hamada53_Ceng Shou YiNurPhoto via Getty Images_taiwan china Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Is Taiwan the Next Ukraine?

Chinese forces may well have to land in Taiwan before the world finds out whether the US is willing to defend the island militarily. But overt military threats are not the only – or even the most effective – way to deter a Chinese invasion.

TOKYO – Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine is, most observers agree, an assault on democracy, sovereignty, and human rights. For the United States and its NATO allies, the Kremlin’s aggression demands a powerful response, including unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and huge amounts of military aid to Ukraine. But the West will stop short of any direct intervention, lest it be viewed as a declaration of war against Russia.

The contours of America’s policy toward Taiwan remain far less clear. And that is precisely the point: by refusing to say whether it would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, the US has helped to deter China – which does not want to risk a war with the world’s leading military superpower – without making any promises it might not want to keep. The question is whether this policy of “strategic ambiguity” can offer Taiwan the kind of protection that Ukraine clearly lacked.

For former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, the answer was no. Following his assassination, it now remains to be seen whether that stance survives him among Japanese leaders. In April, Abe argued that while strategic ambiguity worked in the past, its success always depended on two factors: the US being strong enough to maintain the policy, and China being “far inferior” to the US in military power. Neither condition applies today. In Abe’s view, the policy has thus become “untenable,” and an unequivocal US commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression is now urgently needed.

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Update Jul 8, 2022 11:59UTC

This commentary has been updated to reflect the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō on July 8, 2022.