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I'm curious if there are any clues about how China's leadership is thinking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, particularly it's occupation of the Russian-speaking west, as it relates to Taiwan. Namely, I'm wondering if they see the precedent Russia is trying to set as one that helps them reunite with Taiwan, or one that hurts that aim?

On the one hand, Putin describes "Russians and Ukrainians [as] one people – a single whole" and sees the invasion as an attempt to reunite a part of Greater Russia severed by Western imperialism. In many ways, this sounds similar to how China talks about Taiwan: as a core part of China severed from the whole, and a reminder of the ways in which Western powers have weakened China. From this perspective, you could see them being sympathetic to the invasion.

On the other hand, Putin has also focused on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian-speaking people of Donbass and Luhansk, and has talked about the invasion as being necessary to protect their lives and rights from Ukrainian oppression. Seen from this perspective, the precedent here could be to protect the rights of separatist regions to break away from their mother country, and for foreign powers to use military force to help them.

Obviously, these are vast oversimplifications, but I think they show that one could paint Russian actions as setting either a good or bad precedent for China-Taiwan reunification. With Chinese support looking to be irreplaceable for Russia in light of Western sanctions, are there are any clues as to which way China's leadership is leaning?

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    They are probably watching very carefully, how it all plays out. How bad the sanctions are really. How much resistance the Ukrainians do. How well the propaganda in Russia itself works. How much support for or against the invasion there is internationally. How nuclear weapons factor in. And then they will gauge their chances. Mar 7, 2022 at 18:01
  • Probably checking what gets censored gets you an idea. Mar 7, 2022 at 20:43
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica How can one find out what is censored in China? Maybe a website like: whatiscensoredtodayinchina.com ? :) Mar 7, 2022 at 23:16
  • Dunno. These guys make some claims but who knows? wired.com/story/war-ukraine-chinese-social-media-censors-busy If you did find good resources that would tell you how they are trying to frame the debate which in turn might give some insight. Honestly, good question in absolute terms, but knowing what they actually think in the CCP top? As opposed to what they are saying? Mar 7, 2022 at 23:39

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Can't believe no one took a stab at this 8 months later! Here's my view.

I do not believe the Ukraine invasion has in any ways changed the mind of CCP leadership regarding the reunification of Taiwan, but surely has impacted the timeline, as well as the international repercussions.

The biggest surprise surely is international coordination regarding response to the invasion. Sure this is for the most part Western/European, but nontheless it seems pretty clear that the invasion has had a unifying impact, at least in Europe. For example, Germany's Government quick increase in defence spending and change of stance regarding Russia, allowing Olaf Scholz to quickly distance himself from previous administration's (years of) stance on Russia is a great example of how quickly western government can change gears following the crossing of major lines (in this case straight up foreign sovereignty). Germany's case is interesting as China probably considers it among its biggest cheerleader in Europe still today. Olaf Scholz and a big business delegation just came back from a trip to China, only days after Xi secured his 3rd term, showing what seems to be a desire to deepen economic relationships. But now, it is pretty clear to Chinese leadership that all this goodwill would be swiftly erased by a move like invasion of Taiwan.

To answer what I believe is one of your nested question: China sees the invasion as very helpful in better understanding the international community. Outside of Europe and North America, Russia has been helped by support from powers like India, Turkey and South Africa, all somewhat dependant on military equipment, something China cannot hope for itself. In fact most of the major mitigating voices in UN votes against Russian invasion of Ukraine, China will not be able to count on, possibly generating even an even more unified international response. This is a major consideration as China is a huge net importer of so many different natural resources they would need very, very solid plan to fund the invasion (buying discounted Russian gas and oil is surely part of the plan).

To support the claim the CCP did not change its mind; In its opening speech on the 20th national party congress, while mentioning once more desire for peaceful reunification, Xi Jinping explicitly did not renounce the possible use of force. you can also look at its appointment to the standing committee: Keeping Zhang Youxia, one of the only PLA member with combat experience (1979 in Vietnam), a relatively norm-breaking appointment.

Questions relating to whether China enjoys the precedent sets by the invasion in terms of supporting its ethnically similar people against whoever (Nazis led by a Jewish president in Ukraine, or Black hands in Taiwan) are more or less pointless. The reason given for an invasion will always make just enough sense to give nationalist keyboard warriors easy arguments, but far from enough for anyone else to support.

To be sure, Chinese leadership is surely annoyed by the disruption in international trade, especially grains which are about half of total Chinese imports from Ukraine. However there could hardly be a better moment for such disruption as Chinese economy runs at its slowest pace in a long time due to zero-covid policy (and they probably enjoy heavily discounted Russian gas). I heard an argument that the call for conscription followed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan, where Xi Jinping was, and that it could basically have been a result of Xi telling Putin to get this over with as fast as possible (ie before Chinese economy bounces back and is hurt by trade disruptions).

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Yes, an international precedent in foreign policy for China to follow has indeed been set by the use of force by the Russian military to "resolve" conflict and territorial issues in this century.

But the precedent was not set by the recent Russian-Ukraine (2022) war but more than a decade earlier with tension renewing between Russia and Georgia in 2003 culminating in the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. The mute international response encouraged Russia to also use its military with Ukraine in 2014 and now in 2022.

On August 8, 2008, Russian forces began the invasion of Georgia, marking the start of Europe’s first twenty-first century war ... The international reaction to Russia’s military campaign in Georgia was to prove remarkably muted, with Moscow suffering few negative consequences ... Understandably, many in Moscow interpreted this accommodating approach as an informal invitation for further acts of aggression in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Six years after the Russo-Georgian War, Russia embarked on a far more comprehensive military campaign against Ukraine, where Moscow continues to occupy Crimea and large swathes of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Source: The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s green light

It is not a coincidence that this increased assertiveness by Russia was preceded by a Russian - Sino pact. In 2001, Russia and China signed a very important military and economic treaty which spells out their common foreign policy and vision for a multi-polar world order:

The 2001 Russia-China treaty covers five important areas of cooperation:

  • Joint actions to offset a perceived U.S. hegemonism;
  • Demarcation of the two countries' long-disputed 4,300 km border;
  • Arms sales and technology transfers;
  • Energy and raw materials supply; and
  • The rise of militant Islam in Central Asia.

... The signing of the Russia-China Treaty of Friendship this week, on the heels of the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last month, portends the establishment of a strategic partnership that could influence the future of Eurasia and East Asia for decades to come.

Source: The Russia-China Friendship and Cooperation Treaty: A Strategic Shift in Eurasia?

During the same period as the Russians began to assert itself militarily, a study of China's foreign policy shows that this encouraged China to also experiment with using military force to settle or make political gain on border disputes and disagreements with weaker countries that also worked (or desired closer relations) with the United States.

The world has indeed seen increased military aggression by China in South China Sea, and with Bhutan and India in the Himalayas.

In 2012, China and the Philippines agreed to withdraw naval vessels around Scarborough Shoal in a deal brokered by the United States. The Chinese ships never left, and have controlled it since.

... China this week began what it said will become regular military air patrols over the South China Sea. Xinhua, a party-controlled newswire, said Monday that China's air force "recently" flew an air combat patrol over the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed fishing ground not far from the Philippine coast. Photographs released by the news agency show a Chinese H-6K bomber cruising high above a submerged shoal in azure sea. China seized controlled of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and its coast guard has since angered Manila by chasing out Filipino fishermen.

Source: China: Disregard the South China Sea ruling. The Philippines: No.

In 2017, China's military illegally started building infrastructure in Dokhlam, Bhutan, which prompted India to respond militarily too as this threatened India's territorial integrity too:

Several reports in recent days have spoken about the Chinese side beefing up its military presence in the disputed Doklam area, where Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a two-month stand-off in the summer of 2017. Recent satellite images and intelligence reports show the Chinese have erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops are stationed, even in deep winter, in the Doklam area, according to other reports. India has also strengthened its presence in the region.

Source: What is the Doklam issue all about?

Reports in 2022 now claim that China has increased its incursion and built more infrastructure in and around Doklam, despite promising to resolve the issue diplomatically issue with Bhutan and India.

While China did indeed pull back troops and bulldozers from the face-off site, these were simply shifted just 10 km away to work on expanding existing dirt tracks into Doklam, NDTV reported a month after the crisis had ended. Subsequent reports revealed “extensive construction activity” along the Amo Cho River, including a military complex with bunkers and helipads and a bridge spanning river. Last year, reports emerged of the Chinese constructing three villages in the area.

Source: China Advances Into Bhutan’s Doklam; India Watches

In 2020, China made an aggressive military incursion into Ladakh, India and has occupied large swathes of the territory, despite the military face-off with India:

For the first time in forty-five years, on 15 June 2020, India and China recorded the death of Indian soldiers on the Line of Actual Control—the contested border between the two countries, which stretches from the Karakoram Pass in the west to Myanmar in the east. The deaths occurred in the Galwan Valley, in Ladakh, and these were the first military casualties in the territory since the 1962 Sino-India War ... “We were taken by surprise by how well prepared they were for the clash,” a top officer at the army headquarters in Delhi, who was part of the decision-making in the Ladakh crisis, told me.

Source: How China outmanoeuvred the Modi government and seized control of territory along the LAC

Despite the 8+ month of military stand-off between China and India in this area, China still holds sway over more than 600 miles of indian territory it managed to occupy.

Rahul Gandhi, an opposition leader in India, has drawn this parallel between Russian and Chinese foreign policy when he publicly stated that China's military action against India was in fact strategically quite similar to what Russia was doing with Ukraine:

"Russia says that they don't accept the territoriality of Ukraine, they don't consider the Donetsk and Luhansk regions parts of Ukraine. Russia attacked Ukraine on that basis. What is the aim? Break the alliance of NATO-Ukraine-US. China is applying the same principle to India. China is saying that Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are not yours (India's) and they have deployed their troops there. Govt is ignoring this. But we have a model (Russia-Ukraine). That model can be applied here too," Rahul Gandhi said as he was asked to comment on the ongoing crisis between Russia-Ukraine

Video: Chinese troops sitting inside India, exactly like what is happening in Ukraine: Rahul Gandhi

While China seems to be adopting some of Russia's aggressive foreign policy, it is also learning from the negative international reactions and the actions against Russia to further fine tune its strategy. And so when the world criticises it, it pretends to listen to their concerns and even give in a little, unlike Russia, but slowly continues to push forward with its agenda (as seen in South China Sea with US and Philippines, and in Doklam with Bhutan and India) over the years. The increased escalation in aggression in South China Sea and in the Himalaya against India and Bhutan points towards the increasing confidence in China of continuing this policy, perhaps because of Russia's "success" in 2014 with Ukraine.

But so far, all indications are that China is only prepared to use its military for posturing and low-intensity military skirmish or battles. And it tries to avoid inviting public international criticism. Chinese foreign policy has always avoided a direct military confrontation with both Russia and America - countries it considers more powerful than itself - and so it only picks on weaker countries as it asserts itself globally. Invading Taiwan would be a full-scale war that would not only invite economic sanctions but also direct military confrontation with the USA (and perhaps even with Australian and Japanese military with whom the US has been engaging to form a military pact against China). That could cripple China both economically and militarily and weaken it considerably (and they may not even be successful in conquering Taiwan). I do believe that China might consider that a price too high, currently, and so it will be patient and continue to strengthen itself both economically and militarily till it believes it can take on the other world powers.

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    A timeline of the Chinese-Indian border disputes of the past 15 years isn't really relevant to the question asked here: How does the Chinese leadership think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Is the point this answer is trying to make "China was expansionist in the past, Russia is expansionist, so China is probably on the side of Russia?" If so, that seems to be a very weak conjecture.
    – Philipp
    Dec 10, 2022 at 18:43
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    @Philipp The territorial disputes are indeed relevant because the change in foreign policy of China tells us a lot. And the one change from the past that stands out is the increasing use of military by China to settle territorial disputes. China and Russia have an uncomfortable alliance against the US, including a treaty to help each other militarily from foreign aggression. It is not at all far fetched to believe that the two would also draw inspiration from each others foreign polices (especially China from Russia). That's exactly what is happening.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 11, 2022 at 5:09

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