Despite statements in early March by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin remarking on a “limitless” friendship, the invasion of Ukraine has shown China was caught off guard by the new situation. In this regard, we saw the Chinese embassy organizing vaccinations in Kharkiv at the beginning of the invasion, completely unaware of Russian intentions. Concerned about its potential primary conflict, the Chinese side rushed to disconnect the case of Ukraine from that of Taiwan, while the Taiwanese government headed by Tsai Ing-Wen went out of its way to show support for Ukraine.
China’s awkward position has been evident. After the first few days making erratic statements, its pragmatic view has prevailed and its position has ended up being support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and opposition to the separatist drives in Donbass, although without condemning the invasion. It is likewise true that China has applied all necessary sanctions to meet its obligations within the global financial system, but has at the same time linked its discourse to criticism of Nato’s eastward expansion.
It should be noted that China’s foreign policy might be understood as the pursuit of stability, the defence of its territorial integrity, and the endeavour to establish an international system that puts China at its hub. In this sense, they are very uneasy with instability in a key region for the projection of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, with the strengthening of the Western bloc, and with the use of separatism as a tool for changing borders.
However, one of the consequences of this conflict is to place China as one of the few neutral players able to negotiate and restore composure. In addition, the flight of Western businesses is allowing many of their products and services to make inroads into Russia, where they can quickly gain large market shares and replace many American multinationals.
Another positive aspect for China has been the tension that this invasion has generated for certain historical friendly relations between Russia and countries like India or Vietnam. In both cases, these countries have sat on the fence, as their good relations with both Russia and the United States have led to difficulty in dealing with the expectations of either.
A third impact, the result of which is yet to be seen, will be the ability of Chinese influence to penetrate Central Asia. We have seen how Kazakhstan refused to send troops to Ukraine despite the fact that Russia had sent theirs there just three months earlier to quell the January riots. It is clear that a period of uncertainty is opening up where we still do not know what capacity Russia will have to remain a power that is truly able to dictate on the events in the region.
Finally, let us return to Taiwan. Seeking a balance between the struggle for territorial integrity and the pursuit of stability, the option of military intervention has always been on the table, though unlikely as long as Taiwan does not seek recognition of its independence. However, after the conflict in Ukraine, the chances of such an intervention have been further reduced.
While it is true that we have now entered a harder, more violent world than we were used to, the reaction of the Nato members has shown that the Western bloc’s capacity for response is still strong and determined in the face of deliberate action.
Furthermore, one aspect of warfare that this conflict is teaching us is that war-games strategies can fail miserably when contrasted with its kinetics. Although we can see graphs of comparative defence spending or numbers of troops where China is no doubt a much greater threat, the responsiveness of a Taiwanese professional army specifically designed for the sole purpose of defending against this China may lead to immense cost and consequences impossible to manage.
Reducing the threat of war is always good news, but it should also be borne in mind that the inability of the parties to find a solution to their dispute further exacerbates the situation, and in the long run with in a changing context, may escalate even further due to lack of progress. For now, Beijing’s promise to take possession of Taiwan by 2049 seems more difficult to fulfill than ever.
The consequences of the Ukrainian war on the Asia-Pacific context will change and mature as the conflict continues to evolve. Aspects such as greater militarism of governments and societies or the resurgence of territorial disputes such as Japan’s claim to the Kuril Islands will emerge and embed in the region. One feature of Asia is the diversity and disparity of policies that each nation adopts, so it will be a region where we will see a changing world trying new experiments and finding new solutions.
Member of the International Affairs Committee