Ukraine and Taiwan: Can China square the circle?

May 02, 2023 10:27
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: Reuters)

The hour-long phone call between Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s wartime president, followed by Beijing’s appointment of a senior diplomat to be dispatched to Ukraine and other countries “for in-depth communication with all parties” has marginally improved China’s chance to be considered a serious candidate for mediator, given its close ties to Russia.

China’s recent success in bringing about a deal under which Iran and Saudi Arabia resumed diplomatic ties after years of estrangement also helped to give it credibility.

Shortly after the phone call, China appointed 70-year-old Li Hui, a senior diplomat, to head China’s delegation for the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine.

Li, who had served as ambassador to the Russian Federation for ten years (2009-2019), is a Russian speaker who knows well the Ukrainian and Russian situation.

At the White House, John Kirby, the national security spokesman, welcomed the phone call as “a good thing” that was overdue. He said that peace is “not going to be sustainable or credible unless the Ukrainians and President Zelensky personally [are] invested in it and supportive of it.”

Zelensky himself seemed more enthusiastic about China’s role, saying that he and Xi had discussed ways to work together toward a “just and sustainable peace” for Ukraine during their “long and meaningful” discussion.

However, China will find the way to a peace agreement tough. Part of the problem is Beijing’s insistence that it has the right to take over Taiwan because the island has been part of China since ancient times.

This sounds quite similar to Russia’s justification for its invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in February 2022 asserted that “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood” but had been carved out of Russia by Lenin, the first Soviet leader.

Shortly after the war began, some commentators linked the Ukraine and Taiwan issues, saying that a war over Taiwan would follow the Ukraine conflict. After all, if having been part of Russia means Putin is justified to use force to take over Ukraine, then why wouldn’t Beijing be justified in unleashing its military against Taiwan to achieve unification?

However, this comparison was forcefully rejected by China, with Wang Yi, then state councilor and foreign minister, saying in March 2022 that the issues of Ukraine and Taiwan should not be conflated.

Wang said the two situations were “not at all comparable” as Taiwan was a domestic matter for China, while Ukraine was a dispute between two countries. He was referring to Beijing’s claim that Taiwan has always been part of China and was not recognized as a sovereign state by the United Nations, while Russia and Ukraine are both members of the world body and have diplomatic relations with each other.

If China keeps pushing this line, it will surely be detrimental to its “no limits” partner since it will be constantly reminding the world that Russia had invaded an independent country, Ukraine, without justification.

In reporting on Xi’s phone conversation, the Chinese foreign ministry had this to say: “There is no winner in nuclear wars. On the nuclear issue, all relevant parties must stay calm and exercise restraint, truly act in the interests of their own future and that of humanity and jointly manage the crisis.”

This is interesting because Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons after it became independent in 1991, turned them over to Russia, and joined the nuclear nonproliferation treaty as a nonnuclear weapon state in 1994.

As a result, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which prohibited them from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine and other countries that had given up nuclear weapons. China and France gave individual assurances in separate documents.

Subsequently, in December 2013 when Xi Jinping was president, China and Ukraine signed a bilateral treaty and published a joint statement where China reaffirmed that it would provide Ukraine with nuclear security guarantees upon nuclear invasion or threats of invasion.

Possibly, awareness of such a pledge makes China particularly sensitive when Putin hints that he may resort to nuclear weapons. Of course, Russia itself gave Ukraine security assurances and now, instead of living up to its guarantees, it is making threats of nuclear war.

On China’s part, there is an intrinsic contradiction between insisting on the right to wage war in Taiwan and to bring peace to Ukraine. A uniform peaceful approach would be welcomed. After all, China says “one China” already exists; the question is to keep Taiwan from seceding.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.