If the United States does not intervene militarily in Ukraine, it is to signal to Xi Jinping that its armed forces are fully mobilized in case of an attack on Taiwan, according to an analysis by Hugues Eudeline, a researcher.
Eudeline is a research associate at the Thomas More Institute. A former naval officer, he holds a doctorate in military history, defense and security from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris and is a graduate of the French and American military academies. His research focuses on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the world’s oceans.
U.S. President Joe Biden has been widely criticized for not wanting to directly involve NATO’s armed forces, primarily his country’s forces, in a high-intensity conflict alongside Ukraine, which has been attacked by Russia. However, the critics of the president, who sometimes call him “Bumbling Biden” or “Dementia Joe” as do his political enemies for Biden’s propensity to use undiplomatic language, such as when he refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “butcher,” would be well advised to think twice before reaching any summary judgments. The exact and precise quality of the information provided by Biden regarding the imminent nature of an attack on Ukraine by Russia well before it happened can no longer be questioned. Yet he had been disparaged by many European political leaders for sounding the alarm well before the offensive began. Evidence that the United States has an effective and reliable global intelligence system is now clear.
Avoiding Simultaneous Conflicts
Then why not intervene directly to shorten the conflict and put an end to the abuses suffered by the Ukrainian people? One answer, often offered by media commentators, is that a direct conflict between two nuclear powers would be impossible, as it could degenerate and push the belligerents to extremes. Another, even more relevant reason, about which all strategists agree, is that one should never engage in two major conflicts simultaneously. The imminence of an attack on Taiwan by China, which has been announced many times, was again recently mentioned by both the Taiwanese minister of defense and, on March 13, by Admiral John C. Aquilino, commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, to a committee of U.S. lawmakers. In a very detailed presentation of his region, which covers the Pacific and Indian oceans as well as a large part of the Asian continent. Aquilino said, “The People’s Republic of China is seeking to become a global military power and to acquire the capability to seize Taiwan …”*
On three occasions in the 20th century (1954-55, 1958 and 1995-96), the PRC attempted to take over the island of Taiwan, where the defeated Kuomingtang troops took refuge in 1949. Three times, it was dissuaded by the presence of U.S. air and naval forces and by the inferiority of its own navy and air forces. Today, fueled by its astounding economic growth, communist China has been able to devote an ever-increasing budget to its military expenditures, primarily in naval and air forces. The 2022 budget has increased by 7.1% compared to 2021, reaching $230 billion. Admittedly, it is lower than the U.S. budget ($752.9 billion in 2022), but one should compare what is comparable. To be accurate, we should compare values based on purchasing power parity, not values resulting from simple currency conversion.
China’s Naval Ambitions
Indeed, the cost of producing a weapons system is not the same in China, where salaries for workers and managers are much lower than in the West, and control of the design is less constrained. In addition, technological developments serve a dual purpose, as military projects systematically benefit civilian research in similar areas. Crew compensation, training and maintenance costs are also not of the same order of magnitude as in the West. Finally, you cannot compare operating expenses; the United States is present and militarily engaged on every continent, and the U.S. Navy ensures freedom of navigation on the world’s oceans, while China still has only one major base in Djibouti.
Due to this concentration of resources for decades to develop a large and balanced combat force, the PRC today has a larger navy than the U.S. in terms of the number of combat ships, although it is still smaller in tonnage. The PRC has the ambition to surpass the U.S. Navy in all areas by 2035.
China’s economic development is mainly due to maritime trade since Deng Xiaoping decided to open the country to global commerce by sea, in order to avoid the geopolitical risks resulting from its tense relations with its land neighbors. Biding its time, China started to develop its maritime coastline with the construction of gigantic ports, among the world’s most advanced. It supplies the special economic zones developed in the country’s hinterlands with raw materials and exports their manufactured products, flooding the world. At the same time, the PRC has given itself the legal and maritime means to control its maritime access routes in the China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
To that end, the country has developed a coast guard unmatched in the world and a maritime militia that is equally unrivaled. The seas, bounded by a line of islands, none of which belong to the PRC, constitute a straitjacket from which it would like to free itself by breaking the lock constituted by Taiwan, the largest of these islands. This strategic objective also serves a political purpose: bringing the Republic of China (Taiwan), which it considers a rebel province, into the communist fold, although China has never governed Taiwan. According to U.S. intelligence, noted for its accuracy, and Taiwanese intelligence, an attack could be launched within the next three years.
The Nationalist Card
The large-scale resurgence in April of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, which forced it to close some of its ports with major economic impact, is clear evidence of the failure of the “zero COVID” policy China took pride in. Public backlash is putting Xi in a difficult position and he needs a diversion. The need to play the nationalist chord could hasten operations to take Taiwan by force. This temptation is, however, tempered by the lessons from the war in Ukraine. Those lessons show the difficulties encountered by Russian forces in carrying out an invasion of a country that is less well equipped militarily than Taiwan.
Analysis of this feedback may help temper the zeal of the most vindictive strategists and cast doubt on the ability of the People’s Liberation Army forces to take the island quickly. The obstacle of crossing the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from the mainland — 65 nautical miles (approximately 75 miles) wide — is an additional challenge. The attack is further complicated by a difficult geography and challenging coastlines, many of which aren’t suitable for landing craft. The capricious weather in the area further complicates any operation.
Facing a Communist Party where he doesn’t have complete support, Xi cannot afford to lose face in the event of a failed attempt at invading Taiwan. He doesn’t know how the United States, which remains at the ready by avoiding engagement in Europe, will react. The fact that the U.S. hasn’t engaged directly in the Ukrainian conflict leaves it fully available to provide major support to Taiwan. The demonstration of how effective Western high-tech weapons have been in the Ukrainian theater is another reason to worry, as the West has provided and continues to send many such weapons to Taiwan. The 1979 law on U.S.-Taiwan relations doesn’t obligate the United States to defend the RDC, but it provides that U.S. policy is to maintain the capability to do so, which creates strategic ambiguity about a U.S. response should the PRC attack.
What will Xi choose to do: heed an existential need to break the Taiwanese lock and obtain free access to the world’s oceans, or the heed the need to wait still longer for the ability to project force and power to ensure an unquestionable superiority, even if it means confronting certain unrest? Although Russia and China signed a joint statement on Feb. 4, reasserting that “new interstate relations” between them were “superior” to the political and military alliances of the “Cold War era,” Biden’s unwillingness to get directly involved in Ukraine is above all an implicit message aimed at Xi: Do not attack Taiwan.
*Editor’s Note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.