A Lesson From Ukraine: China’s Red Lines on Taiwan Shouldn’t Be Ignored

Originally published at the Independent Speech Forum (Japan)

Back in January, during the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese ambassador to the United States delivered a stark warning. Ambassador Qin Gang said that Washington’s growing ties with Taipei could ultimately lead to war between the US and China.

"If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in the military conflict," Qin said.

While the West accuses China of practicing so-called "wolf warrior diplomacy," Qin is no hawk. After he took his post in Washington last July, Qin brought a message of better relations. Speaking at an event hosted by the National Committee on United States–China Relations on August 31, Qin warned against the Cold War mentality that plagues Washington and said the US and China benefit from each other’s prosperity. "I believe that both countries can benefit from the development and prosperity of the other side," he said.

Qin’s warning about Taiwan came at a time when the US and Russia were holding frequent talks over Ukraine, which failed to prevent war. Moscow’s main demand was for the US to guarantee that Ukraine won’t ever join NATO, but President Biden refused to make the promise.

Russia’s concerns about NATO are not limited to Ukraine’s prospective membership. Since the end of the Cold War, the military alliance has expanded eastward right up to Russia’s borders and maintains a significant presence in the Black Sea. China is now facing a similar Western military buildup in the Asia Pacific as the US is rallying its allies to join the campaign against Beijing.

In recent years, US military activity in the South China Sea has significantly increased. For example, in 2021, US spy planes flew nearly 1,200 sorties over the disputed waters, representing a 20% increase from 2020. US warships frequently enter waters near China’s coast, and US allies including Germany, France, and Britain have also sailed their navies into the region.

Along with its military presence in the region, the US has also inserted itself in a maritime dispute between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. Washington has formally rejected most of Beijing’s claims to the waters and has promised the Philippines that if Manila’s disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea ever turn violent, the US would intervene. Over in the East China Sea, the US has pledged that it would defend the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the event of a Chinese attack.

A major aspect of the US strategy in the Asia Pacific is building anti-China alliances. Last year, the US, Britain, and Australia signed the AUKUS military pact that will give Canberra nuclear-powered submarines, which could be used to patrol waters near China’s coast. Washington is also working to increase cooperation between the Quad nations – the US, India, Japan, and Australia.

Even NATO has its eyes on China, and the North Atlantic military alliance is looking to countries in the Asia Pacific to help counter Beijing. At the end of 2020, NATO issued a report identifying China as a threat, drawing condemnation from Beijing. China has since warned the military alliance to stay out of Asia.

The Western military buildup and alliance building in the Asia Pacific are major provocations toward China. But what is perhaps arguably more provocative in the eyes of Beijing is Washington’s recent steps to increase informal ties with Taiwan.

Beginning under the Trump administration, the US started sending high-level officials to Taiwan and encouraging contacts between Taiwanese and US officials, breaking from the diplomatic norms that were established in 1979, when Washington severed formal ties with Taipei and recognized Beijing.

Explaining the new policy, Raymond Greene, the deputy director of the de facto US embassy in Taipei, said last year that Washington now views Taiwan as an opportunity to counter China. "This reflects a fundamental change in the US-Taiwan relationship.  The United States no longer sees Taiwan as a ‘problem’ in our relations with China, we see it as an opportunity to advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific," Greene said.

Tensions between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington boiled over last fall and led to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirming the presence of US troops in Taiwan. For decades, the US has sent small numbers of military trainers to Taiwan, but the deployments have not been publicly acknowledged by a Taiwanese leader since the diplomatic shift in 1979.

When it comes to discussions of the US military and Taiwan, the primary question is whether or not the US would intervene if China invaded. The US maintains a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on this issue, but some hawkish lawmakers in Washington want that to change. Elaine Luria, a Democrat in the House of Representatives from Virginia, wants to create a law that would give President Biden the authority to go to war with China if it attacked Taiwan despite the risks.

Luria complained that President Biden "doesn’t have the authority to actually respond" should China attack Taiwan. "If China were to invade Taiwan today," she said. "We can’t lose [the] months that it would take in order for us to provide a response, the president would have to come to Congress for authorization to respond."

Luria frames giving Biden the war powers to fight China over Taiwan as necessary to "de-escalate" the situation despite the obvious fact that war between Washington and Beijing could quickly turn nuclear. While China’s nuclear arsenal is far smaller than the US and Russia’s, a nuclear exchange between Beijing and Washington could be enough to end humanity.

The prospect of a war between the US and China breaking out in Southeast Asia has grave implications for Washington’s allies in the region. If the war stays conventional, the US mainland will not be facing China’s missiles. Instead, it will be countries in the Asia Pacific feeling the wrath of the People’s Liberation Army, and Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines are all potential targets.

If China invades Taiwan and the US doesn’t intervene, Washington would likely take a similar approach as it has to Ukraine. Since Russia invaded on February 24, the US has been pouring weapons into the conflict zone and has led a sanctions campaign against Moscow aimed at decimating the Russian economy. If the US used Taiwan to wage a similar proxy war against China, it would be the Taiwanese doing the fighting and dying for the US Empire’s goals of bogging down Beijing.

Amid Russia’s assault on Ukraine, there is much hype around the idea of China attacking Taiwan. Hawks in Washington have warned that Beijing could use the opportunity to launch a war of its own. But the reality is, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require the largest amphibious assault in history, dwarfing the size of the allied invasion of France on D-Day in World War II. Beijing has no interest in such a costly endeavor and has repeatedly stated that peaceful reunification is its goal.

But the Chinese have also made it clear time and time again that Taiwan is a red line, and it would act militarily if necessary. In the decades leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow also made its red lines clear and US officials and foreign policy experts were warning that NATO expansion could lead to war in Eastern Europe.

In 1997, George Kennan, a US diplomat who created Washington’s "containment" strategy to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War, stated in The New York Times that "expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era."

In 2008, then-US Ambassador to Russia William Burns, who now serves as President Biden’s CIA director, warned in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks that Ukraine and Georgia’s hopes to join NATO could spark a war.

Burns wrote: "Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face."

The consequences of Washington’s Taiwan policy is just as predictable as the consequences of NATO expansion, but few are speaking out. A conflict over Taiwan might not happen within the next few years, but if the US continues the path it’s on, a war over the island within the next decade or two is almost inevitable. Russia’s red lines were ignored, but China’s shouldn’t be. Otherwise, we will once again see Asian cities burn for the American Empire.

Dave DeCamp is the news editor of Antiwar.com. Follow him on Twitter @decampdave.