Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
As the world’s attention focuses on the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine, a spotlight has also been turned on an island halfway around the world – self-governing Taiwan.
On the surface, there may be parallels: both Taiwan and Ukraine are Western-friendly democracies whose status quo could be upended by powerful autocracies.
In Taiwan’s case, China’s Communist Party seeks eventual “reunification” with the island it claims as its territory despite having never governed it – and has not ruled out doing so by force. For Ukraine, that threat is unfolding: Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he considers Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” and it’s yet unclear how far he’ll go to realize that claim – on Monday he declared two breakaway, Moscow-backed territories in Ukraine as independent republics.
World leaders themselves have implied connections between the fates of Ukraine and Taiwan in recent weeks.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has said Taiwan could “empathize” with Ukraine’s situation given its experience with “military threats and intimidation from China.”
In the West, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday said “echoes” of what happens in Ukraine “will be heard in Taiwan,” while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a trip to Australia earlier this month obliquely said “others are watching” the Western response to Russia, “even if it’s half a world away in Europe.”
Concerns have been rising in recent years that a confident China under leader Xi Jinping may make a bold move to take control of Taiwan, and Beijing will likely be carefully monitoring the situation in Ukraine for signs of how Western powers respond – and just how severe those responses are.
The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan have all announced economic sanctions to punish Moscow following Putin’s moves earlier this week.
But there are limits to the parallels, and to how much Beijing could glean from the spiraling crisis in Ukraine when it comes any future actions toward Taiwan.
“How the US responds to Ukraine is not going to be the same as Taiwan because the way the US has constructed its relationship with Taiwan over decades is different than its responsibilities to Ukraine, the European Union, or NATO,” said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
“Even though (Beijing) will still be watching closely to see how the world reacts to invasion and a potential redrawing of borders, which will likely factor into Beijing’s own geopolitical calculus, it is highly unlikely that Beijing is going to drastically alter its strategy towards Taiwan over Ukraine,” said Nachman, who focuses on Taiwan politics.
Similarly, experts have pushed back at the notion that the US’ focus on Europe could provide a potential opening for China to make a move on Taiwan. These fears are seemingly compounded by Moscow’s increasingly close ties to Beijing.
“I don’t believe the Chinese would use force against Taiwan this year … (Xi) doesn’t really want to take any risk,” said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London, pointing to the Communist Party National Congress, due to be held in October, in which Xi is widely expected to secure a historic third term in power.
“A military adventure that is not successful will not do his third term of office much good, and a failure could potentially derail it,” Tsang added.
The unique US-China dynamic also complicates any attempt at comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan. China is the US’ most formidable long-term rival and the only country that can challenge US interests across domains and around the world, said David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“If China were to gain control of Taiwan, this more than anything else would help it establish regional hegemony. Chinese leaders understand that to the United States the stakes are different and its response would likely be very different,” he said.
The ‘people’s republics’
China also finds itself in an uncomfortable position following Russia’s recognition on Monday of two breakaway Moscow-backed territories in Ukraine as independent states, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
The move was roundly criticized by the United Nations and other world leaders as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, with Putin firing back that the situation “is different” than with other former Soviet states since Ukraine was “being used” by foreign nations to threaten Russia.
China has been sympathetic to Russian concerns about the security threat from NATO – as both countries have presented an increasingly united front in the face of what they view as Western interference into their domestic affairs and threats to their security. That partnership was very publicly bolstered only weeks ago at a Xi-Putin summit.
But China has long based its foreign policy on staunchly defending state sovereignty and denouncing what it views as outside interference inside its own borders. Beijing has also taken sweeping steps, including those decried by the international community as major human rights violations, to combat what it sees as separatist threats – be it in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet.
Hua Chunying, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, on Wednesday denied Beijing had taken a position on Ukraine that contradicted its principle of respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any such claims had “an ulterior motive or (were) deliberately distorting matters,” she said at a regular press briefing.
In comments the previous day, the ministry was quick to draw a distinction between the situation in Ukraine and Taiwan, when asked if there were any parallels.
“I would like to stress that there is but one China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. This is an indisputable historical and legal fact. The one-China principle is a universally-recognized norm governing international relations,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said, referring to Beijing’s tenet that there is only one China on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
Mainland China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the end of the Chinese civil war more than 70 years ago, when the defeated Nationalists retreated to the island.
Beijing has so far urged restraint and called for dialogue in response to developments in Ukraine this week. With its own agendas and current relationship with Russia, how China reacts to Ukraine will be a difficult balancing act, and one where its leaders will likely tread carefully, Harvard’s Nachman said.
“China is trying its best to not take a firm stance in support of Russia while also pushing for peace and diplomacy (in Ukraine),” he said. This tells us that China is not going to match Russia’s level of aggression (in Taiwan) – at least right now.”
CNN’s Eric Cheung and Beijing bureau contributed reporting.