Beijing’s Shifting Messaging on the Ukraine Crisis — and the Implications for Its Sovereignty Claims Over Taiwan

Beijing’s Shifting Messaging on the Ukraine Crisis — and the Implications for Its Sovereignty Claims Over Taiwan

Beijing’s Shifting Messaging on the Ukraine Crisis — and the Implications for Its Sovereignty Claims Over Taiwan

In both the lead-up to the Russian attack on Ukraine that commenced on February 23, as well as in the days that followed, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has engaged in a series of abrupt messaging shifts regarding the invasion. Having forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with the Russian Federation—a quasi-alliance with which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has been directly associated—PRC leaders are clearly reluctant to openly criticize their ally, even amidst near-universal condemnation of Moscow’s aggression.

As smaller states threatened by the irredentist designs of a more powerful neighbor, Ukraine and Taiwan share clear commonalities, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has obvious implications for Taiwan’s security. Furthermore, the nationalist and revisionist nature of the regimes in Moscow and Beijing, as well as their shared hostility towards liberal democracy and the Western-dominated international order, might seem to naturally align their interests surrounding Ukraine and Taiwan. Yet, the interests of Russia and the PRC are not so aligned as they might seem on the surface, for Russian actions are undercutting the PRC’s own diplomatic and propaganda efforts to assert its claims over Taiwan.

The Chinese-Russian Joint Statement on February 4

The Chinese and Russian governments mutually announced their “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” (新時代全面戰略協作夥伴關係) in the course of a visit to Russia by Xi Jinping in June 2019. The relationship has continued to grow closer in the nearly three years since—including combined military exercises that have struck many observers as provocative, such as the naval drills conducted in October 2021 that nearly circumnavigated Japan’s main island of Honshu. This year, the month of February was noteworthy for seeing, at its outset, a major step forward in terms of solidifying the Russia-China quasi-alliance; and then, not quite three weeks later, another major step towards unraveling it. 

On February 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, accompanied by a direct meeting with Xi Jinping. The two governments issued a joint statement that day, the text of which contained pointed language to suggest that the growing alignment between the two states was a direct response to the threat from “Some [international] actors [who] […] interfere in the internal affairs of other states, infringing their legitimate rights and interests […] Such attempts at hegemony pose serious threats to global and regional peace and stability and undermine the stability of the world order.” Such language about “hegemony” (霸權), long a keystone of CCP discourse about the United States, was also pointedly and explicitly extended to NATO via language mentioning “certain military and political alliances and coalitions [that] intensify geopolitical rivalry, fuel antagonism and confrontation, and seriously undermine the international security order and global strategic stability.” 

Most striking of all—particularly for those concerned with the growing military alignment between Russia and China, and for the parallels between Moscow’s irredentist ambitions towards former Soviet states and Beijing’s claims over Taiwan—the document also made the seemingly open-ended declaration that “the friendship between the two countries has no limits, [and] there are no forbidden areas of cooperation” (兩國友好沒有止境,合作沒有禁區).

Support for Russia and Accusations of “False Information Attacks” by the United States

Against this background, PRC officials maintained a very friendly posture towards Russia as tensions mounted over Ukraine. US officials reportedly met with Chinese officials multiple times in the weeks leading up to the invasion, presenting evidence of the Russian military build-up and requesting PRC assistance in getting the Russian government to back down—only to be rebuffed, with Beijing reportedly relaying information about the meetings to Moscow. Furthermore, a leaked set of social media directives to PRC state media workers, dated just prior to the invasion, indicated that they were forbidden to “post anything unfavorable to Russia or [else] pro-Western.”

Indeed, in the lead-up to the invasion, the most consistent talking point from PRC government representatives—oftentimes employing strident language that seemed lifted straight from the Maoist era—was that the United States and European countries were whipping up a crisis with false accusations against Russia. For example, on February 16 PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Wenbin (汪文斌) gave a press conference at which he asserted that “In the Ukraine situation, the West has engaged in information terrorism” (西方在烏克蘭問題上實行了信息恐怖主義) against Russia, and demanded that America stop its “false information attacks” (虛假信息攻勢). 

Beijing’s Messaging Contortions Related to Russian Actions

Beijing’s messaging was thrown into disarray by the announcement of the Russian government on February 22 that it would recognize the separatist statelets of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, and send “peacekeeping” troops into the regions. In the wake of the announcement, PRC representatives issued a string of bland and non-committal statements. These included the state media read-out of a February 22 call between PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which Wang reportedly expressed “concern” about the situation in Ukraine, and stated that “any country’s legitimate security concerns should be respected and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld.” 

Immediately following the commencement of the invasion on February 24, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying offered banal commentary that “[t]he current situation is the result of the interplay of various factors,” and that “China is closely monitoring the latest developments and calls on all sides to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control.” Per another state media summary of a phone call between Putin and Xi dated February 25, Xi stated that Beijing was “consistent in its position to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and that “China supports Russia and Ukraine in resolving their tensions through negotiations.” 

If the shifts of narrative are any indication, the CCP leadership likely found itself caught flat-footed—by the international reaction, if not by the invasion itself—and to some degree, exposed to negative international opinion for their own consistently supportive statements for Moscow in the weeks leading up to the attack. China’s abstention from a UN Security Council vote on February 25 that would have condemned Russia’s actions—rather than the veto that might be expected in light of the “friendship without limits” between the two countries—provides the clearest evidence yet that the leadership in Beijing is not pleased by the way that events have unfolded. [1] 

Beijing’s Commentary on Ukraine and Taiwan

Russian actions towards Ukraine bear serious implications for the PRC’s own sovereignty claims over Taiwan. Long bristling at foreign criticism of the regime’s domestic human rights record, and fearful of potential foreign intervention on behalf of restive ethnic regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, PRC representatives have historically staked out a diplomatic position that places an uncompromising emphasis on state sovereignty. This clearly clashes with Putin’s asserted right to unilaterally recognize breakaway regions of Ukraine—and presumably, subsequent plans to annex outright some or all of Ukraine’s territory, or else establish a confederation with Ukraine under a Russian client regime. Beijing fears that such moves could set a precedent for future foreign recognition of Taiwan as a de jure independent state, or else for Taiwan to link itself more closely with a foreign ally. These prospects—far more so than a naked act of armed aggression that violates the UN Charter—are the precedents that Beijing seeks to avoid legitimizing. 

The CCP propaganda system has moved quickly to swat down any comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan; this theme particularly saturated PRC messaging on February 23-24, just as the invasion commenced. Hua Chunying took up a lengthy portion of her February 23 press conference making comments about Taiwan, warning “certain people of the Taiwan authorities” not to “latch on to and exploit the Ukraine issue to their advantage,” and asserting that “Taiwan for sure is not Ukraine. Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China’s territory. This is an indisputable historical and legal fact.” Coming to the crux of the matter, a February 23 online commentary on the website of People’s Daily stated that: “There are voices from the West that have tried to […] compare the Ukraine crisis with the Taiwan question. [However] the two cases are entirely different, as Taiwan has never been a sovereign state and the Taiwan question is China’s internal affair instead of an international issue.”

Similarly, an editorial the next day in the English-language China Daily attacked expressions of solidarity with Ukraine made by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), asserting that:

Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party [are engaged in a] conspiracy to make the question of Taiwan an “international issue”, and thus woo international support for what they are doing in pursuit of the island’s ‘independence’ […] Tsai has forgotten the fact that Taiwan has always been part of China and never a sovereign country, which is acknowledged by the entire world and Chinese people across the Taiwan Straits. […] Tsai and her clique should never underestimate the resolve of the central government to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

The Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine for China’s Claims Over Taiwan

On the surface, the Russian and Chinese governments might seem to share close commonality in their desire to assert control over territories once ruled by their imperial predecessor states. Yet, Beijing has good reason to be uncomfortable with Russian actions towards Ukraine—and not merely out of a desire to avoid association with an act of naked aggression that has received near-universal condemnation. 

With their own ambitions towards Taiwan in mind, the leaders of the CCP would shed few tears over a rapid and successful Russian annexation of Ukraine, particularly if such an effort further diminished the prestige and clout of a US-European order that restrains Beijing’s own ambitions. However, that system has been reenergized rather than weakened by Russian actions, even as Moscow’s diplomatic and propaganda positions cut against Beijing’s own positions on Taiwan.

Accordingly, Beijing has largely side-stepped the issue, avoiding criticism of its quasi-ally Russia while also distancing itself from the latter’s actions. The CCP propaganda system continues to support Moscow without explicitly endorsing its actions: by, for example, publishing uncritical recitations of Kremlin talking points, and nominal third-party op-eds that blame Washington and Kiev for the war. However, as the PRC finds itself tethered to an ally that has become a pariah state, and as that ally’s own actions serve to undercut Beijing’s diplomatic rationales pertaining to Taiwan, the CCP leadership may have found reason for buyer’s remorse regarding its alignment with Moscow—as well as encountering a setback for its own ambitions directed against Taiwan.

The main point: Despite a declared “strategic partnership” with Moscow, the PRC leadership has refrained from publicly endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine—an act that serves to undermine Beijing’s own efforts to assert sovereignty over Taiwan. 

[1] In the UN Security Council vote on February 25, 11 of the 15 current member states voted for the draft resolution condemning the invasion and calling for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. The Russian Federation, currently holding the council’s rotating presidency, predictable vetoed the resolution; while India, the United Arab Emirates, and the PRC abstained.