The war initiated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still going on. At this point, it is not possible to predict how this war will end, so it is probably premature to draw lessons for China and come to any conclusion. Still, it can be said that Russia’s aggression and the international community’s reaction have presented many issues for China. This article will discuss the challenges China is facing in light of the Ukraine war, focusing on its impact on China’s “reunification” with Taiwan.
1．Problems Facing China
(1) Between Russia and the West
The Ukraine war has had an impact on China in various aspects: foreign relations, military, economic, and domestic politics. In terms of foreign relations, China has had to maintain a balance between Russia and the Western countries. It has avoided calling Russia’s attack on Ukraine an “invasion,” while the Western countries have taken a very critical view of a China failing to condemn Russia. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin held a summit meeting on Feb. 4, the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, after which a China-Russia joint statement proclaiming that “friendship between the two States has no limits” was issued. This clause was subsequently cited and pinpointed repeatedly by the Western countries after Russia waged a full-fledged military attack against Ukraine on Feb. 24. At the same time, China needs to consider its relations with the U.S. and EU, which are its top trading partners. While it took a mostly pro-Russia stance at the beginning of the war, it seems to have adjusted its position subtly in light of subsequent developments in the battlefield. For China at present, it is risky to be either too close to or too distant from Russia.
China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, taken by the party, government, and state-controlled media, has basically toed the Russian line, i.e., the main cause of this conflict is that Russia’s security is threatened by the U.S.-led NATO’s eastern expansion. Since the U.S. is perceived to be behind Europe’s tough stance on Russia, China has strived to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. At the China-EU summit via video link held in April, Xi Jinping reportedly called on EU to “form its own perception of China and adopt an independent China policy.” In reaction to this, EU High Representative Josep Borrell voiced his displeasure with China in his writing: “We condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine and support that country’s sovereignty and democracy, not because we ‘follow the U.S. blindly,’ but because it is genuinely our own position. This was an important message for the Chinese leadership to hear.” Even Germany, which is normally mindful of Russia for historical and geopolitical reasons, decided to halt its approval of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project and move ahead to provide military aid to Ukraine. It would seem that the strong unity and swift reaction of Europe and America in response to Russia’s actions exceeded what China had anticipated.
Although Xi Jinping continues to adopt a tough stance against the U.S., stability in its relations with Washington is China’s top priority. China wants to avoid becoming a target of U.S.-led international sanctions, and for now, even though it continues to offer diplomatic moral support to Russia, it has been refraining from providing military aid overtly. Although the U.S.-China confrontation has been a structural one in nature, China’s bottom line is probably to continue dialogue with the Biden administration in some way, if not to improve relations dramatically, at least to maintain a predictable and stable relationship. At the Shangri-la Dialogue (Asia Security Summit) held in June, although U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe blasted each other in their speeches, they also held bilateral talks. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also stressed that dialogue between the two countries will continue during his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in July.
(2) China’s View of Current International Relations
At his video conference with President Joe Biden in March, Xi Jinping said: “The prevailing trend of peace and development is facing serious challenges. The world is neither tranquil nor stable.” He even referred to Deng Xiaoping’s view of international relations to indicate his concern about the present-day conditions. However, although China’s view of current international relations is that the international order may be somehow affected by the Ukraine war, it does not conceive this as a fundamental structural change. While it is increasingly wary of rapid changes in the international situation, China’s basic stance premised on its prediction of the long-term decline of U.S. national power, its confidence as a major power with its rising national power, and rivalry with the Western-centered international order through the expansion of its influence on the developing countries, which form a much greater majority than the advanced nations, has remained mostly unchanged.
Objectively speaking, even before the Ukraine war, international relations surrounding China, particularly its relations with the West, was becoming increasingly harsh after the Covid pandemic spread globally. During this time, the Biden administration has repaired U.S. ties with its European allies, damaged during the Trump administration, and reinforced actions targeting China, such as strengthening QUAD in Asia and the Pacific and launching AUKUS. Japan and Australia and even South Korea and New Zealand were invited to the NATO summit in late June. China decried these actions and has been wary that they might expand into an Asian version of NATO. Wang Yi asserted that, “Since the United States has promised not to seek a new Cold War with China, it should abandon the Cold War mentality, refrain from zero-sum game, and stop forming exclusive groupings.” However, it can be said that such actions were actually triggered by Xi Jinping’s tough foreign policy posture, causing the concerned countries to take a more confrontational stance.
Meanwhile, China does not necessarily think that it is isolated in the world. It is pursuing its national interest scrupulously while refraining from providing military aid to Russia and is welcoming the fact that many developing countries did not vote for UN resolutions condemning Russia. It is particularly pleased by the abstention of India – a QUAD member – in sanctions against Russia, prompting Wang Yi to make a surprise visit to India. Wang also toured the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia in July. China sent Vice President Wang Qishan to attend the inauguration of the South Korean and Philippine presidents, which was a rank of representation above its conventional diplomatic protocol, to show the importance it attaches to its neighbors. It also hosted an online BRICS summit right before the G7 Summit was held in Germany, stepping up diplomatic activities to compete with the West.
2．Lessons for Taiwan Unification
(1) China’s Basic Stance
For a time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered discussions on how this relates to China’s invasion of Taiwan. For sure, these two cases do have elements in common: democracies living alongside larger authoritarian neighbors and the tendency of leaders of major powers to emphasize historical and ethnic blood ties. However, from China’s point of view, Taiwan is a part of China, so the Ukraine issue is completely different from the China-Taiwan issue, as Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang pointed out in an article contributed to The Washington Post.
There has been no clear evidence so far that the Ukraine war has changed China’s longstanding basic position on Taiwan unification. However, CIA Director William Burns pointed out that the difficulties faced by Russia soon after the initiation of the Ukraine war will make China think twice about using force on Taiwan. There are now many issues and scenarios that China needs to consider, so it can be reckoned that the probability of China’s unilateral armed invasion of Taiwan in the near future has diminished. Nonetheless, this is totally different from saying that China will give up on unifying Taiwan. Its determination to unify Taiwan, no matter how long this may take, remains unchanged. Furthermore, this determination will not be affected by economic sanctions.
In other words, for the Chinese leadership, Taiwan unification is a high-level political decision that bears on the very fate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime which transcends military and economic rationality. This is not an issue that is determined only by the assessment of a successful landing operation on Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). That is to say, even under an unfavorable situation where military success is not guaranteed, if failure to take military action will come at an overwhelming geopolitical or domestic political cost, the Chinese leadership may still order an armed operation if they judge this to be necessary. It must be understood that if Taiwan crosses the red line, China is ready to use force any time.
Regardless of the Ukraine war, the long-term gap in the military power of China and Taiwan will continue to widen. From the Chinese leaders’ standpoint, time is on China’s side, so it can be argued that there is no need to take hasty military action. Even before the Ukraine invasion, the testimony given by Adm. Phil Davidson, (then) commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, at the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March 2021 quickly sparked concerns that an invasion of Taiwan could be imminent. However, discussions among security officials who need to prepare for the worst scenario in the future are not necessarily on the same dimension as the question of whether the Chinese leadership will indeed decide to launch an armed invasion.
Threat is intent combined with capability, but since it is not possible to observe intent outwardly and this changes with time, the focus is normally on capability. There is no doubt that China’s actions in recent years have become increasingly aggressive, with the PLA’s air force frequently crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, the U.S.-China relationship over Taiwan is still part of the action and reaction in international relations. From China’s point of view, even with the transition to the Biden administration, the U.S.’s hitherto self-restraint on the Taiwan issue is being undermined incrementally, with U.S. naval vessels passing through the Taiwan Strait frequently and the U.S. government expanding exchanges with the Taiwan authorities at the governmental level. This will lead to growing discontent in the Chinese military and among the rightists, thus generating a certain extent of pressure on Xi Jinping. Tension in the U.S.-China relationship over Taiwan had gradually been building even before the Ukraine war. A former U.S. government official even proposed a review of U.S. “strategic ambiguity.” The U.S. is now increasingly considering the need to strengthen deterrence against China on the Taiwan issue, as seen in President Biden’s remark on “defending Taiwan” during his visit to Japan.Furthermore, China knows that unlike in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of U.S. military intervention needs to be taken into account in a Taiwan invasion.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the U.S. House of Representatives visited Taiwan in August amid this situation. China reacted fiercely to the fact that the visit went ahead despite the video conference held between the U.S. and Chinese leaders immediately before this visit. It resorted to holding large scale military exercises in sea areas around Taiwan. It is reckoned that China has come to think that a clear red line needs to be drawn with the U.S., which is gradually raising the level of its official exchanges with Taiwan and giving Taiwan virtual support. Above all, it is necessary to show a firm foreign policy posture amid the sensitive political climate ahead of the 20th CCP National Congress. On the other hand, since stable relations with the U.S. is also China’s top priority, it will probably be careful not to escalate tensions with the U.S. to a conflict level even as it assumes a tough stance. Nevertheless, considering such factors of uncertainty as unforeseen accidental incidents and misperceptions between the two countries and Xi Jinping’s psychological state amid the domestic political situation, it can be said that tension over Taiwan has escalated a step further.
(2) Military and Economic Lessons Learned
Meanwhile, China has learned quite a few military and economic lessons from the Ukraine war. China was shocked by the difficulties Russia faced at the initial stage of the fighting and its failure to win a decisive victory. It appears to resent the fact that the conflict has drawn attention to a Taiwan contingency in the international community and has heightened defense consciousness in Taiwan.
China had already had a good understanding of the complexity and risks of military operations in the Taiwan Strait even before the Ukraine war. Unlike Russia, which is invading Ukraine across a national border over land, it is much more difficult to cross the Taiwan Strait and embark on a landing operation. If China is to take military action, it will have to win a decisive victory in a shorter time and complete its occupation before the international community can respond. Also, long-term resistance can be expected to continue in Taiwan even after occupation. China has witnessed Russia’s incompetence in its failure to crush Ukraine’s morale. It has also learned many lessons from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it knows that long-term occupation is more challenging than short-term military victories.
It can also be said that another lesson for China from this war is the superiority of the U.S. intelligence community, which has accurately predicted Russia’s military goals. At the same time, the PLA has also been observing the types of weapons supplied by the U.S. to Ukraine. Although crossing the Taiwan Strait to conduct landing operations presents a greater challenge, it would not be easy for outside countries to provide weapons and supplies by land to Taiwan – as the U.S. and other countries have continued to do on the other side of Ukraine after the Russian invasion – given that Taiwan is isolated by the surrounding sea.
Above all, one important lesson China learned from this war is that even the U.S. will have to be cautious with direct intervention in a war involving a nuclear-weapon state. China has been rapidly reinforcing its nuclear capability in recent years, and this process will accelerate further.
Economically, it is believed that from the Western countries’ swift and thorough economic sanctions against Russia, China has learned that the cost for the economy and stability in the case of a Taiwan invasion is unexpectedly high. At the same time, China continues to study the scope and impact of the economic sanctions, such as financial sanctions, trade restrictions, and freezing of senior government officials’ assets. It will probably promote its “dual circulation” economic strategy, fortify the domestic supply chains, and aim at expanding domestic demand. On the other hand, it will not be in China’s national interest to drastically diminish its interdependent relationship with the U.S., Japan, Germany, South Korea, and other major trading partners. In that sense, there are limitations to China’s decoupling efforts.
Numerous challenges can also be expected in the international community’s sanctions against China, whose enormous economic scale far exceeds that of Russia. For the major European powers like Germany and France, the conflict in Ukraine at Europe’s front door directly affects their own security, but in the case of Taiwan, there will be arguments regarding the pros and cons of imposing severe economic sanctions on China at a cost far surpassing that in the Ukraine war. There is also doubt as to whether China’s armed invasion of Taiwan will forge greater unity among its Asian neighbors. While Taiwan will overwhelming rely on the U.S. for support, followed by Japan, Japan is bound by many military restrictions.
3． Xi Jinping’s Anxiety and Policymaking
2022 has been a bad year for Xi Jinping. The situation is becoming unfavorable for China with the 20th Party Congress approaching this fall, where he is making his bid for an unusual third term as general secretary. The local residents’ backlash against the massive lockdowns in Shanghai due to the Covid pandemic and the creeping, serious economic stagnation will lead to increasing discontent with the Xi regime. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came at a most inopportune time for Xi amid this situation, putting him in a very difficult position. Russia’s military failure at the early stage of the war and the still unpredictable outcome of the war is causing Xi great anxiety.
Xi needs to maintain a balance not only in foreign relations, but also in domestic politics. His concerns may not be totally identical with the interest of the CCP and the government. Many Chinese leaders benefited from relatively good U.S.-China relations, especially during the Jiang Zemin era, by sending their children to study in the U.S., moving their assets there, engaging in business activities, and so forth. There is potential discontent with Xi’s seriously aggravating China’s rivalry with the U.S. However, if Xi shifts his hitherto pro-Russia position, this will amount to admitting his own mistake, thus compromising his authority at home. If in case Putin is removed from power through a coup d’état in Russia, this will come as a major blow to Xi, since he has deepened his relations with Putin and taken an increasingly oppressive approach like him. It is dangerous for him to be too close to Putin.
As stated earlier, logically speaking, it will not be easy for China to invade Taiwan. Furthermore, even if Xi is able to hold on to power after the 20th Party Congress, it is reckoned that in any case, he cannot afford to gamble until he is able to sum up and assimilate the current developments in the Ukraine situation. However, China’s diplomatic stance is becoming increasingly irrational from the outsider’s point of view. While its assertive diplomatic posture featuring propaganda with a strong emphasis on the communist ideology and its aggressive behavior have aggravated frictions with foreign countries and undermined China’s international environment, such a posture, ironically, is appreciated inside the country.
With the introduction of the “top-level design” (dingceng sheji) method of policymaking in the Xi Jinping era, new leading small groups and commissions transcending organizational lines have been created in many areas, including foreign policy. By presiding over most of these bodies, Xi succeeded in moving from the hitherto collective leadership to the concentration of power in himself in policymaking. Even in foreign affairs, political loyalty to the party has become much more important than rationality or professionalism. The behavior of China’s high-ranking bureaucrats now has a stronger tendency to be mindful only of the top leader. It can even be said that senior diplomats are now competing to take a tougher stance in order to win domestic support. As a result, the transmission of objective information by the bureaucracy has become even more biased, preventing disagreeable information from being communicated. Xi’s personalization of policymaking has brought about the ideologization and relative decline in the position of government institutions. This also reduces opportunities for rectification if Xi makes a wrong decision.
As stated earlier, the difficulties Russia is facing in its invasion of Ukraine have presented Xi Jinping with many problems. In the Taiwan unification issue, this has given him an opportunity to reconsider carefully a hasty military invasion of Taiwan. In terms of relations with the U.S., despite his tough posture, Xi is attaching importance to continuing dialogue. However, Xi’s anxiety at present and the deterioration of the government’s institutional checking function due to the personalization of foreign policymaking will continue to be a factor of uncertainty for China's “rational” policymaking, including the making of its Taiwan policy.
(September 21, 2022)
1 “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development,” (in Chinese), Renmin Ribao, Feb. 5, 2022. (For English version, see: http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5770)
2 However, it is reckoned that there are potentially a considerable number of Chinese scholars of international politics and diplomatic officials who disapprove of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One often-cited example is Hu Wei, “Possible Outcome of the Russia-Ukraine War and China’s Options,” (in Chinese), UP MEDIA. [https://www.upmedia.mg/news_info.php?Type=2&SerialNo=139782] last accessed on July 24, 2022.
6 “Wang Yi Holds Talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.”
7 “Chugoku gaishou indo dengeki houmon: ‘Taiwa juushi’ de icchi” (Chinese foreign minister makes surprise visit to India: agrees on ‘importance of dialogue’ with Russia), (in Japanese), Nikkei Digital, March 16, 2022. [https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGKKZO59425970V20C22A3FF8000/] last accessed on July 24, 2022.
17 Bonji Ohara, “Taiwan omoi ukabe, jitto roshia chushi no chugoku: Mananda senjutsu no yoshi ashi towa” (China watches Russia closely with Taiwan in mind: Good and bad tactical lessons learned), (in Japanese), Asahi Shimbun Digital, May 7, 2022. [https://digital.asahi.com/articles/ASQ5656BKQ4XUSPT00L.html] last accessed on July 24, 2022.
20 Michael Green, a Japan expert who was a member of the unofficial delegation led by former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen sent by the Biden administration to Taiwan in May, stressed at the above CSIS symposium that for Taiwan, the U.S. is 80% important, Japan is 15%, while the rest is Europe, Australia, and Canada, which are also significant to a certain extent.
21 Guoguang Wu, “The Ukrainian Challenge to China’s Leadership Politics: An Emerging Divergence in Foreign Policy and Its Impact on the 20th Party Congress,” China Leadership Monitor, Summer 2022 Issue 72, June 1, 2022. [https://www.prcleader.org/wu-3] accessed on July 24, 2022.
22 Although children of senior CPC cadres were prevented from studying in the U.S. or told to return home as part of the anti-corruption campaign after Xi Jinping became CPC general secretary, his own daughter Xi Mingze reportedly graduated from Harvard University.