The windows at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a somewhat beehive-like complex in downtown Beijing, have been lit up late into the night for the past ten days. They are an indication of the flurry of activity within it since Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine on February 24. The image is repeated in other state agencies and the Communist Party. China, Moscow’s closest partner, is closely following the development of the war and the reaction of the West, to assess its own response and draw lessons. Very especially, about its primary geopolitical interest: Taiwan.
Beijing considers the island on the other side of the Formosa Strait, where the defeated Kuomintang army took refuge after the communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, an inalienable part of its territory. His great ambition, higher than any other, is to gain control of Taiwan, preferably by peaceful means, although – as he has made clear over and over again – without giving up force if necessary.
But the 25 million people who make up the population of Taiwan, self-governing, democratic and prosperous, are less and less in favor of unification: almost seven out of ten feel Taiwanese, compared to 35% who say they identify with both Taiwan and Taiwan. China. A trend that has accelerated in the last 10 years and is reflected in the overwhelming electoral victory of President Tsai Ing Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party in the last two elections. Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated that complete unification is a historic task that “must be accomplished and will be done.” In the past 18 months, Chinese forces planes have frequently flown over the island’s air defense zone; its ships have carried out numerous military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwanese waters.
The war unleashed by Russia has raised concerns in Taiwan, where there have been public displays of support for Ukraine. The hashtag “Ukraine Now, Later Taiwan” circulates through their social networks. 26% of the population considers an invasion by China possible. President Tsai has condemned this invasion, stressing that “the Taiwanese people can rest assured that we work in their defense.”
The United States, Taiwan’s great ally, has sent a signal of support for the Tsai government by sending this week a delegation of former military officers, led by former Chief of Staff Mike Mullen. In a previously scheduled visit, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also arriving in Taipei on Thursday.
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China strongly rejects comparisons between the invaded European country and the island. “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” said Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying, “Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.” Although various analysts do not rule out a hypothetical long-term military operation to occupy the island, the prospect of an assault in the near future seems unfeasible. On the one hand, sanctions like those imposed on Russia could have a devastating effect on the Chinese economy. On the other hand, from a military point of view, a hypothetical attack that copied the Russian invasion “is strategic nonsense”, indicated the former Australian Prime Minister and current president of the Asia Society, Kevin Rudd, in a telematic seminar this week. “China has a military calendar for Taiwan in its head and they still do not believe that they already have the capacity militarily (to attack successfully) nor will they have it this decade.”
“An invasion of Taiwan would be much more difficult than that of Ukraine,” says Bonny Lin, from the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), in a video conference. To begin with, the expert explains, “the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has much less combat experience than Russia.” Not only that: taking an island, especially fortified like Taiwan, presents far greater complications than entering Ukraine, where tanks simply had to cross a flat land border. As experience in Ukraine has shown, Chinese troops would risk encountering strong local resistance, with the possibility of an emergency emerging should the invasion succeed. And it is unclear how public opinion in China would react to the deaths and destruction that such a conflict would bring.
But Beijing will take advantage of the current situation to draw lessons. “China is going to examine very carefully how the West reacts to this Russian invasion in Ukraine, especially the unity and coherence of the West, in Europe, NATO, the sanctions that the West can agree on, to what extent they are applied and how many countries get them to join the world”, says Helena Legarda, from the German center for Merics studies. In her opinion, China can view the war in Ukraine as a “dress rehearsal” for how the West would react if the Asian giant were to attack Taiwan. “So far, what we have seen has been remarkable unity and speed when it comes to Western sanctions against Russia, and that is something that will change China’s priorities to some extent,” including seeking greater self-reliance, he adds. her.
“The dimension and unity of the sanctions, and their exclusions, will be of intense interest. A weak position against Russia, particularly in Europe, will increase the pressure on Taiwan, even if an invasion is not considered”, writes the analyst Charles Parton, of the Council on Geostrategy, in the magazine of this British think tank,
Another big difference with the Ukrainian scenario is the role that the United States would have, an ally of Taipei and obliged by its legislation to provide weapons to Taiwan for its defense. Washington “made it clear that it would not use force in Ukraine, and has done almost everything except use force. In Taiwan, the United States maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity (by which it does not make it clear whether or not it would intervene militarily in the event of an attack on its ally) but China knows that it would be a very different case”, clarifies the academic and former Foreign Minister of Singapore Bilahari Kausikan.
It does seem that the war in Ukraine, and the informal alliance between Moscow and Beijing, will promote a strengthening of military alliances in Asia Pacific and, probably, the arms race that was already underway. “This now reinforces the Quad (the informal partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia to respond to the rise of China) and Aukus”, the alliance between the US, Australia and the UK in Asia Pacific, says Jude Blanchette, of CSIS. The Quad held a summit of leaders by videoconference this Thursday, convened urgently to analyze the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine.
Taiwan, which last year announced an extraordinary budget item of 8,600 million dollars for Defense, has announced this week that it will double the annual production of missiles, to reach almost 500. It also plans to start producing attack drones, with the aim of achieve 48 per year. “History teaches us that if we turn a blind eye to military aggression, we compound the threat to ourselves,” President Tsai said.
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