Taiwan and Russia Ties and the China Factor

Taiwan and Russia Ties and the China Factor

Taiwan and Russia Ties and the China Factor

Earlier this month, Russia voiced its opposition to Taiwan’s membership in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Referencing the “One-China” principle, Moscow said, “Russia is against Taiwan’s membership in the ICAO and other international organizations whose members are sovereign states only.” Taiwan’s government had expressed interest in attending as an observer to the ICAO Assembly in Montreal held in late September to early October. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “Taiwan is an active and responsible member of the international civil aviation community,” and thus needs “to obtain complete and critical information pertaining to aviation safety and security in a timely manner.” By contrast, former and current officials from Denmark, France, Japan, New Zealand, Guatemala, and other states advocated for Taiwan’s attendance at the meeting. This latest episode reflects how Taiwan’s relations with Russia continues to be constrained by the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Yet, both Russia and Taiwan have enhanced relations in recent years through the pursuit of unofficial cooperation in trade, culture, and sports.

For the past several decades, China’s relations with Russia has been the main constraining factor in the development and growth in Taiwan-Russia relations. As two regional powers that share ideological and strategic concerns about US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and globally, China and Russia find common cause in a mutually beneficial political and security alignment against the West. Beijing and Moscow also play important supporting roles to each other’s national interests; it is a bilateral relationship that is often marked by quid pro quos. Russia recognizes Taiwan as an “inalienable part of the Chinese territory” and upholds the “One-China” principle, while the Chinese government, in return, supports Moscow’s Chechnya policy among other Russian goals, including Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East.

Moscow also indirectly supports Beijing’s policy and pressure campaign on Taiwan through weapons sales to China. Beijing has been a major customer of Russian arms and currently ranks as the third-largest buyer after India and Egypt. Beijing’s procurement of Russian air defense systems, jet fighters, submarines, and airborne early-warning radar systems helped shift the military balance in the Taiwan Strait to China’s advantage. [1] In 2000, Taiwan’s former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) called on Russia to cut back its arms sales to China, saying, “We hope Russia can control the quality and quantity of the arms it sells to Communist China,” but to no avail. [2]

Although Taiwan itself has expressed interest in purchasing Russian weaponry, Beijing has exerted pressure on Moscow not to sell arms to Taiwan. As a result, Russia went beyond the United States in putting restrictions on specific types of interaction with Taiwan. As a follow-up to US President Bill Clinton’s “three no’s” statement on Taiwan in 1998 (“no” to independence for Taiwan; “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”; or Taiwan’s entry into organizations requiring statehood), Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared his country’s “four no’s” policy on Taiwan, adding a “no” to arms sales to the island. [3] Overall, Moscow’s commitment to the “One-China” principle made it nearly impossible for Taiwan to obtain mass procurement of Russian weapons. [4]

China has also incorporated its Taiwan strategy into the Sino-Russian military relationship. Beijing intended to use a Sino-Russian joint “anti-terror” drill in 2005 to exert pressure on Taiwan. According to a Russian newspaper, Russia initially wanted to hold the exercises in Xinjiang close to terrorist threats in Central Asia, but China insisted on moving the drill to the eastern coastal Zhejiang province adjacent to Taiwan and included naval assault landing exercises in an apparent effort to target the island. [5] Moscow later urged Beijing to move the drill further north to the Shandong coast, purportedly out of concern that the joint exercises targeting Taiwan might agitate the United States and Japan, not to mention Taiwan. [6]

Russia has calculated that its strategic partnership with Beijing is far too important to risk jeopardizing over Taiwan, which holds little strategic value for Moscow. At the same time, the contradictory impulses and competitive strains in the Sino-Russian relationship also mean that Russia does not want to become too reliant on its economic, political, and security relationship with China. Moscow is interested in diversifying its relations with other countries and regions beyond China. Although formal and official political ties remain restricted, Taiwan and Russia have been able to develop links and cooperate in the economic, trade, culture, arts, and sports arenas.

After Chinese political pressure impeded the establishment of bilateral representative offices for several years, the breakthrough came in 1992, when Russia finally approved an unofficial mission in Taiwan. [7] The Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission on Economic and Cultural Cooperation (MTC), which opened in Taipei in December 1996, is a non-governmental organization that promotes unofficial relations, such as economic, cultural, and humanitarian ties, between the two sides. [8] In 1993, Taiwan set up the Representative Office in Moscow for the Taipei-Moscow Economic and Cultural Coordination Commission (台北莫斯科經濟文化協調委員會駐莫斯科代表處). Later in 2002, the Taiwan-Russia Association (台俄協會) was established to serve as an “interactive platform between the government and the private sector” and for business and academia to help enhance friendship, cooperation, and bilateral relations. In his speech at the inaugural meeting of the Taiwan-Russia Association, President Chen Shui-bian emphasized the importance of developing friendly relations with Russia. Chen said that Russia’s high-tech research and development capabilities in aerospace and biochemistry could lead to new levels of economic cooperation.

Although both sides rank small in each other’s trade volumes, the economic and trade relationship has helped to propel closer links in Taiwan-Russian relations. Due to Taiwan’s large imports of natural resources, mainly energy products including coal, oil, and natural gas, from Russia, Taiwan has consistently had a trade deficit with Russia. According to Taiwan’s trade statistics, Russia ranks 7th in Taiwan’s top trade deficit countries. From January to September 2018, Taiwan had a USD $2.4 billion trade deficit with Russia. During that same period, Taiwan imported USD $3.2 billion from Russia, whereas Russia only imported USD $0.8 billion from Taiwan for an overall bilateral trade of USD $4 billion. In 2017, Taiwan experienced a USD $2.2 billion trade deficit with Russia; bilateral trade reached USD $4.4 billion that year.

In addition, Taiwan and Russia have also broadened ties through sports diplomacy and cultural events. Russia sent one of the largest sports delegations at 517 people, including 348 athletes, to the 2017 Summer Universiade (2017年夏季世界大學運動會) hosted in Taipei. This was a significant achievement for Taiwan, who was selected as host for this multi-sports event. While China boycotted the 2017 Summer Universiade, Russian athletes were not deterred from attending this international sporting event in Taipei. Moreover, Russia also held cultural events in Taiwan for the first time in spring 2019, purportedly backed by the Russian government. The cultural events in Taiwan included celebrations of Orthodox Easter, Victory Day, and a Slavic cultural festival. A Voice of America report said that the Russian government was secretly funding these cultural events in Taiwan.

Both sides have strengthened ties with the recent resumption of direct flights. After the suspension of direct flights between Taiwan and Russia due to financial difficulties in 2015, they were resumed in May 2019 with direct routes between Taipei and Moscow, as well as the eastern city of Vladivostok. The reopening of direct flights may be attributed to the Taiwanese government’s 2018 decision to introduce temporary visa waivers for Russian citizens as part of a broader effort to boost foreign tourism and business on the island. After a one-year trial, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has extended its visa-free entry for Russian citizens until July 31, 2020. Russian visitors also can stay in Taiwan longer to 21 days, up from the previous 14-day stay. Since the visa waiver policy took effect, there has been a steady increase in Russian tourists to Taiwan.

Approximately 3,794 Russians visited Taiwan in the first quarter of 2019, an increase of 84 percent from the same period last year. However, Russia does not have a reciprocal visa-free policy for Taiwan. Nonetheless, from January to May 2019, Russia’s representative office issued 9,165 visas to Taiwanese tourists, a growth of 56 percent from the previous year.

For Taiwan, Russia poses an indirect threat by supporting Chinese political and military objectives vis-à-vis Taiwan, while also providing economic benefits and alternate paths for its cultural and sports diplomacy. This is a relationship that is often overlooked in Taiwan’s foreign diplomacy, but one that should be carefully nurtured to ensure that Moscow does not play a spoiler role in the security and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The main point: Although the Sino-Russian strategic partnership serves as a constant source of political constraints on the development of Taiwan-Russia relations, bilateral exchanges in trade, culture, and sports have helped to enhance ties between the two sides.

[1] Czeslaw Tubilewicz, “The Little Dragon and the Bear: Russian-Taiwanese Relations in the Post-Cold War Period,” The Russian Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, April 2002, p.293.

[2] “Taiwan Asks Russia to Curtail Arms Sales to China,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 12, 2000.

[3] Czeslaw Tubilewicz, “The Little Dragon and the Bear: Russian-Taiwanese Relations in the Post-Cold War Period,” The Russian Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, April 2002, p.292.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “China Exploits Joint Anti-Terror Drill with Russia to Pressure Taiwan – Paper,” BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific – Political, March 17, 2005, Retrieved from Nexis Uni.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jeanne L. Wilson, “China, Russia, and the Taiwan Issue: The View from Moscow” in The Future of China-Russia Relations, edited by James Bellacqua, p.294.

[8] “Russia Opens Unofficial Mission in Taiwan,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, December 17, 1996, Retrieved from Nexis Uni.