In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden has made it clear that under no circumstances will he deploy US troops to the country. Instead, he mistakenly hoped that the threat of economic sanctions and harsh rhetoric would be enough to deter Putin’s ambitions.
But with the US now essentially a bystander in what is likely to become Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War II, observers wonder how other regional powers will interpret US reluctance – particularly if it has to s Expect a similar absence if they attempt to encroach on contested strategic territories.
The most pressing of these scenarios, China‘s 70-year itch to reunite with Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, comes to the fore. Many observers wonder if the United States would now be ready to defend the island if Beijing were to invade it.
It’s not just a geopolitical calculation. The strong economic ties between the two countries and Taiwan’s critical role in the global supply chain, which has come under increasing pressure during the pandemic, reinforce the United States‘ interest in protecting Taiwan. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner, with more than $100 billion in goods and services traded between the two countries in 2020, mostly Taiwanese exports, leaving the United States with a trade deficit of nearly $30 billion. dollars.
The jewel in Taiwan’s crown is semiconductor manufacturing giant Taiwan Semiconductor, which produces custom chips for companies including Apple, Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm. The recent semiconductor shortage that has disrupted the automotive industry, driven up PlayStation 5 prices and prompted electronics vendors around the world to stress the importance of the essential technology, as well as Taiwan’s role in the global supply chain.
However, while the economic relationship between the United States and Taiwan is strong, the island’s relationship with its neighboring power is even stronger, adding further incentive for reunification from China’s perspective. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, responsible for 26% of total trade, twice the volume of trade Taiwan has with the United States, its second largest trading partner. But their relationship goes beyond trade. Of Taiwan Semiconductor’s 17 manufacturing plants, two are based in mainland China. Taiwan-headquartered Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics maker and maker of iPhones, Dell computers and Sony TVs, has most of its factories in mainland China and is one of the largest employers in the country.
In contrast, Ukraine is only the 67th largest trading partner of the United States. But in many other ways, Taiwan’s position vis-à-vis China mimics that of Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia: the two are friendly democratic nations and trading partners with the United States who are in the position unhappy with very large neighboring nuclear powers with recidivist territorial ambitions. Both have been under immense threat of invasion for years and have engaged in military skirmishes and clashes in recent history.
Moreover, while the United States was committed to a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan until 1979, this is no longer the case. Therefore, as with Ukraine, the United States has no formal obligation to defend it. The treaty’s successor, the Taiwan Relations Act, only commits the United States to provide arms to Taiwan to maintain a self-defense capability.
Although the act does not oblige the United States to join Taiwan in arms in the event of an invasion, President Biden has said that the United States will defend the island against China last year. Of course, that remains to be seen, and in a December interview, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan took issue with a similar question, expressing optimism that such a scenario would never come to pass.
But there are important differences between these two scenarios that suggest that the American calculation regarding a military threat against Taiwan could be different, especially given recent events where the reliability of the United States as an ally is increasingly questioned.
Although experts still disagree.
“China is the main long-term geopolitical challenge for the United States, and so the real focus must be on Asia and on maintaining the ability to come to the defense of Taiwan. Some have even argued that Ukraine is a distraction from this,” says David Sacks, researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The United States could not afford to stand aside because these two events happened one after the other – it would threaten the balance of power in the two most important regions of the world, and our allies in Europe and Asia would be deeply disrupted..”
On the other side, Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation, insists that US restraint amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine points to the possibility that the US can remain inactive in the event of attacks against Taiwan.
“For China, Taiwan is even lower on the totem pole than Ukraine,” Grossman says. “Ukraine is an internationally accepted sovereign nation, while Taiwan has only 13 official diplomatic partners in the world, and almost all of them are not major players on the world stage… If you are in Taiwan, you must worry about it, especially if things are going well,” Grossman says. “If Russia takes control of Ukraine without a problem, maybe it’s a nod to the fact that China is capable of conquering Taiwan much easier than previously thought.”