Taiwan feels chill from Ukraine crisis

Taiwan feels chill from Ukraine crisis

Countries across the world are feeling the impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as stock markets tumble and oil prices spike. But Taiwan is feeling a particular chill, amid concerns that it eventually could face a similar fate at the hands of China.

President Tsai Ing-wen last Wednesday ordered the armed forces and security personnel to step up surveillance and strengthen defences of the self-governed island republic. She called on her government to remain on high alert against “cognitive warfare” and disinformation efforts by foreign powers intent on using tensions in Ukraine to stoke panic and instability in Taiwan.

While she condemned Russia for “encroaching on Ukraine’s sovereignty”, Ms Tsai also stressed that Taiwan was fundamentally different from Ukraine in geopolitical, economic and geographical terms. But one thing she can’t deny is that Taiwan, like Ukraine, has long lived in the shadow of a large and overbearing neighbour.

Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China since the end of the Chinese civil war more than 70 years ago, when the defeated Nationalists retreated to the island. Although there is no sign that an invasion is imminent, Beijing regularly sends warplanes toward Taiwan, which the mainland claims as its territory.

President Vladimir Putin, in laying out his justification for an invasion, last week claimed falsely that Ukraine has no identity outside of Russia. He maintains it was “entirely created” by the communist party after Vladimir Lenin came to power and criticised the Soviet leader for giving away territory to which Russia had a rightful claim.

Mr Putin in recent years has gone from an ostensibly pro-Western leader to one of China’s closest partners. Now, with Moscow and Washington locked in a showdown over Ukraine, the Russian leader seems to be counting on China to help him weather any backlash. That relationship could pose vexing new challenges for America amid the US-China competition for superpower supremacy.

When he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing at the Winter Olympics early this month, Mr Putin expressed his wholehearted support for the “One China” principle, which sees Taiwan as an inalienable part of China that is to be reunified one day.

The two leaders also denounced the new Australia-UK-US alliance (Aukus) and warned Washington against deploying intermediate-range missiles in either Europe or Asia. They declared there were “no limits” to the two countries’ relationship and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.

China-Russia trade has swelled from US$88.4 billion in 2014 to an estimated $140 billion last year according to Chinese figures, fuelled by energy projects. Russia has welcomed Chinese tech giants like Huawei Technologies. It is also pursuing projects with China in space, including plans to establish a joint research base on the moon.

Another important development at the Xi-Putin summit was a natural gas agreement under which Russia would increase supplies to China by as much as tenfold, compared with the volume sent through a pipeline in 2020.

In the meantime, Beijing has sought to maintain a balancing act on Ukraine, calling for respect for nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, while also implicitly acknowledging Mr Putin’s grievances. But as China watches events unfold, it will understandably try to copy some of Mr Putin’s tactics, identify critical weaknesses in the response of the US and its allies, and then try to avoid the mistakes of its Russian counterpart.

In Taipei, President Tsai said Taiwan could “empathise” with Ukraine’s situation given its experience with “military threats and intimidation”. British PM Boris Johnson also said “echoes” of what happens in Ukraine “will be heard in Taiwan”.

Nonetheless, China’s ultimate objective is to regain Taiwan but not by force. Mr Xi doesn’t really want to take any risks, including an unsuccessful military adventure against Taiwan, as he prepares to accept a historic third term during the Communist Party National Congress in October.

As well, China also doesn’t want its growing strategic ties with Russia to burn its business relations with rich Western economies that are unanimous in their opposition to Mr Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. Beijing has spent years steering around criticism of its own human rights record and avoiding public involvement in international feuds by insisting on the supremacy of national sovereignty.

As Beijing wants to strengthen its strategic relationship with Russia, it has to minimise potential collateral damage to Chinese interests from economic turmoil and potential secondary sanctions from the US and the European Union.