There is a time and place for everything, including aggressive military invasions. Or, at least that’s what Chinese president Xi Jinping allegedly warned Vladimir Putin over fears that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would thwart media attention away from Beijing’s Winter Olympics. With the Olympics out of the way, and no invasion until today, it seems Putin took Xi’s advice on board.
Now, as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds before the world’s gaze, there are many who wonder if Xi will heed to his own wisdom when it comes to the question of occupying Taiwan and claiming Chinese sovereignty over the island.
Following breaking news from the Eastern Front, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen has called for raising the island’s security alert. Tsai, at a meeting of the working group on the Ukraine crisis set up by her National Security Council, said that security and military units must “raise their surveillance and early warning of military developments around the Taiwan Strait”. Tsai, alongside many in the region, fears China might be emboldened by the present lack of aggressive countermeasures the world is enforcing on Russia. After all, there are parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan that are hard to overlook.
Taiwan and Ukraine are both Western-friendly democracies dangerously close to two of the most powerful, Western-phobic autocracies. Russia has claimed in the past it is seeking to “reunify” Ukrainian and Russian peoples, who have a shared historical and cultural matrix. China’s Communist party has also never been shy of inclusive rhetoric, one that seeks a reunification between those islands it perceives as its own—such as Taiwan—and the mainland. President Tsai has said in the past that Taiwan could “empathise” with Ukraine’s situation, given its experience with Chinese encroachment and intimidation tactics.
Taiwan’s breakaway history, while not as recent as the fall of the USSR, is the keystone to understanding China’s claims over its territory. The state of Taiwan is officially known as the People’s Republic of China, which was set up by fleeing defeated politicians in 1949, after losing the civil war to the Communists. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, dismissed the similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan whilst addressing raised security alerts on the island. But she also added that Taiwan “has always been an inalienable part of China” and that it’s “an indisputable legal and historical fact”.
Hua’s comment should give us pause when it comes to the actual legality of China’s claims. Some Chinese scholars who specialise in Russian affairs have called it “ignorant” to imagine that the Communist party might see the invasion of Ukraine as a “trial run” for China’s ambitions in Taiwan. They say China considers war a grave, last resort.
Ultimately, what we must remember is that China is not Russia and we’ve come to understand that its every step seems to be more calculated and balanced, with an awareness of what an act of war on its own doorstep could cost in terms of the bigger picture.