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Illustraion: Henry Wong

Why Beijing thinks Taiwan is different from Ukraine

  • Key difference is the Eastern European country’s status as a recognised sovereign state and so far Beijing’s ‘red line’ has not been crossed
  • But Washington’s support for the self-ruled island is increasingly infuriating Beijing, which is taking careful note of the war’s progress
Ukraine war
Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine – justified by Moscow as a response to its neighbour’s tilt to the West and Nato – has many pondering whether Beijing would follow suit in Taiwan.

Beijing has long felt that Washington is using the self-ruled island as part of a strategy to undermine and contain its rival – accusing the US of disrespecting its sovereignty by backing the Taiwanese pro-independence camp.

Beijing regards the island as part of its territory, which it intends to recover by force if necessary, and “Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan” quickly emerged as a Taiwanese catchphrase after the Russian invasion began late last month.

But analysts said there were clear differences between the two – with sovereignty as the key reason why Beijing’s intentions in Taiwan were largely different from Russia’s invasion of its East European neighbour.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used his annual press conference on Monday to underline that the situations in Taiwan and Ukraine were not comparable – the former was an entirely internal matter, while the latter a conflict between two countries.

Washington was concerned enough about the similarities to send a high-profile delegation of former security officials to Taiwan, immediately after the Russian invasion.

Without referring directly to the whirlwind visit, led by former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Michael Mullen, Wang said the US was pushing the self-ruled island into a dangerous situation. He also stressed the need for the two powers to get along well and avoid confrontation.

Wang Yi says Taiwan and Ukraine situations are fundamentally different

Taiwan’s situation is a result of the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang, which was finally suspended in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

It was not until 1979 that Washington cut formal ties with KMT-held Taipei and switched official diplomatic relations to Beijing.

Then-US president Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which acknowledged the “one-China principle” without defining whether Beijing or Taipei represents “China”.

At present, just 13 out of 193 UN members recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. The rest, like the US, give recognition to Beijing. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is regarded as an independent sovereign country with membership of the United Nations.

Russia cited Ukraine’s ambition to join Nato and the EU as an infringement of a red line, but while Beijing has been increasingly furious at Washington’s challenges to the status quo on Taiwan, no lines have so far been crossed.


Why has the relationship between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan taken a turn for the worse?

Why has the relationship between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan taken a turn for the worse?

According to Taiwan affairs specialist Wang Jianmin, at Minnan Normal University in Fujian province, there is still room for Beijing and the US to handle Taiwan “more wisely”.

In the Asia-Pacific region, there had been no crossing of Beijing’s “red line” – defined as a formal declaration of Taiwan’s independence or diplomatic relations established between Taipei and Washington, he said.

“The Americans have kept encouraging Taiwanese to challenge Beijing’s bottom line, but Taipei so far dares not to amend its constitution, while Washington still reiterates its long-standing one-China policy.”

Analysts said the US was using multifaceted tactics on Taiwan, maintaining its long-standing strategic ambiguity while supporting the island’s defence and encouraging closer trade ties.

Biden administration approves its first arms sale to Taiwan

The Taiwan Relations Act allows weapons sales but does not specify whether the US would come to Taipei’s direct aid if it was attacked. Arms deals with Taiwan soared under former president Donald Trump – reaching a record high of nearly US$20 billion.

In total, the White House has approved 13 weapons sales to Taipei since the start of the Trump administration, two of them in the past six months under President Joe Biden, to counter the growing threat posed by Beijing.

The military hardware includes dozens of F-16 fighter jets, anti-ship missiles, long-range land attack missiles, and aircraft-mounted reconnaissance sensors.

The US has also been putting pressure on Beijing’s red line with visits to Taiwan by a succession of current and former officials – including Trump’s health secretary Alex Azar, who in 2020 became the highest-ranked serving official to visit Taipei since 1979.


New York diner becomes focal point for people to show solidarity with Ukraine

New York diner becomes focal point for people to show solidarity with Ukraine

For Beijing, these efforts by the US to foster ties with Taiwan are regarded as a deviation from the status quo, aimed at undermining its strategic position by encouraging the self-ruled island towards an independence path.

“But how Beijing reacts will be different from Russia,” Wang said.

According to Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, the Chinese leadership is more capable and confident than its Moscow counterpart when dealing with core national interests.

“Beijing understands the ‘strategic ambiguity’ applied by Washington over Taiwan benefits both the US and [mainland] China,” he said. “But China is much more powerful than Russia, in terms of economic power and military strength.”

Is the US set to change policy of ambiguity on Taiwan?

As a rising power, Beijing believes “time and momentum” are on its side to catch up with the US in national strength, through a massive effort in economic and defence development, Zhou said.

China’s military has been undergoing a massive modernisation which has included two aircraft carriers – one of them developed domestically – and a third expected to be launched this year. It is also developing its 6th generation fighter jet.

Military spending is continuing to rise – with a 7.1 per cent budget increase announced at the weekend – up from last year’s 6.8 per cent, although years of double-digit growth ended in 2017.

Beijing is also using legal tools against Taiwanese independence. A senior official has proposed a new law to punish anyone violating their responsibility to promote reunification – on top of the Anti-Secession Law that provides a legal framework for taking back the island by force.

A blacklist of “diehard Taiwanese separatists” and their financial supporters has also been drawn up, with Beijing vowing to prosecute them, as well as banning them from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau.

Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, said Beijing was developing a range of scenarios to cope with the different challenges.

“The Chinese are not so stupid to be easily manipulated by the Americans’ geopolitical games. Beijing is very clear that it’s crucial to avoid any military conflicts.”

Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said Beijing would be making very careful calculations on how to react to the US and Taipei, but the asymmetric combat tactics adopted by Ukraine were also being noted.

Senior Beijing adviser proposes reunification law amid Taiwan tensions

“The battle cost of a Taiwan contingency would be much higher than Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine. There are many uncertainties once a war breaks out,” he said.

“For example, Putin found his airborne troops – which took just six hours to occupy Prague when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 – are no longer a real elite force, because [they took] more than two days to control an airport in Kyiv.”

While Ukraine’s land border with Russia made an invasion straightforward, an attack on Taiwan would require a complex operation involving air force, navy and marines, because of the natural barrier of Taiwan Strait, Ni said.

Experts said Beijing is not expected to attack Taiwan while the West’s attention is on Ukraine, but the fierce competition between China and the US meant the crisis over the island will continue to elevate.


China’s Xi Jinping 'paying close attention' to Russia-Ukraine crisis

China’s Xi Jinping 'paying close attention' to Russia-Ukraine crisis

“Military conflicts will happen any time in the Taiwan Strait once the US attempts to resume diplomatic ties, or signs on any military assistance deals with Taiwan,” Wang Jianmin warned.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Navy Academy in Kaohsiung, said the PLA would be updating its “Taiwan reunification operation plan” based on its observations of the “vivid” tactics adopted by Ukrainian soldiers equipped with US weapons.

“The PLA is the world’s most hardworking troop trying all efforts to learn everything from their American counterparts,” Lu said.

“I once predicted the PLA would not attack Taiwan until it becomes a real blue navy five years later, but now I believe their plan might be deferred up to one decade.”

Additional reporting by Amber Wang