Rana Mitter

Could the Ukraine war save Taiwan?

Could the Ukraine war save Taiwan?
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The phrase wuxin gongzuo – ‘working with your mind on Ukraine’ – has been trending on Chinese social media network Weibo. Essentially what it means is ‘distraction from work because you’re obsessed with the war’. One blog that monitors the site, What’s on Weibo, reports that shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a page with updates on the conflict had received more than two billion views. Censorship, of course, limits what Chinese social media commentators can say, but there is clearly plenty of sympathy for the dying civilians and fleeing refugees.

There’s little doubt that in Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in Beijing, Chinese Communist party higher-ups are, in a more literal sense, working with their minds on Ukraine. The rapidly changing nature of the official Chinese position reflects a scramble to work out what they should say about Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The initial belief that a swift conquest would show the fraying international order was no match for authoritarian power has given way to the realisation that Ukrainian resistance is real, and that political divisions in the country have largely been replaced by cross-party determination to resist the invader. Russia may win, but at a terrible cost.

A few weeks ago, a prominent Chinese nationalist told me that the Ukrainians were ‘Russians really’. It doesn’t seem that way today. Most Chinese media has returned to its default position when analysing turmoil: blaming Washington and hoping that things will shortly calm down. On Wednesday, China signalled it was willing to broker a ceasefire in Ukraine during a phone call between foreign minister Wang Yi and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba. If China succeeds, it will be a diplomatic coup. But so far, there are few signs that Beijing’s efforts have done anything to halt the looming assault on Kiev. Meanwhile, there is growing local anger against Chinese civilians in Ukraine, whose country is perceived as favouring Moscow.

While assessing their next moves, Beijing’s policymakers are having to rethink their assumptions. There will also be reassessment of China’s own border disputes, notably with India, where armed conflict erupted on a small scale in the Himalayas in 2020 and where the possibility of wider confrontation still looms.

China abstained on the vote condemning Russia at the UN last week, the clearest indication possible that Beijing’s support for Moscow is not ‘without limits’, as the two leaders claimed at the Beijing Winter Olympics. If Beijing had thoughts of a closer, Nato-style alliance with Moscow, it’s probably reassessing fast, wary after seemingly being blindsided by Putin’s unexpected move.

However, it was India’s abstention on the vote that revealed the most complex calculations. India’s continuing border dispute with China in the Himalayan area means the country is wary of any precedent that might precipitate a conflict. It has become much closer to the US as part of the ‘Quad’ formation that brings the two countries together with Japan and Australia in shared military exercises designed to send a warning to Beijing.

But Russia is also India’s major supplier of arms, a relationship that dates back to the Cold War, when India’s position of non-alignment placed it between the superpowers. Russia has also supported India in the UN over Kashmir. Nearly half of India’s arms come from Moscow, along with the implications for maintenance, resupply and upgrading. Although there is no alliance between India and Russia, the arms sales are a reminder that New Delhi has an incentive to keep relations with Moscow warm in the event of a confrontation between India and China. Beijing is well aware of this.

If Russia’s position on Ukraine ends up alienating it from the West for the foreseeable future, then Beijing would have more leverage to place pressure on Putin to cool his relationship with India and support China’s Himalayan claims. Putin, however, would also have an incentive to keep India, a state with major global soft power, on side. He would be wary of being caught up in a conflict between China and India of no benefit to him.

More immediately, it may have dawned on China in the first week of the Ukraine war that one of its major goals, unification of Taiwan with the mainland, might not work out as hoped. Xi Jinping has declared that unification by peaceful means is preferable, but that he will never take the option of force off the table. There has been chatter on Chinese social media about the similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine, and one Beijing analyst pointed out to me that the general atmosphere has become much more militaristic around the Taiwan issue, particularly among younger Chinese. China also repeats that Taiwan has never been recognised as a sovereign state, unlike Ukraine, whose right to secure borders was confirmed by China’s foreign minister as recently as last month, during the Munich Security Conference.

However, there are two lessons from Ukraine surely being considered in Beijing thinktanks in relation to Taiwan. The first is that the rules-based international order is beginning to get its act together. If the West responded to an invasion of Taiwan with measures such as exclusion from Swift, the international banking transfer system, it would be a blow to China, which is only in the early days of setting up an alternative that it controls. Nor is the continued autonomy of Taiwan just of interest to the US. Japan, which has the ninth biggest defence budget in the world, has made it clear that it would look very warily at any change in Taiwan’s status. On Sunday, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called for the US to make it clear that it would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion and ditch its longstanding ‘strategic ambiguity’.

What’s more, the world now thinks differently about troop build-ups. As recently as last week, commentators assumed that Putin’s massing of troops was a bluff and that an invasion would never happen. If China now begins gathering troops on the coast of Fujian province, the assumption would be that an invasion was likelier than not, and the ramping up of Taiwan’s defences would become an even more urgent task for America and its allies in Asia.

The other lesson is the importance of local resistance. Beijing has in the past argued, in terms like those used by Moscow about Ukraine, that long-standing historical ties and linguistic similarities make the case for unification. Yet regardless of the legal differences between Taiwan and Ukraine’s international standing, the scenes from Kiev and Kharkiv show a very different narrative to the world, including to China: people in a democratic, developed state refusing to accept annexation by a powerful, autocratic neighbour.

The world has been able to see the Ukrainian conflict in real-time because every major global media organisation is broadcasting scenes of terrified civilians, as well as the sheer bravery of Ukraine’s people as they resist invasion. One of the consequences of Beijing’s crackdown on foreign media in mainland China and Hong Kong is that a range of western media now operates from Taipei. Ten years ago, Taiwan’s capital was an afterthought for international media. Now it is a global hub for coverage of China. Any assault on Taipei would receive massive coverage. Russia cares little about global PR. China, despite its increasing assertiveness, is still keen to promote its image as a peaceful power that seeks economic partnership. Footage of terrified civilians hiding in the Taipei metro would hardly burnish that image. The brutality evident in the streets of Ukraine may have given Taiwan a breathing space.

Yet there could be a hope in Beijing that even if Russia succeeds in conquering Ukraine, it may be weakened in ways that gives China room for leverage in an area where it also has ambitions – the Arctic. In recent years, China has been keen on the possibility of sending shipping through routes that warming seas make increasingly accessible. Russia has been ambivalent about China’s desire to define itself as a ‘near-Arctic’ state. All of this would be for the medium term, but if Russia comes under further economic and political pressures from the cost of its war, it might be less able to resist China’s growing influence in the region.

The declaration of friendship between Xi and Putin during the Beijing Winter Olympics was more complicated than it appeared. Both sides have a wariness toward the other rooted in historical mistrust. That disconnect means that the two countries may cooperate instrumentally, but they are still, to use an old Chinese phrase, ‘in the same bed but with different dreams’.

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Written byRana Mitter

Rana Mitter is a history professor at Oxford University and the author of China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2020).