As Russian forces progress across the state of Ukraine seizing ever larger chunks of the country from the control of Kiev, the conflict there may seem remote to countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
But the wider impact of the war and its significance has not been lost in Taipei, where the Republic of China’s (ROC’s) Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been tweeting daily with the hashtag #standwithUkraine. It first condemned the Russian attack before warning that China is “waging a campaign of cognitive warfare” against Taiwan that aims to “sow doubt” about the resolve of the European Union and United States among others to defend the island’s independence.
In an earlier separate Tweet, Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, said that she would “strengthen our readiness to respond to military developments in the Taiwan Straits.”
There has not been any evidence of a military build up in China that would indicate an attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take advantage of the situation and seize Taiwan, but the fear remains that Beijing could use this major European distraction to advance its own position.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated just after the beginning of the Russian invasion that “Taiwan is not Ukraine” and she is right, because although both are small democracies with large authoritarian neighbours that have territorial claims over them, that is where the similarities end. The geographical, cultural, economic, political and historical experiences are totally different. Not least that Taiwan’s military forces, backed by the US, are significantly stronger than Ukraine’s and Taiwan has more economic importance in the global economy.
In fact, Beijing is walking on something of a tightrope when dealing with the hornet’s nest that Putin has stirred up in Europe. Professor Robert Ayson, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand told AMR that there are “different signals” emerging from China.
He said that the abstention by China at the UN Security Council vote on a resolution to end the Ukraine crisis leaving just Russia to veto it was “significant” as although the relationship between Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping is “close” Beijing appears to be “watching how strong the international reaction is to Russia.”
Ayson believes that China is unlikely to start a war to occupy Taiwan as a mere “reflex” action to what Russia is doing in Europe, in fact it makes it less likely. “If China does use force against Taiwan to unify Taiwan with the mainland, it will do so at a time and place of its own choosing,” Ayson said.
“China is watching very carefully the economic sanctions that are building up and the how much non-military pressure is being placed on Russia and seeing what precedent that sets up,” he added.
The progress of the Russian invasion and the extent to which NATO is offering military support to Ukraine that is below the threshold of war is also important for China too.
The response to Russia is being led by the usual groups of the US and northern European states and in the Asia-Pacific this has extended to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan among others. Most of the international community recognises Ukraine as an independent sovereign state, but this is not the case with Taiwan. Is it unlikely there would be such an averse a reaction to an invasion of Taiwan as Ukraine.
Furthermore, the influence Russia over its neighbours and globally is different to the influence that China is able to bring to bear, so Beijing will feel stronger in this regard.
“Just because the US is leading a united response against Russia over Ukraine, does not mean that would transfer into Asia. There is no NATO alliance of 30-plus countries in the region, just a multiplicity of alliances and relationships that makes it more complicated,” Ayson said.
But ultimately the independence of Taiwan, freedom of the seas and international trade are much more important to the US economy and US power than mostly landlocked Ukraine, therefore China can expect a stronger US response should it make any attempt on the island.
Meanwhile it can be expected the China will take full advantage of Russia being closed out of the markets and make economic gains from this because anything that dents American power will be good for China.
by Tim Fish