Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are seeing seismic changes in international peace and security. Many are now asking what this means for China, and its potential invasion of Taiwan. But are these two examples really comparable?
Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has significant implications for China on multiple fronts. Firstly, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine rings alarm bells for small states like Singapore, a country that is generally apt at balancing great power relations, especially with regards to the US and China. During the recent Emergency Session for Ukraine at the UN General Assembly, Burhan Gafoor, Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the UN, remarked that the crisis poses an “existential crisis” for Singapore and does not condone “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext”.
China’s abstention from the draft resolution condemning the invasion and its reluctance to impose sanctions, implies Beijing’s ambiguous position. More importantly, it raises questions about China’s friendship with the Kremlin. Xi Jinping may call Vladimir Putin his best friend, but Beijing’s real unity with Moscow is bound by the common dislike of a Western rules-based global order and a shared dislike of the US and the EU, rather than shared political values. Small states such as Singapore, who don’t necessarily position themselves as traditional US allies in the way Japan and South Korea do, may be eventually forced to pick sides in the US-China dynamic by entering a tighter security alliance with the US. This could even become a bargaining chip for the US in influencing Beijing’s response to the Kremlin.
How the war unfolds will be closely studied by Beijing. If Russia loses the war, following escalated support from the US, UK, NATO and the EU, it could pose higher risks for Beijing’s Taiwan ambitions. Xi Jinping might either prefer to wait and see how the Ukraine crisis unfolds, or rather, although unlikely, he could even take this opportunity to expedite the invasion of China’s neighbour across the Strait, while the rest of the world is preoccupied with Ukraine.
Xi Jinping is aware that his party cannot take the Chinese public support for granted. There has been, for example, a dramatic shift in China’s policy towards climate change recently, as internal discontent over public health concerns increased over the past decade. Issues that could threaten regime survival which Beijing considers as ‘internal’, (eg Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, etc.), are likely to cause the CCP to resist international pressure. Yet issues with high potential for domestic instability could trigger the CCP to have a more flexible stance.
Whilst the Chinese public discourse on Ukraine is still largely pro-Russia and anti-West, anti-war sentiments have also emerged despite state censorship, amongst certain academics, state actors and netizens. As the war in Ukraine deepens, these anti-war voices could continue to grow. How the free world engages with these Chinese voices at this point in time is therefore crucial.
If the Chinese public opinion becomes more divided on Ukraine, Beijing may have to clarify its stance towards the Kremlin on the invasion. More importantly, if Putin’s war in Ukraine becomes protracted, Beijing may reconsider any notion of invading Taiwan, unlike the easy win it has had with Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL), which wiped every remaining basic freedom and autonomy preserved for the city since 1997.
Russia’s economic downfall will also be watched by Beijing. As international sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard, one should question if Beijing is ready to withstand the potential further depreciation of the Chinese Renminbi on top of the economic contraction already imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s climate change commitments. It would therefore have to ask, how costly will invading Taiwan be?
The US, UK and the EU cannot decouple with China in the same way they have with Russia. China’s faults can be easily leveraged by its vast consumer market from which many countries economically benefit. Its economy is more globally influential than that of the Kremlin’s, and it has a better diversification of non-Western trade partners: a buffer in case of Western sanctions. Beijing is aware that China’s labour market is unlike any other country, and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is the pinnacle of its economic statecraft.
The war in Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear threats have also raised questions about whether Japan should become a nuclear state. Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently called for hosting and sharing nuclear arms with the US, thus posing a security dilemma. On one hand, Abe is right to say that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose a security emergency for Japan. Japan hosting nuclear arms can therefore possibly act as a deterrence strategy, similar to President Truman sending the Seventh Fleet to Taiwan in 1950, to counter a Communist invasion from the Mainland. On the other hand, it could be perceived by China as a sudden provocation. On balance it may be premature for Japan to host nuclear arms, but if push comes to shove, Tokyo might find it necessary. This is a terrifying thought, so how China aligns itself between Washington and Moscow in the coming months is paramount.
There are limits to how far we can apply the Ukraine example to Taiwan. Firstly, the war in Ukraine is relatively new and ongoing. Secondly, Moscow’s mistakes in the invasion of Ukraine could provide a useful insight into Beijing’s strategy towards Taiwan. It is unlikely the reunification goal of China possessing Taiwan will be scrapped altogether. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is still considered a homeland issue for Beijing and is largely not a divisive matter. Xi Jinping’s biggest fear after all is for the CCP to face a similar destiny as the former Soviet Union, whose dissolution serves as a cautionary tale.
Though Russia’s war in Ukraine shares some parallels with the China-Taiwan issue, we should not take it as a blueprint. It would be a mistake to assume that Xi will act in the same way as Putin does, because if there is anything that history tells us, the CCP is better at learning from the Kremlin’s mistakes than it is at replicating them.
The US’s preoccupation with Middle Eastern affairs in the 9/11 era was a time where China was able to hide its strength and bide its time. The war in Ukraine has opened the door for big shifts in the global power balance, which means the U.S. and their allies must stay attentive to blind spots and vulnerabilities they have in relation to Beijing, such as cybersecurity, nuclear arms race and the reunification of Taiwan.
China is dependent on Russia’s arms exports, and a unified ‘West’ is against its interests, so it’s difficult to be optimistic about its role as a mediator. As an opportunist, Beijing is likely to calculate what it could capitalise on from this conflict and minimise the damage it receives, be it economically or politically, including its Taiwan strategy.