BEIJING — As Russia masses troops along Ukraine’s borders, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen felt compelled to act.
She ordered the creation of a task force to study how the confrontation thousands of miles away in Europe could affect Taiwan’s longstanding conflict with its larger and much more powerful neighbor.
“Taiwan has faced military threats and intimidation from China for a long time,” Ms Tsai told a meeting of her national security advisers late last month, according to a report. statement from his office.
Perhaps more than residents of any other place in the world, Taiwanese know what it is like to live in the shadow of an authoritarian power, with China claiming the island as its own. Ms. Tsai added: “We understand the situation in Ukraine.”
Although the correlation is not exact, the confrontation between Russia and the United States over the fate of Ukraine has resonated on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, underlining the strategic calculation that China and Taiwan have made regarding the possibility of armed conflict.
In China, some saw a clash in Ukraine as a potential crisis for the United States that could undermine American support for the island, while draining attention and resources that might otherwise be directed to Chinese military ambitions in The pacific.
For Taiwan, it became a test of the strategic assumption that is central to the island’s defense: that US military forces would step in to stop a Chinese invasion.
“If Western powers don’t respond to Russia, they embolden Chinese thinking about action in Taiwan,” said Lai I-chung, president of the Prospect Foundation in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, and a former director of the Department of Chinese affairs for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
The connection between the two distant conflicts took on a new dimension when Russian leader President Vladimir V. Putin came to Beijing last week and received explicit support from China over its grievances over US military strategy and NATO.
In a joint statement after their meeting ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping criticized “attempts by outside forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions”. .
Although their statement did not mention Ukraine by name, Mr Putin extracted China’s most explicit remarks to date opposing further NATO expansion. Mr Putin also reaffirmed Russia’s recognition of Taiwan as “an inalienable part of China”.
The joint statement drew a strong rebuke from Taiwan’s foreign ministry, underscoring mistrust of the deepening partnership between China and Russia.
“At a time when the world pays attention to the Winter Olympics, encourages athletes around the world, and pays attention to human rights abuses in China, the Chinese government has used the Russian summit to stage an authoritarian expansion, who insulted the spirit of peace proclaimed by the Olympic rings,” Joanne Ou, spokeswoman for the ministry, said in a statement.
“He will be despised by the Taiwanese people and despised by democratic countries.”
Chinese leaders watched the confrontation carefully, seeing it as a test of American influence and resolve. China has claimed Taiwan as part of a unified nation since defeated national forces retreated to the island in 1949 following the country’s civil war.
US support for the island, including hundreds of millions of dollars in arms sales over decades, has long been an irritant in relations with China, just as US support for Ukraine is. for Mr Putin today.
Beijing’s view of the island is not unlike Mr. Putin’s view of Ukraine as a historical and cultural part of Russia. Russia’s efforts to push back on NATO also echo China’s complaints about US efforts to strengthen alliances and partnerships in Asia, including with Taiwan.
Last week’s joint statement criticized the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia, as well as Europe, and pointed to the recent agreement between the United States and Britain to help Australia build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Reports in Chinese state media have highlighted divisions within NATO and portrayed the United States as weak and indecisive. The implication is that governments in Asia – Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea – should not rely on US diplomatic or military support in a crisis.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said China believes a protracted conflict in Europe will make it less able to simultaneously focus on a possible confrontation in the Pacific.
“The United States is in a sad situation right now,” he said.
A conflict between Russia and Ukraine, he added, “would further strengthen China’s current very tough stance and military preparedness on the Taiwan issue.”
Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, said that in some ways Taiwan is even more vulnerable than Ukraine due to its ambiguous diplomatic status.
Only 13 countries and the Vatican still recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. The United States and others who have not sought to show support through economic and diplomatic relations, vowing to oppose any effort by China to forcibly extend its rule over island democracy.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
But the lack of official recognition – in addition to China’s growing military power – could complicate any international intervention in the event of war.
“Ukraine has been an internationally recognized independent democratic country since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Wu said. “Taiwan’s status as a nation-state is very low.”
Within Ms Tsai’s administration, tensions are seen with growing urgency. The working group she created was tasked with monitoring and reporting regularly on the situation in Ukraine.
Taiwan opposed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, but the war was not then seen as a potential foreshadowing of the island’s fate. Officials now fear the new round of tensions will embolden Mr Xi, who has described absorbing Taiwan – by force, if necessary – as a pillar of his vision for “rejuvenating the Chinese nation”.
Chinese air and naval forces have stepped up operations around Taiwan in recent years, partly in response to US patrols. Two weeks ago, 39 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the largest so far this year.
Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, there has been no indication that China is reinforcing its already large forces deployed against Taiwan. Military and political analysts said events so far are unlikely to change China’s assessment of conquering the island in the near future.
Mr Xi should be preoccupied this year, first by the ongoing Olympics and later by the Communist Party Congress in the fall, where he is almost certain to claim another term as leader of the country.
There are other differences in the geopolitical situations of Ukraine and Taiwan that make an imminent attack from Beijing unlikely. While the Biden administration has been adamant that it will not send troops to defend Ukraine, it has not said whether it will defend Taiwan. The policy, known as “strategic ambiguity,” has historically served as a mainstay of American deterrence.
Mr. Lai, the chairman of the Prospect Foundation, said recent statements by the administration have helped reassure Taiwanese officials that the US commitment to supporting the island remains strong. Yet, he added, there was also a growing sense in Taiwan that it should do more to shoulder the burden of its own defence.
Claire Crazy contributed to research