Undoubtedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has provided Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) with the biggest opportunity in disguise to scrutinize the reaction of the international community. For Xi, it comes at the right time and, to some extent, as the only point of reference for his own permutation and combinations of “unification” tactics toward Taiwan.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has put forward the best worst-case scenario for Xi for assessing miscalculations, and the kind of responses and countermeasures that one can expect from the international system.
Unlike for any other leader, the lessons Xi can draw from the Ukraine crisis are significant because they can be linked to any form of China’s future adventurism in Taiwan.
The US Department of Defense in 2020 notably said that the Chinese military is “likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force.”
China’s increasing aggressive posture has only added to speculation over China’s plans to invade Taiwan.
In January, Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang (秦剛) issued a stern warning, saying that the US could face “military conflict” with China over the status of Taiwan.
If this is the case, then the Ukraine crisis aptly serves as a litmus test for Beijing.
Putin’s assault on Ukraine is vital for Xi’s calculations in two ways:
First, there are diverging perceptions of Ukraine’s sovereignty in Kyiv and Moscow. Ukraine considers itself a sovereign nation, while Putin is inclined to adopt a “Soviet Union mentality.”
On similar terms, Xi’s actions dovetail China’s “Middle Kingdom mentality” under the “Chinese dream” of “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” through “reunification with Taiwan.”
The logic is that of an “unfinished business” of getting foreign territories “back” into one’s geopolitical orbit — Ukraine for Putin and Taiwan for Xi.
Second, and most importantly, there is the leadership factor, wherein Putin’s Russia appears synonymous with Xi’s China — with the countries respective leaders being the chieftain of all things under their autocratic political apparatus.
While similarity between Taiwan and Ukraine cannot be drawn in a linear fashion, strong deductions can be made with regard to China’s behavior toward Taiwan and the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
That is, for China, and Xi in particular, the big lessons will be drawn from a careful reading of the international community’s reaction toward what Putin calls Russia’s “special military operation” aiming to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine” under the logic that “Russia cannot feel safe, develop and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine.” The outcome has so far been international condemnation and boycotts of Russia, and the imposition of economic sanctions by the US and the EU — resulting in Russia becoming a “pariah” state.
In contrast to full economic embargoes on countries such as North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Syria, the US has adopted a selective approach on Russia, imposing measures in a phase-by-phase manner. The US Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed financial sanctions and restrictions on a majority of Russian oligarchs and state-owned banking and financial service providers, and added various Russian banks, as well as Putin and many of his associates, to the asset control office’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.
The US Department of Commerce has targeted Russia’s oil refining sector with stringent export controls and identified 91 entities that support Russian military activities — a measure to cut off Moscow’s access to US goods it needs to sustain its military aggression against Ukraine.
Furthermore, the US has imposed an import ban on Russian alcoholic beverages, seafood and nonindustrial diamonds.
To deter Russia, the US has also imposed sweeping export controls on Belarus, which supports Russia, as a preventive measure to ensure that technology, software and other goods used in the defense, aerospace and maritime sectors are not passed on from Minsk to Moscow.
The EU’s sanctions on Russia include financial restrictions, an assets freeze, bans on Russian planes flying in EU airspace and landing at EU airports, a ban on transactions with the Russian central bank, a ban on seven Russian lenders from the SWIFT bank-to-bank messaging system, and suspensions of Russian state-media Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as individual sanctions against Putin and his associates. The bloc also imposed individual and economic sanctions on Belarus.
Joining the US and EU, Japan imposed sanctions on Russian and Belarusian officials and oligarchs, as well as on Russian organizations and companies, and it is discussing a ban on exports of oil refining equipment to Russia and dual-use products to Belarus.
However, unlike the US, Japan remains reluctant to close its airspace to Russian planes.
On March 11, the US along with its NATO allies, the G7 and the EU, revoked Russia’s “most-favored nation” status — one of the hardest blows to the already downgraded Russian economy.
Germany halted the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to condemn Russia’s actions against Ukraine.
These international sanctions and measures are aimed at weakening Russia’s will to fight and putting Moscow in a difficult position by isolating it.
With the value of the ruble plummeting, the international community’s economic boycott of Moscow holds significant repercussions for domestic instability in Russia, which will be fostered by the growing financial crisis and Moscow’s isolation from the international system.
However, the sanctions have so far failed to deter Russia’s military actions; they have only emboldened Putin’s aggressive posture on Ukraine.
It is noteworthy though that the global backlash against Russia carries a strong message for China.
That is, if China plans to take Taiwan by force, it will have to be ready for the punitive measures. Can China afford isolation, especially when China wants to take the “center stage,” as outlined by Xi at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017?
That question acts as a red flag for Beijing.
In the context of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, it is also noteworthy that while major powers are not reluctant to impose sanctions and build up their defenses, they are hesitant to otherwise confront Russia, or even to engage NATO to do so.
While the US and its allies have called Putin the “aggressor,” no one seeks to confront Russia directly, as evidenced by US President Joe Biden saying: “Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight [in] Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies in the event that Putin decides to keep moving west.”
This brings in a potential miscalculation for China.
Can the US’ reluctant posture to fight Russia over Ukraine be applied in the case of a Chinese adventure in Taiwan?
The answer lies in the US’ policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, meaning that Washington is deliberately vague about what it would do if China were to attack the nation.
However, this vagueness leaves room for the US to come to Taiwan’s defense.
Giving some clarity, Biden in October last year answered the question whether “the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by China” by saying bluntly: “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”
Taiwan holds severe reputational costs for the US; it cannot afford to act reluctantly against any Chinese action, but would have to retaliate.
Hence, taking copious notes of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, China under Xi will be cautious and calibrated in its behavior toward Taiwan.
It disturbs China’s larger geopolitical plans that there is a growing united front between the US and Europe — with the crisis in Ukraine bridging the gap.
If this united front strengthens, it will not only be a debacle for China’s global ambitions; it will also have ramifications for China’s plans for Taiwan.
Besides, Taiwan will be a much harder bargain for China. At this juncture, Beijing — given its leanings toward Moscow — cannot afford to be caught in the crosshairs of the US and Europe.
Amrita Jash is an assistant professor in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.
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