China is not Russia, Taiwan is not Ukraine; How two crises 5,000 miles apart are linked

Hours before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement that was clear, harsh and not really about Russia or Ukraine.

“Taiwan is not Ukraine,” Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the ministry, told reporters in Beijing. “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.

But with the bloody war in Ukraine looming and tensions rising dramatically across the Taiwan Strait, the two geopolitical challenges intersect in complex and unpredictable ways.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wasted no time in linking the two, saying that Visit of President Nancy Pelosi this week in Taiwan was a “protest on the same course” that the United States followed in Ukraine. Even though it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, he blamed the West for the conflict.

The fear since the start of the war in Ukraine has been that Moscow and Beijing will grow closer as the United States presents the two issues as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy – as Pelosi did in the spring during his visit. in Ukraine and Wednesday while in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

There are a multitude of differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, especially in history and geography. But the two beleaguered democracies rub shoulders with much larger, nuclear-armed military powers led by authoritarian leaders who have made it clear that they do not regard their neighbors as sovereign states.

A major difference, of course, is that the United States and its allies support an independent Ukraine, but the American “One China” policy does not support Taiwanese independence, while remaining deliberately uncertain whether Washington would defend Taiwan. if Beijing attacked it.

As the nervousness, rhetoric and military posturing surrounding Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan demonstrated, many wonder which path China will choose and when.

The White House has urged Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan, reflecting Washington’s delicate balancing act as he plays a pivotal role in both dramas, seeking to strengthen the international order around Western values ​​while avoiding a conflagration wider.

While Washington has now offered Ukraine more than $8 billion in direct military support — part of more than $54 billion in aid that has proven vital for Ukraine — President Joe Biden said repeatedly that he did not want to take any action that could put a direct confrontation with Russia. So far, despite mutual bluster, Moscow has been careful not to drag NATO into its war.

The Biden administration has also worked to help maintain solidarity with and among European allies.

But a dispute with China over Taiwan would most likely divide US allies, especially in Europe.

“No one knows at this stage what the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict will be, but relations between Europe and Russia will never be the same,” wrote Philippe Le Corre, a French China specialist and senior researcher at the Kennedy School at Harvard. in the newspaper Ouest-France. “With Asia, the remoteness – reinforced by the absence of human contact and international travel for two years – does not favor a possible European involvement in a conflict in Taiwan or in the South China Sea.”

And although China has offered Moscow rhetorical support, it has avoided getting directly involved in the conflict. Beijing has offered no military assistance to the Kremlin and has been careful not to visibly undermine Western sanctions.

Russia and China are united in opposing what they see as US hegemony and the assertion of global leadership. But China, aware that it is not ready for a major war and that it needs open world trade, has always been careful not to take its confrontation with Washington or its Pacific allies too far.

“I don’t think provoking the United States on the Ukraine issue would be a response they would adopt,” said Steven Goldstein, a fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University. “When China gets mad at the United States about Taiwan, they punish Taiwan.”

“The biggest danger,” he said in an interview, “is that we run into something.”

The deeper the US and China sink into a cycle of provocation, the greater the chance of a false move that could turn an abstract threat into war.

Written by Marc Santora and Steven Erlanger. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Christi C. Elwood