Ukraine crisis will have 'no direct impact' on China's calculations towards Taiwan: Bilahari Kausikan

China knows that there's no direct parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan.

Kayla Wong | February 26, 2022, 11:37 AM

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The crisis in Ukraine would have "no direct impact" on China's calculations towards Taiwan, former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kausikan, said in an interview with CNBC.

The retired diplomat was speaking in the aftermath of Russia's incursions into Ukraine, which have sparked comparisons to the situation between China and Taiwan due to the Chinese government's claim over the island as an inseparable part of its territory, and the perceived dependence the island has on the U.S. for protection from military threats. Beijing has not renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

However, despite the parallels that have been drawn between Ukraine and Taiwan, Bilahari posited that Beijing knows that there is scant similarity between the two entities -- which also have very different legal standings under international law -- therefore making the recent developments in eastern Europe having little to no direct bearing on the Taiwan issue.

China knows there's no direct parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan

On Beijing's thoughts towards the Ukraine crisis, they are "ambivalent" about it and are "probably in a very difficult position right now", said Bilahari, who's also the Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

"It might be quite pleased to see the U.S. and the EU caught on the back foot by this, and basically unable to do anything effective to reverse the situation," he added.

But on the other hand, China is "neuralgic" not just about Taiwan, but also separatist movements in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, he opined.

This is why China "cannot be very pleased to see an external power intervening in another state to support a separatist movement, which is exactly what Russia has done," he said.

Bilahari further added that the Chinese know that "there is no direct parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan".

"Taiwan is a far more important node in the world economy for semiconductors, among other things, and a much more important economy generally than Ukraine is," he explained.

Beijing views Taiwan as one of its core interests, where there is no room for negotiation.

The self-governed island is also a key part of the first island chain, which Beijing views as critical to both its defence and economy as it relies heavily on the strategic waterways for maritime trade.

The U.S. will be involved in the event of China attacking Taiwan

Furthermore, while U.S. President Biden has made it clear that the U.S. will not use force to defend Ukraine, there is "much more doubt about that with regards to Taiwan", the retired diplomat said.

This is because given "the current mood in the U.S. against China" -- there is bipartisan support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress -- he finds it "very difficult for the U.S. staying out if there is the same kind of unprovoked attack on Taiwan".

And considering the possibility of other U.S. allies getting involved in Taiwan in the event of a China invasion, Beijing is likely to be cautious when it comes to a forceful takeover of the island.

"They will probably get involved, and if the U.S. gets involved, so would Japan, so would Australia. I think the Chinese understand this," he continued. "On the other hand, if the U.S. is weak, there are some implications too."

China as concerned as others, but won't be condemning Russia

When asked if the latest string of events hurt China's economic goals in the long term, given the country's economic ties with Russia, which have strengthened over the past decade, Bilahari said Beijing is likely to be "very concerned" about the crisis in Ukraine.

In addition, as the country faces an economy that is "already slowing down", Beijing would be concerned about the sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies, as well as the effect of rising energy prices on the global economy -- Russia is a major energy supplier to China.

So given their concerns regarding the impact of the crisis on the global economy, which is still in "a stage of rather fragile recovery in most countries from the pandemic", Bilahari said he doesn't think the Chinese can look at the situation "with great calmness".

"So I think they are probably as concerned as anybody else, but they are not going to condemn Russia's actions."

"They are trying to maintain an uneasy balance," Bilahari added, citing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said on Feb. 19 that "the sovereignty, the independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected".

And Wang had added pointedly that this includes Ukraine, he added.

China is not going to attack Taiwan even if Russia succeeds in taking over Ukraine

Bilahari's views are very much in line with what other policy experts have said on the matter.

Li Mingjiang, Associate Professor and Provost's Chair in International Relations at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said he is "doubtful" that the Ukraine crisis is going to have "any significance or real impact" on Beijing's decision-making with regards to Taiwan.

Li further said he doubts that U.S. foreign policy elsewhere in places like Afghanistan affects Beijing's calculations towards Taiwan as well.

Speaking at an online seminar held by the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based research organisation, the Chinese foreign policy expert was responding to a question from the audience on how likely is China to invade Taiwan, especially if Putin's full-scale attack on Ukraine succeeds.

Li added that perhaps the "weak or moderate response" from the U.S. or European countries towards Russia might be interpreted by policymakers in Beijing that the U.S. and its allies are "just bluffing" when it comes to Taiwan.

However, such an impact might be quite small, and he said he doesn't want to read too much into this interpretation.

"The whole issue of Taiwan, how Beijing is going to act in the future is almost exclusively dependent on China's own assessment of its power versus the U.S., and all other political consequences and domestic politics," he said, adding that external influence on such decision making is "minimal".

He added that he doesn't see the possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan in the near future, and this is largely due to the cautiousness of Taiwanese leaders in avoiding any statement or move that might be interpreted by Beijing as "declaring independence".

So instead of the use of force, Beijing is likely to exhaust all other policy tools first, such as economic incentives to encourage the Taiwanese people to work and live in mainland China, Li said.

An example of this can be seen in the case of Hong Kong, where Beijing has deployed " a legal approach" -- the central government in Beijing has imposed a sweeping national security law in June 2020 that criminalises acts of secession, subversion or collusion with a foreign country, and installed only Beijing loyalists in political positions.

As of Jan. 25, the Hong Kong police has arrested 162 people since the national security law took effect, according to Xinhua.

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