Ukraine-Russia: What It Might Mean for China, Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific
Disclaimer: sources used for this article contain information published up until the 1st of March, 2022 (the moment of writing). All opinions are the author's own.
As the conflict in Ukraine develops, the question as to what the West’s response to Russian aggression will mean for the security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region has become subject to widespread debate. Comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan have been abundant, and media are rife with speculation. The question on the mind of many is how China will interpret events surrounding the unfolding Ukraine crisis. Fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan seem to have risen across the world in recent days, and the conflict in Ukraine is being closely followed by many in Taiwan who fear Xi might be emboldened by Putin’s actions (Davidson, 2022). There are, however, severe limitations to the comparisons that may be drawn and the information that can be gleaned from them.
The question of exactly how comparable the security dilemmas faced by Ukraine and Taiwan and their respective aggressors are stands central to these limitations. Taiwan’s military budget is roughly twice that of Ukraine, concentrated on a landmass one-seventeenth its size (GlobalFirepower, 2022). Moreover, Taiwan houses technological industries of global importance, particularly in relation to the production of semiconductors - a vital component of any modern technology, both civil and military. As such, the economic and security consequences of a disruption in Taiwan’s semiconductor production would likely be great enough to create an impetus for many states to get involved in a Taiwan-related conflict, regardless of the presence of direct security concerns. These examples are but two of the many major differences that exist between Ukraine and Taiwan, not only in terms of their military capabilities and global economic importance, but also in terms of their geography, demographics and history.
China itself has been loath to compare the two, not least because while it regards Ukraine as a sovereign state, it still regards Taiwan as a breakaway region and an unquestionable part of the PRC. To admit to any similarities would ipso facto be a recognition of Taiwan’s independence in the eyes of Chinese leadership. Thus, for the West to assume strong parallels between the two solely based on the fact that each is within the crosshairs of a global military power would be a grave analytical error. Having said that, there have been important developments in relation to the Ukraine crisis that will undoubtedly have created cause for concern in Beijing, particularly as it continues to consider forceful reunification with Taiwan.
Over the past week, the unity of the world has only grown as numerous countries have condemned the unlawful invasion of Ukraine and Russian intent to overthrow democratically elected president Volodymyr Zelensky. The United States and Europe have led the charge with fierce sanctions against Russia’s top leadership, and countries far and wide have followed. It took Turkey, which has sustained complicated yet amicable relations with Russia in recent years - and which is dependent on Russia for roughly half of its natural gas imports - a few days to speak out, but it has since exercised its authority over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits to block warships from passing to and from the Black Sea (Gumrukcu, 2022). Meanwhile, several Eastern European states who have historically often complicated Europe’s efforts to construct a united foreign policy towards Russia and China have unanimously approved European sanctions against Russian leadership, showing unexpected unity within the EU. For China, this may be a concerning sign and make it question the efficacy of its ongoing charm offensive in Eastern Europe.
Furthermore, China will undoubtedly be concerned with the plethora of Indo-Pacific states that are seen rallying behind Ukraine and Western sanctions. Japan has already announced several rounds of sanctions, targeting Russia’s central bank and top leadership as well as Belarusian President Lukashenko, as have Australia, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines (Landers, 2022; The Philippine Star, 2022; Toh et al., 2022). Several more Indo-Pacific states have condemned the fighting without referring to actions by specific states, most notably India and Indonesia (Nirmala et al., 2022; Pandey, 2022). In a similar vein, ASEAN, headed by Cambodia, released a statement calling for “restraint” by “all relevant parties” (ASEAN, 2022); a for many disappointing but understandable stance, given many of the organisation’s member states’ close ties and military dependence on the Russian Federation (Storey, 2021).
These responses by countries without any direct security interest in the conflict in Ukraine seem to suggest a greater international unity and support for the territorial integrity of democratic states than China might have expected. While Australia, Japan and South Korea’s sanctions may have been relatively predictable, Singapore’s have been somewhat surprising. Moreover, many of the states who have so far remained muted in their response to the Ukraine crisis are highly unlikely to be equally silent in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. This is because, in the case of Taiwan, there are many more direct and legitimate security interests at stake for states in the region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Brunei all have territorial disputes with the PRC and fear that, if Taiwan falls, their territories will be next (Council on Foreign Relations, 2022) - a fear that is fueled in part by China’s ongoing military efforts in the South China Sea.
As indicated previously, however, the parallels to be drawn between the Ukraine crisis and a potential crisis over Taiwan are few, and are greatly outnumbered by significant and relevant differences in each country’s situation. Not least, considering potential economic and diplomatic sanctions against China in case of an invasion of Taiwan, is the fact that there is no country in Asia without significant economic dependencies on China. Where the relative lack of economic dependence on Russia makes the question of sanctions largely a diplomatic issue, the overbearing presence of Chinese economic influence in the Indo-Pacific turns the issue of sanctioning China into a question of economic survival for many states, particularly in Southeast Asia. How these states will respond in the event of a crisis over Taiwan is therefore hard to say, and has not become much clearer in the wake of their response to the Ukraine crisis.
Though not within the scope of Europe-Asia relations, it is also crucial to mention the position towards Russia maintained by oil-rich states in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both US allies, have so far remained neutral towards the conflict in Ukraine. As significant sources of oil for the PRC, this will have come as a relief to Chinese leadership, who has attempted in recent years to diversify energy sources and improve China’s energy security (China Power Team, 2022). However, as of right now, China continues to depend on oil shipments from the Middle East, making the reliability of continued energy flows during a military crisis a significant issue.
As states around the world unite to address the Ukraine crisis, it would seem that the Sino-Russian partnership is not as strong as many had feared. Despite meeting with Vladimir Putin and releasing a joint statement mere weeks ago, touting the strength of the Sino-Russian détente (Kremlin, 2022), China’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been anything but vocal support for Russia. While China has indeed so far refrained from condemning Russian actions, and has helped Russia circumvent some of its sanctions by removing import restrictions on Russian wheat (McDonald, 2022), it has yet to vote with the Russian Federation in the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly. When presented with the Security Council resolution on Ukraine, instead of showing its support for the invasion by vetoing like Russia, China has maintained its long streak of abstentions (Nichols & Pamuk, 2022). This implies that despite the growing partnership between Russia and China, there is still some hesitancy on China’s end when it comes to supporting its partner on the international stage. Moreover, it may signal that the first cracks in the new Sino-Russian relationship have started to surface.
While there are many reasons why Russia and China would enhance their cooperation (geostrategic competition with the United States for one), the history between China and Russia has been fraught with competition and mutual mistrust as well. While it seems this has largely been overcome, it is the geostrategic benefit of a partnership that has become questionable by the present crisis in Ukraine. After meeting fierce resistance from the Ukrainian military, Russia’s invasion has been halted and its weaknesses have been exposed for the world to see. From logistical difficulties to (stray) rockets hitting civilian targets, Russia has shown that its military, though formidable, is far from infallible (Watson, 2022). In addition to that, Putin has shown that despite his reputation as a calculating mind, he may not be as rational an actor as Beijing had previously thought.
This leads us to ask the question whether Russia is as responsible a partner as China may have hoped and what it means for China if it isn’t. If Russia continues down the path it set itself on when it invaded Ukraine, will it be an asset to Beijing, or a liability? China has so far shown hesitancy in its support for Russia, and it cannot afford to prop up the crashing Russian economy - nor does it want to, given the considerable potential political fallout. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how Russia will get out of the current crisis. Its economy is already struggling, and it has become a political pariah. The value of having Russia in its current state as a partner is neutral, if not negative, and it remains to be seen how the partnership would be to China’s benefit in a conflict over Taiwan.
Bearing the aforementioned in mind, as well as the limitations to the analysis as presented here, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic regarding the Ukraine crisis’s effects on the security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. As it stands, it seems there is little for China to be happy about and much to ponder. Of course, the future is always uncertain, and it remains entirely to be seen whether or not China will force its reunification with Taiwan. Yet, based on current events, I deem it more likely than not that Beijing will think twice before acting against a sovereign democratic state in the current global climate.
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