As the Russia-Ukraine crisis unfolds, China and Taiwan are watching


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

With the world wondering whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will order an invasion of smaller neighbor Ukraine, political analysts say that China, in particular, is watching with interest given its own claims on Taiwan.

China has repeatedly declared an intention to reunify with Taiwan, an island off the coast of China that is democratically self-governed but claimed by the People’s Republic of China.

None of the analysts who spoke to CNBC suggested that a Russian attack on Ukraine would precipitate a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But they said China and Taiwan are monitoring developments in Ukraine closely.

Chinese President Xi Jinping “is looking to see how much will the United States is able to muster relative to Ukraine, and will always have Taiwan in mind, because Beijing always has Taiwan in mind,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S., told CNBC last week.

“But I wouldn’t set up the two, Ukraine and Taiwan, as exactly parallel in this case. I think China knows that Taiwan is more important to the United States,” he said, adding that the island is central to American security strategy in the Western Pacific.

China’s foreign affairs ministry did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

I think what matters for Taiwan is, if there was a significant action in Ukraine, Beijing will be watching the level of sanctions, the intensity of sanctions [from Western countries].

DJ Peterson

president, Longview Global Advisors

However, Beijing and Moscow this month declared a “no limits” partnership ahead of the Winter Olympics in China. Putin and Xi released a joint statement on Feb. 4 calling on the West to “abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches” and declaring their opposition to NATO expansion.

Preventing Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, from joining the Western, democratic alliance is a central strategic goal for Putin.

Ian Bremmer, president and founder of consulting firm Eurasia Group, noted ahead of that statement that China had been generally supportive of the Russian position on Ukraine but hadn’t been “particularly active in taking a stand.”

“It’s important to recognize the growing alignment between Russia and China,” Bremmer said in a research note. He said that “in the event of any further escalation and U.S./European sanctions against Russia, the Chinese government is likely to step in and provide more economic and technological integration with Moscow.” Such a move would “dramatically tighten the relationship between America’s two most significant adversaries,” he said.

Bremmer told CNBC in emailed comments that China “might see more room for maneuver in terms of economic and political pressure, but there’s no green light on invasion [of Taiwan] or any other fundamental change to the existing status quo.”

“The Biden administration has consistently delivered a message that Taiwan is not Afghanistan, it’s not Ukraine … and [the] Chinese leadership has received that message,” he noted.

What does Taiwan think?

Taiwan openly condemned a section of the joint statement from Russia and China that stated that “the Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it “solemnly protests and strongly condemns this false and derogatory statement.”

“It not only increases the Taiwanese people’s disgust at and loathing for the Chinese government’s arrogance and bullying, it also clearly shows all the world’s countries the sinister face of the Chinese Communist regime’s aggression, expansionism and damaging of peace,” it said.

CNBC received no response from China’s foreign affairs ministry seeking a response to the Taiwanese statement.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council also was not immediately available for follow-up.

DJ Peterson, president of geopolitical advisory firm Longview Global Advisors, told CNBC that Taiwan sees parallels between itself and Eastern European countries in the shadow of a bigger, more powerful state.

Taiwan has sought deeper relations with the Baltic States. Lawmakers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in November.

“Taiwan is obviously clearly following what’s going on in Eastern Europe very closely, and they do see a very close parallel,” Peterson told CNBC on Thursday, likening Ukraine and Taiwan as “weaker neighbors” to “large regional hegemons.”

“I think what matters for Taiwan is, if there was a significant action in Ukraine, Beijing will be watching the level of sanctions, the intensity of sanctions,” Peterson said. “The interesting thing right now is, there’s no sanction scenario for Taiwan, and so we really don’t know what that would look like.”

‘False and derogatory’

Political analysts say that while China will be following the Russia-Ukraine crisis, that doesn’t mean it’s encouraged to carry out its own military action against Taiwan.

Beijing “has economic interests and a shared goal with Russia in undermining Western soft power and liberal institutions,” said Julia Pamilih, the director of the China Research Group, a group of U.K. lawmakers.

“But Taiwan is not Ukraine. And Beijing’s strategy to shift the cross-Straits status quo in its favour is as much economic and diplomatic as it is military,” she said in emailed comments last week.

China maintains what it calls a “unification” policy with Taiwan, with Xi saying last October that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”

That same month, Taiwan protested repeated incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zones.

Despite a deepening strategic partnership between Russia and China, “a military escalation between Russia and Ukraine would be unlikely to prompt an opportunistic mainland invasion of Taiwan,” said Andrius Tursa and Gabriel Wildau, the central and eastern Europe advisor and managing director at Teneo Intelligence.

“Beijing’s calculus on such an invasion extends beyond military considerations to include the diplomatic and economic impacts. Events in Ukraine will do little to shift Beijing’s judgment that these impacts would be catastrophic,” they said in a note Tuesday.

“However, if the deteriorating security situation in Europe requires the US military, especially the navy, to re-position assets away from the Asia Pacific region, Beijing might take advantage by increasing activities in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait as a way to signal to Taiwan and the rest of the region that the U.S. is an unreliable security partner.”

‘China has a completely different timeline’

Bonny Lin, senior fellow for Asian security and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday she doesn’t think Taiwan is at risk for now.

Lin acknowledged that some have drawn parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, “and some of those are valid in the sense that Ukraine and Taiwan both face stronger neighbors, Russia and China, and they’re both under pressure. But China has a completely different timeline for Taiwan, and China has a number of non-military options they can use on Taiwan.”

“So even if United States is distracted in Ukraine, China doesn’t necessarily need to move on Taiwan now,” Lin said. “In fact, there’s no signs that China is ready to move on Taiwan anytime soon.”

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