When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, pundits said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had put Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) into a tight spot. The two autocrats had only just, at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4 last year, announced their “friendship with no limits.” The invasion left Xi defending his insistence that no country had the right to interfere in matters involving the sovereignty of others, after Putin sent tanks and troops across the Ukrainian border to topple Kyiv.
Xi also had to find ways to mitigate the likely response of the growing number of nations that had expressed concerns over Beijing’s violations of Taiwan’s sovereignty, particularly after the sanctions and supply chain restrictions that had been levied on Putin.
On the sidelines of the “two sessions” political gathering in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang (秦剛) spoke of confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan, playing up the China-Russia model of a new way forward in international relations as friendly neighbors working together as an alternative to the Cold War mentality of forming blocs. It was a dig at the US and part of finding an equivalence with Taiwan and Ukraine.
It is tempting to say that Qin’s comments were just more of the same rhetoric from Beijing, but elements of it are part of a concerted effort, first revealed with the announcement of 12-part peace plan on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which indicates that Xi has settled on a way to turn the troublesome narrative of Putin’s aggression to reinforce his own position on unification with Taiwan. Half of the points in the “peace plan” could have been written either with Taiwan in mind or to mitigate the potential problems China could face should it invade Taiwan.
The plan opens with the demand that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld” through the “uniform application of international law.” This is all admirable stuff, except there is no mention of Putin’s violation of the principle, and it conceals Beijing’s insistence that its own narrative regarding Taiwan’s sovereign status is upheld.
Point 2 of the plan states that “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs,” a principle repeated by Qin on Tuesday, in relation to Taiwan, not to the war or the peace plan. Point 3 calls for “avoiding ... aggravating tensions” and “preventing the crisis from ... spiraling out of control,” a real concern in the Taiwan Strait. Points 9 through 11 deal with ensuring global food security, prohibiting “unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council” — in which Russia and China have veto power — and maintaining the stability of industrial and supply chains by “opposing using the world economy as a tool ... for political purposes,” and preventing this from “disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery,” all of which are concerns for China should Xi decide to invade Taiwan.
Last month, Qin called on global actors to stop drawing comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine — even though such comparisons could benefit the Russian narrative of portraying its “special military operation” in Ukraine as not an invasion, but essentially a domestic affair, as Ukraine was “not a real country” and had inescapable ties with Russia. From his comments on Tuesday, Qin now seems relaxed about drawing an equivalence, as it helps Beijing’s narrative of blaming the war on interference by the US and NATO encroaching too close to Russia’s border and seeking more political, cultural and military influence in Ukraine, comparing it with the actions of the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, but mostly the US itself, in supporting Taiwan.
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