When the invading Russian forces brutally advanced into Ukraine, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced: “Taiwan is not Ukraine.” For Beijing, Taiwan has always been “an inalienable part of China.” This claim seems to portray Taiwan as a very different case than Ukraine. From the Chinese perspective, Beijing’s assault to unify the "breakaway" province would be an internal matter—not an international conflict.
The day after the Russian invasion, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that “China respects each country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” At the same time, China has blamed the United States for “leading not only NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, but also expansion in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.” With ambiguity, China now attempts to demonstrate its “neutral way” and navigate “a delicate geopolitical balancing act” regarding the Taiwan issue.
The self-governing democratic nation of Taiwan is increasingly fearful of a potential Chinese invasion, as Beijing maintains that the unification with Taiwan is a “historical inevitability.” A few hours after Russia launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, nine Chinese military aircraft breached the Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Taiwan has also been pressured by China in other recent conflicts. When the United States evacuated its troops from Afghanistan in 2021, the Chinese propagandist Global Times concluded that Washington is “abandoning its allies in times of trouble,” clearly signaling Taipei. A number of politicians and analysts have also recently drawn similar parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. Former US President Donald Trump said that China may soon invade Taiwan because Beijing has seen “how stupid[ly] the United States is run.”
To counterbalance these opinions, Taiwanese authorities have stressed that Ukraine and Taiwan are “completely different.” Indeed, the historical, economic, and geostrategic situations in Ukraine and Taiwan have obviously differed; however, some notable similarities and potential implications for the United States and the global community might be observed.
Democracy of Autocracies
In a lengthy 5,364-word joint statement at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4 in Beijing, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin affirmed that China and Russia are “entering a New Era;” they did not explicitly mention Ukraine. Highlighting the word “democracy” twelve times, the unparalleled Sino-Russian document is a joint manifesto establishing a new “world order” based on “true” democracy. Interestingly, Russia confirmed its support for the “one-China principle” and admitted that Taiwan is an “inalienable” part of China, opposing “any forms” of Taiwanese independence. Harvard professor Anthony Saich assessed that the joint statement was “written by the Chinese” and “Russia is clearly the baby partner” in the relationship.
Since the United States signed the AUKUS security framework with Australia and the United Kingdom for provision of nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific, China now needs an alternative path to secure Taiwan. In response to Chinese fears of an energy shortage in a potential conflict in the Pacific, the Sino-Russian partnership will serve as a “sophisticated energy strategy with an eye on war with Taiwan.” With the exclusive 30-year Beijing-Moscow pipline contract signed, the volume of Russian natural gas supplied to China is expected to increase exponentially.
Initially, the sequence of these events and declarations seemed like a series of coincidences. The latest intelligence report, however, revealed that “senior Chinese officials had some level of direct knowledge about Russia’s war plans or intentions before the invasion started.” Beijing’s veiled support for Moscow does not come as a surprise. Likewise, China had been unwilling to criticize Russia when it invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea forcefully, and engaged in a hybrid war in the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk bordering Russia in 2014.
With the endorsement of China, the Russian leader is now waging a relentless war against the Ukrainian people. A recent telephone conversation between President Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron disclosed that “the Russian ambitions are to take control of all of Ukraine.” Back in 2008, Putin even told an astounded President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not a country.” Moreover, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, has recently repeated Russia’s false claim, accusing “Ukrainian Nazism” of the invasion against democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—a grandson of Jewish holocaust victims—who needed to be removed to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.”
In the meantime, the Chinese and Russian people are kept in the dark by the censorship of national and social media. Beijing has deliberately avoided “explicit criticism of Russia” and used euphemisms like “Russia’s operation” or the “current situation” while instructing social media to avoid posting anything “unfavorable to Russia.” In the Sino-Indian border clashes in 2020, Beijing likewise withheld the information of all Chinese casualties. Evidence has shown that the Sino-Russian vision of autocratic “democracy” (or what China calls “democratic centralism”) does not leave much space for transparency, openness, or respect for human life.
Sino-Russian “Democracy” and the American Enabler
Paradoxically, the tactical enabler for Russian aggression was the United States. Professor Jessica Pisano at the Harvard Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies described how President Trump was (and still is) Putin’s “fellow-traveler” to undermine American national security interests and world peace.
Driven by his personal interests and compulsions over national security interests, Trump was proven to be not only a pathological “narcissist,” but also a “useful idiot” in advancing Putin’s interests. The Russian leader has indeed been focusing on undermining American democracy, replacing the political leadership in Ukraine, and constraining NATO enlargement. Similarly, his American enabler has long advocated reducing the influence of the NATO alliance and undermined the legitimacy of democracies. As a US president, Trump pressured Ukraine by asking President Zelensky to “do us a favor” to find dirt on his likely presidential opponent and then withheld military aid to Kyiv, which later led to his first congressional impeachment. His campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who concealed “millions of dollars” received from pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, along with his other associates, was found guilty and jailed. Former Trump White House’s Russia advisor Fiona Hill has now concluded that “Trump emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine.”
Even after losing the presidential election in 2020, Trump has continued to support Putin, praised him recently as a “genius,” and continuously attacked President Biden’s foreign policy. Starting with his State Department speech on “America is Back,” Biden has begun to act on enhancing and strengthening US relations with a democratic Taiwan and Ukraine in line with international convention.
The Sino-Russian Alliance
After the Russian invasion, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that “China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners of coordination.” It is a well-calculated “marriage of convenience,” devoid of any historical or people-to-people sentiments. For Moscow, the subordination of Ukraine leads to enlarging the “Russian empire” and Putin’s legacy, keeping NATO at a distance, and gaining another powerful tool for putting the never-ending pressure on Europe and the democratic world. For Beijing, annexation of Taiwan would be the final end to the “century of humiliation,” paving the way for Chinese domination in the Pacific and the removal of the United States from its position as the world’s superpower.
Additionally, the Sino-Russian strategic coordination is predicated on their respective historical narratives. Putin envisioned the Russian model of Christian Orthodox spirituality and ruthless autocracy. Most importantly, as a former KGB officer, he has never reconciled the collapse of the Soviet Union; almost 17 years ago, Putin called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” In this mindset, Putin rationalized the means to rebuild the Soviet empire by eliminating a number of Russian opposition leaders and invading Georgia, Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, and now, the rest of Ukraine.
Likewise, President Xi Jinping is animated by a grand narrative of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” after ending the “century of humiliation” by foreign powers. In his “grand plan,” the unification with Taiwan is a historical task through which he is destined to achieve China’s former glory with a personal legacy. Reviving and celebrating the “Confucian democracy” of hierarchy and respect for authority—combined with communist totalitarianism with “Chinese characteristics”—is the ideological foundation for the new “Middle Kingdom.”
Xi’s goal of Taiwanese unification and Putin’s aims regarding the Ukrainian invasion are aligned. However, the Russian recognition of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions has become a problematic issue for China. Over the years, Beijing has consistently applied its foreign policy principles of “non-interference in internal affairs” and “territorial integrity” of the “province” of Taiwan. Following the same logic, these principles should apply to Ukraine, as Beijing recognized and established official diplomatic relations with Kyiv 30 years ago.
China has now realized the miscalculation of Putin’s egregious behavior as worldwide protests have unfolded against Russia. With the steady resistance of the Ukrainian people backed by broad-based international support, Beijing has gained a new opportunity to learn from the misjudgments of its strategic partner. Indeed, China carefully studied the failed Soviet Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s, and continued to learn from Russian military misadventures and invasions ever since.
Thus, announcing the emergence of a new Sino-Russian world order might be too hasty. The apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party is associated with a wide range of networks of “commercial intercourse” in the democratic world, harnessing “technology” from the West, and “soft power” instruments around the globe. Beijing will keep all options open—neither supporting nor going against the Russian invasion in Ukraine. With the consequences of economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and other countries and multinational corporations, Russia will be increasingly dependent on trade with China.
Taiwan and Ukraine: Destined by History?
While former President Trump and his administration left Putin with much space for realizing his imperial ambitions, they also labelled the Chinese Communist Party as the biggest threat to American interests. The Trump administration and the US Congress extended an extraordinary amount of support for Taiwan through legislation, high-level official visits, and numerous symbolic gestures. In his recent trip to Taiwan, President Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the US government to offer the Republic of China (ROC) “diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country” by ending the American policy of strategic ambiguity.
It is true that the Biden White House has continued Trump’s policy on Taiwan; however, the current administration cannot afford to make such blunt and plucky statements without evaluating the comprehensive framework of the Sino-American relationship. Nevertheless, China’s angry reaction to the increased American support for Taipei has led some experts to believe that the American–Taiwan connection has been “provoking” China—just like Ukraine can be "blamed" for the Russian invasion due to Kyiv’s pro-EU and pro-NATO aspirations.
Taiwan has existed since 1949 as the Republic of China and has not been annexed by China for several reasons. First, Taiwan has actively been supported by the United States—both politically and militarily. Second, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had never been strong enough to invade the island nation. However, the China of 2022 is an incomparably greater military and economic power than the one from the late 1940s, or even from 1979, when the United States acknowledged the PRC government as the replacement for ROC.
History illustrates that small democratic states like Ukraine and Taiwan—living in the shadow of autocratic giants motivated by imperial aspirations—cannot embrace neutrality. The free people of democratic countries of the former Soviet sphere of influence such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or Romania know the taste of freedom better than anyone. For these democratic countries, NATO is now the only guarantor of their security and independence. These states may otherwise fall prey to Putin’s imperial ambitions and be taken over by oligarchic autocrats who follow orders from the Kremlin. In that kind of geopolitical environment, the ideas of neutrality and non-alignment fade into fantasy.
After Ukraine, will Taiwan be next? Certainly, China is closely watching the global outcry over the Russian invasion. The unequivocal reaction of the global community—sending military equipment to Ukraine, placing unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia, accepting refugees, and uniting in popular opinion—is a litmus test of democratic solidarity. It was comforting to see President Biden prioritize democratic unity in his recent State of the Union address: “In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.” As such, the democratic world should seek to confront the China challenge, its idea of democratic centralism, or the Russian invasion. Failure to do so will encourage autocratic leaders to redraw the world’s map. Without a doubt, Ukraine will not be the last victim.
Dr. Patrick Mendis, a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw, served as an American commissioner of the US National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State as well as a military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands of the Department of Defense. Dr. Antonina Luszczykiewicz, an assistant professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—Poland, served as a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica in Taipei and is currently a non-resident fellow at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei. Dr. Lukasz Zamecki, a political scientist, served as the vice dean of the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Warsaw. They served as Taiwan fellows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of China. The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of their current or past affiliations nor governments.
Cover Image: The Presidental Press and Information Office, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.