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Anti-war demonstrators in Taiwan

Protesters hold signs expressing their opinion during a protest against Russia's military invasion of Ukraine at the Liberty square in Taipei. (Photo: Walid Berrazeg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Is "Taiwan Next"? We Don't Think So

There is no sign yet of Chinese coordination with Moscow over Ukraine or preparations for an invasion of Taiwan.

Joseph GersonMichael T. Klare

Ever since Russia began preparing for its brutal invasion of Ukraine, right-wing commentators in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have been making wild and unfounded statements about Chinese support for Russia's action, possible coordination between Beijing and Moscow, and Chinese plans for a corresponding invasion of Taiwan. But while China certainly needs to be more forthright in condemning the Russian invasion, there is no compelling evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin divulged his plans for a full-scale invasion when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on February 4 and none whatsoever that the two countries are coordinating their actions, let alone that Taiwan is the next target of such aggression.

Had the Chinese known of Putin's plans, they no doubt would have taken steps to protect their diplomatic staff in Ukraine and the thousands of Chinese citizens working and studying there. But when the Biden administration cited intelligence of the impending invasion, removed its own diplomatic personnel and called on all Americans to leave, China claimed this was all propaganda, and did nothing of the same. As a result, no planes were sent to rescue Chinese citizens and presumably many remain trapped in Kyiv as it comes under attack by Russian forces. On March 2, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported the first Chinese casualty of the war, the death of a citizen shot while trying to flee the fighting.

Foreknowledge of Putin's plans would also have given Chinese authorities an opportunity to carefully hone their message in response to the invasion. But the official Chinese response has been incoherent, first suggesting that Russian operations were limited in nature and then suggesting that a negotiated settlement was within reach. On February 25, just a few weeks after Putin and Xi said their friendship had "no limits" at that Olympic ceremony, China abstained from a UN Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion, a move interpreted by Western observers as an attempt to distance itself from Moscow. And while continuing to insist that NATO's eastward expansion was the original cause of the crisis, Chinese lending institutions have joined their Western counterparts in blocking funds to Russian companies.

What is most likely is that Chinese leaders suspected a limited Russian operation intended to expand its perimeter in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, something that would provoke relatively minor outrage in the West and could be described as a legitimate security measure, not a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. Beijing views sovereignty as a central pillar of its foreign policy, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Munich Security Conference on February 19 that China believes that "the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded. This is a basic norm of international relations that embodies the purposes of the UN Charter. It is also the consistent, principled position of China. And that applies equally to Ukraine." Once it became clear that Russia had no intention of respecting Ukraine's sovereignty, China has been at a loss for how to describe the situation and deal with it diplomatically. For Chinese leaders, this has become a huge embarrassment for which they were wholly unprepared. The notion that they are coordinating their response with Moscow is preposterous. 

And then there are the far-fetched notions that "Taiwan is next": that China intends to invade Taiwan while the West is preoccupied with Russia and Ukraine. Among those propagating this wholly unsubstantiated notion is former President Donald Trump. China will invade sooner rather than later, he told Fox Business on March 2. "Of course they're going to do it—this is their time," he said.

While it is certainly true that China’s military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has in recent years conducted elaborate military exercises in areas near Taiwan that suggest planning for an invasion of Taiwan should China's leaders order such a move, there is absolutely no evidence that the PLA is currently girding for such a move. The Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy maintains a log of Chinese air and naval maneuvers in the vicinity of Taiwan and posts it on its website. This data indicates that the tempo of Chinese maneuvers near Taiwan has declined since the start of 2022. 

Any move by the PLA to gear up for an invasion of Taiwan would involve a major mobilization of air, ground, and sea forces and would be visible to both military and commercial satellite sensors, just as the Russian military buildup around Ukraine was widely reported in the Western media. There have been zero such reports. There simply is no evidence for the assertion that "Taiwan is next."

Nor is it very likely that China would undertake an invasion of Taiwan later, when the crisis in Ukraine is somehow resolved or is "frozen" in some fashion. Chinese leaders are well aware that an invasion of Taiwan would be far more difficult than Russia's invasion of Ukraine, given the hundreds of miles of water separating the Taiwan from the mainland and an understanding that if Chinese forces somehow managed an amphibious assault on Taiwan, they would likely encounter an even more intense resistance than Russian forces are facing in Ukraine—prompting international outrage, crushing sanctions, and a greater likelihood of U.S. intervention.  

China has a lot of explaining and apologizing to do for its failure to condemn the Russian invasion from the very beginning and not taking more forceful action to isolate the Putin regime. But it cannot be accused of being complicit in the Russian invasion or of seeking to exploit the current moment to invade Taiwan.

Gerson and Klare serve as co-chairs of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy and Vice President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes.

Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His newest book, "The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources" (2012).  His other books include: "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy" (2009) and "Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum" (2000). A documentary movie version of his book "Blood and Oil" is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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