Island nation – How the war in Ukraine affects relations between China and Taiwan

“Please peace in Ukraine” – protesters against Russia’s war of aggression on February 26, 2022 in Taipei (photo alliance / dpa / CTK / Karel Picha)

These were familiar scenes unfolding southwest of Taiwan this week. More than 20 Chinese fighter jets entered Taiwan’s air defense zone – far from the island itself, but a clear threatening gesture. The occasion: A US senator was visiting Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, which the Chinese leadership in Beijing sees as a provocation. From their point of view, Taiwan is not an independent country.

Taiwan is a Chinese province, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, and the US senator’s visit is in violation of the one-China principle. Zhao spoke of false signals to the “separatist forces of Taiwanese independence”. China will do everything in its power to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

War in Ukraine gives Taipei and Beijing food for thought

It is no secret that head of state and party leader Xi Jinping wants to bring Taiwan under his control, if possible before 2049, when the People’s Republic wants to celebrate its 100th birthday. For years, China relied on political pressure to bring the island closer together economically. One country, two systems. Why should the Hong Kong model not work in Taiwan? But Taiwan has long been a confident democracy. A union with the People’s Republic? No thanks, many Taiwanese say.

The war in Ukraine has further fueled their fears of their overwhelming neighbor. The Chinese leadership has long threatened violence. Resolving the Taiwan issue is an unshakable historical task for the Communist Party, says State and Party leader Xi Jinping. Like here for KP’s 100th birthday last year. It is desired by all Chinese. But the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has also given Beijing food for thought, says Helena Legarda, an expert in security policy at the Merics Institute for China Studies in Berlin:

“Beijing’s willingness and ambition to annex Taiwan, by force if necessary, has not changed. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have shifted the timeline and plans.”

More about the war in Ukraine

A respite. It has not gone unnoticed by Xi Jinping’s leadership that the EU and the US have moved closer together since the beginning of the war, that the West is not afraid of sanctions and that Russia’s President Putin is internationally isolated. That alone could affect China’s calculations for Taiwan, experts say. Russia’s military difficulties should also be a warning signal. Taiwan is an island. Attacking or even occupying them is far more difficult than sending troops across a border, as in Ukraine. In addition, China’s army is largely inexperienced in combat.

The strategic ambiguity of the United States

And then there is the United States, Taiwan’s most important partner. Beijing is behaving increasingly provocatively, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week about the almost daily deployment of Chinese warplanes near Taiwan. This threatens the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. The United States has long supported Taiwan with weapons, but has deliberately left open for decades whether it would actually come to the island’s aid in the event of war.

This policy of strategic ambiguity aims to deter the People’s Republic from attacking. But whether it can still work is increasingly being questioned outside of China. The Chinese leadership under Xi increasingly seems willing to prioritize political and ideological goals over growth and prosperity. Chinese political scientist Zhang Junhua, who lives in Berlin, warns: “For Xi Jingping, the question at the moment is not only whether Taiwan should be conquered or not, but how.”

And how to keep costs manageable. Here, too, China is looking closely at the Russian experience, Zhang says. An attack is not imminent now, but: “In three years, war may be more likely,” the political scientist said.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s pressure is likely to continue to rise. Experts warn of an increase in Chinese cyber attacks on Taiwan, attempts to exert influence, for example via social media, and growing economic pressure. It remains dangerous for the small island republic.

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