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If the West doesn’t draw a line in the sand, our way of life could be in jeopardy

David Spencer
February 25, 2022

As the world watches to assess how far western governments are willing to go in their punishment of Russia, David Spencer writes that they must draw a clear line in the sand if they wish to avoid emboldening other authoritarian regimes.

The democratic world is aghast at what has happened in Ukraine. A sovereign democratic European country has been invaded by what is effectively an authoritarian dictatorship on its doorstep. There will be much handwringing and questions about how we allowed things to get this far and what we can do to stop Russia annexing Ukraine for good.

It is time for some tough decisions. And the choices we make now will have ramifications not just for the Ukraine but for other countries that find themselves, for one reason or another, sat within the sphere of influence of an authoritarian dictatorship.

In recent months, there has been much criticism of those who have talked about the fact that we are at the start of a new Cold War. But Russia's actions are proof positive that this is exactly what is happening. If, as expected, China backs Russia, the battle lines will have been firmly drawn.

The sanctions that will hit Russia in the coming weeks and months will be carefully designed to hit Putin's closest allies and have maximum impact on the Russian economy. Putin knows they are coming and he has done what he can to insulate Russia against them, such as by massively increasing Russia's Gold reserves.

The Russian economy is built on its export of gas and oil and if, as expected, orders from the west dry up, none of these preventative measures will help. Germany's swift abandonment of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a clear sign of things to come. The only thing that can help Russia to cope with the sanctions is by selling their energy resources elsewhere. And the only country with the capacity to make up the shortfall is China.

China's position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine will be interesting to observe. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping will be far from happy to see Putin backing co-called secessionist states in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republic. He will be far happier to see Russia citing their historic control of Ukraine from the Soviet era as justification for invasion.

The territory occupied by Xi Jinping's Communist Chinese regime in Tibet, Xinjiang (East Turkestan), and Inner Mongolia is all justified through similar historical claims, many dating back much further than the 1980s. So too is the Chinese territorial claim that has been referenced most of late in the context of Ukraine – Taiwan.

Taiwan has never been part of the People's Republic of China and Qing-era China gave up sovereignty over Taiwan in 1895 when it signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. But this hasn't stopped the CCP from rewriting history just as Putin is doing to claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.

There are plenty of differences between the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan to make some of the comparisons we have seen in the media of late look ill-advised at best and ignorant at worst.

An invasion of Taiwan is infinitely more complex than an invasion of Ukraine. There is 100 miles of sea to cross and just a handful of well-defended beaches to land troops on. Troops cannot just roll over the border as we have seen in Ukraine. There is no civil dispute that can be exploited either. Taiwan is largely united in a desire not to fall under Chinese occupation, and it has a strong and stable democratic government and a well-equipped and trained military to defend the entire country too.

Any invasion of Taiwan would come at huge collateral military damage to China even if there is no intervention from the West. The absence of any increase in troop numbers on the south-eastern coast of China also makes it clear that an invasion is not imminent.

So, what could the possible ramifications of a successful invasion of Ukraine be for Taiwan? Bluntly, the focus will be entirely on the western response to this invasion.

So far, the response has been focused on sanctions. If sanctions can be made to work then fine. But it was the approach that was tried after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and 8 years on, Russia still possesses that territory.

It is not enough simply to punish a country for annexing another countries territory. That land has to be recovered. If it isn't, it is all too easy to spin an invasion as a success, because essentially it has been. Attempting to cripple Russia with sanctions will only work if they can force Russian troops to withdraw from Ukraine. At this stage, there is nothing in this conflict or previous ones too suggest sanctions alone can have that effect.

We must do more. Ukraine must be given all of the military hardware and intelligence it needs to fight back against Russia and reclaim all of its stolen territory, including Crimea. If that alone isn't enough, then the tough decision to put NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine to assist local forces may be the only option.

We also need to look at the bigger picture as well and that means taking this opportunity to boost our support for Taiwan too. Our ambiguous policy of embracing Taiwan's values and democracy while at the same time jumping through the CCP's One China policy hoops is no longer sustainable.

The UK should now look to enhance diplomatic relations with Taiwan, increase the sale of defensive military equipment to them, and join with allies to send a clear and unambiguous message to Xi Jinping that if he seeks to invade, not only will there be economic sanctions, but we will step in to defend Taiwan too.

No British Prime Minister or US President wants to send their troops to war in a foreign land. But the very future of our way of life is now at stake. If Russia is allowed to annex Ukraine, Russia will be emboldened, China will be emboldened, and the West will be viewed as weak and in decline.

If we don't draw a line in the sand now, the long-term future is bleak, not just for Ukraine, but for Taiwan and for everyone who values living in a free, open, and democratic society.

David Spencer is the Chief Executive of the Taiwan Policy Centre, an independent not-for-profit organisation dedicated to boosting political, cultural, and trading relations between the UK and Taiwan.
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