Russia’s invasion of Ukraine evokes unpleasant comparisons for northeast Asia. It’s easy to envisage China invading Taiwan or enabling a North Korean invasion of South Korea.
Neither of these scenarios will play out right away, but then, a few years ago, who was predicting Russia would invade Ukraine? China’s President Xi Jinping, looking for re-election, by acclamation, if possible, to a third five-year term at the congress of the Chinese Communist Party in November, will probably settle — for now — for intimidation exercises. They’re to show that his People’s Liberation Army (ground, navy and air elements) could take over the island at any time but is holding off, testing to see the responses of the United States, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
In a waiting game, 72 years since Mao Zedong’s Red Army took over the mainland, China has time on its side. That does not mean that Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, will be willing to wait forever. He may set the end of his third five-year term in 2027 as the deadline for showing his might as the man who recovered the lost island province.
The fact that Taiwan is separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Strait, 130 to 180 kilometers wide, obviously presents an obstacle to an invasion force, but Taiwan’s real defense in an all-out war lies in the commitment of the United States.
That may seem strange since the United States has no troops in Taiwan, not even advisers, and no treaty binds Taiwan to the U.S. as an ally as it does to South Korea and Japan. That’s because of the “One China” policy under which Washington recognizes Beijing as the government of all of China, including Taiwan. Without an American embassy, the American Institute on Taiwan fulfills the same functions. Taiwan can also buy hundreds of millions of dollars in arms from the United States and others.
Some analysts say that, armed to the teeth with 300,000 troops, Taiwan would be like a “porcupine” under attack. That is, the island, with 23.6 million inhabitants bristling with weapons like the needles on a porcupine, would sting and prick its attackers into a whining retreat. That scenario, while fun to consider, is a little optimistic. Airpower and naval gunfire could grind down those “needles” to shreds.
An attack on Taiwan would have implications for South Korea. Like Taiwan, South Korea also invites comparisons to Ukraine. Hu Shi-jin, who recently retired as editor of the Global Times, an English-language paper and website under the thumb of the People’s Daily, the bible of the Chinese Communist Party, has written recently that Korea could be “like Ukraine.”
“If South Korea chooses a path that is hostile to its neighbors,” he warned, “the end of that path could be Ukraine.” The website News Directory 3 interpreted Hu’s commentary to mean, “If South Korea adopts a hostile policy to China, the situation could be similar to that of Ukraine, which became a battlefield due to the Russian invasion.”
For that very reason, of course, South Korea would rather not risk China’s ire, but China’s bullying may prove too much for the conservative government of President Yoon Suk-yeol.
South Korea is already upset by the insistence of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi — when meeting Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin in Beijing — that Korea must not countenance more of those dreaded Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles the Americans have implanted on a former golf course 200 kilometers south of Seoul. The South has said it’s not up to China to limit the number of missiles it needs or wants for THAAD against high-flying hypersonic missiles that North Korea may be capable of firing.
China, as tensions worsen, could promise North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the aid he needs for invading the South and back up the invasion with its own army, as it did when it rescued the North from oblivion in the Korean War. At this stage, this scenario is farfetched. North Korea, weakened by COVID-19 and sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests, is in no condition to go to war. Nor is China issuing dire threats of the sort it’s making against Taiwan.
Still, the fact that a prominent Chinese commentator, writing for a party newspaper, should compare the fate of South Korea to that of Ukraine is disturbing. In a power struggle for the region, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un would love to crown their careers by realizing expansionist ambitions close to their territory.