown this unity of purpose after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, it could have deterred a full-scale invasion. Democratic leaders must make clear that any attempt by China to forcibly change the status quo in Taiwan would spark an equally unified response. European politicians must stop sending mixed signals. China relies on exports to global markets to fuel its growth. It is far more entwined in global supply chains than Russia, so spelling out the economic consequences of an attack in advance can act as a powerful deterrent. Third, ultimately weapons are what counts. Ukraine managed to stop the initial Russian invasion and turn the tide of the war thanks to the supply of superior military equipment from its allies, particularly the US. If Ukraine had had these capabilities before the war, Putin may have thought twice before launching a full-scale invasion. That lesson is even more important for Taiwan, whose island geography will be difficult to resupply in a time of war. To be an effective deterrent, we should give Taiwan the weapons it needs to defend itself now. Xi Jinping must calculate that the cost of an invasion is simply too high. President Joe Biden’s repeated statement that the US will help Taiwan if China were to attack is also important. It shows that strategic ambiguity has been replaced with strategic clarity. To paraphrase the famous maxim, the best way to preserve peace is make clear you are prepared to go to war. The final and most important way to deter a Chinese move on Taiwan is to ensure a Ukrainian victory in the current conflict. If Russia can gain territory and establish a new status quo by force, it sets a dangerous precedent. China and other autocratic powers will learn that the democratic world’s resolve is weak and that nuclear blackmail and military aggression work. The lesson we learn from history is that appeasement with dictators does not lead to peace, it leads to war and conflict. That is why all those who believe in a democratic Taiwan and a rules-based international order must work to ensure Ukraine prevails. If the democratic world learns these lessons and acts now, Taiwan can avoid the horrors being inflicted on Ukraine. Through our support, we can empower the people of both Taiwan and Ukraine to decide their own future. One based on the principles of freedom, democracy and self-determination.

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