The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

If and when Beijing invades Taiwan, we can’t argue the warning signs weren’t there.

During Mao Zedong’s era, China’s early foreign policies closely aligned with the Soviet Union due to shared communist ideologies. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in the 1950s epitomised this alignment, featuring mutual defence provisions that underscored their close relations. A consistent strategic impetus in China’s foreign policy towards both the USSR and Russia has been the strategic approach of balancing against a mutual adversary, notably the United States. This strategy, evident throughout history, reflects China’s diplomatic manoeuvres to counter perceived threats and assert its international stance.

The ideological unity between China and the Soviet Union during Mao’s era, as exemplified by the Treaty of Friendship, laid the foundation for subsequent diplomatic tactics aimed at maintaining equilibrium in global power dynamics. In February 2022, Xi and Putin announced a “friendship without limits.”

At the time, Bobo Lo, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia, made this observation: “On the face of things, Sino-Russian relations have never been better. At their Beijing summit in February 2022, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announced a ‘friendship without limits.’ There were ‘no forbidden areas’ of cooperation, and the Sino-Russian strategic partnership was ‘superior’ even to the alliances of the Cold War era. The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to confirm the strength of these bonds. Notwithstanding protestations of neutrality, Beijing has fallen in line with the Kremlin’s narrative of a ‘special military operation.’ It has accused the West of ‘provoking’ Russia. Its much-vaunted commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states has been invisible. And it has ignored abundant evidence of Russian war crimes. It would be natural in the circumstances to see China as complicit in Putin’s war, especially as the invasion began only days after the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Yet appearances are deceptive. The Chinese response to Putin’s war has shown that there are real limits to their supposedly ‘no limits’ friendship. And fundamental questions have been raised over the future direction and character of the Sino-Russian partnership.”

“Taiwan is not Ukraine,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing. Putin justified his military actions in Ukraine by invoking historical grievances and nationalism, a narrative reminiscent of Xi Jinping’s approach to Taiwan, which emphasises historical entitlement and ‘national rejuvenation.’ Beijing, despite purportedly advocating for countries’ territorial integrity under international norms, has declined to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. It has asserted neutrality in the conflict.

In 2023, Taiwan’s National Chengchi University Election Study Center found that nearly 62% of Taiwanese identified solely as Taiwanese, with Chinese identification at an all-time low of 2.4%. China attributes this shift to alleged external influences, such as the United States. Kremlin officials have argued that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian national identity. Both have rejected the idea of Western interference in subjects that they consider to be ‘internal.’

Beijing recognizes that any strategy to reclaim Taiwan, with minimal risk, hinges on establishing and maintaining the 12 conditions outlined in its Ukraine peace proposal.

The idea that history and nationalist sentiments can trump self-determination and democracy is at the centrality of both Putin’s and Xi’s approach. This is clearly suggestive of the fact the personality of the leader plays an integral role in foreign policy outcomes. ‘Operational code’ refers to the concept of how the beliefs of decision-makers can influence their foreign policy choices. Yu Yeh notes the historical significance: during the Russian Revolution, Ukraine was a key anti-Bolshevik base.

Conversely, during the Chinese Civil War, Taiwan served as a stronghold against communism. Despite Ukraine’s defeat and Taiwan’s U.S. support since 1949, Taiwan resisted China’s communist rule. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia undermines existing security guarantees and highlights the limitations of international law. The restoration of peace and order hinges on Ukraine’s success, impacting not just Ukraine but global stability as well. Russia’s actions could potentially contribute to the initiation of a military conflict between China and Taiwan, stemming from the growing rapprochement between Russia and China. Both states are engaging in military exercises and demonstrating cooperation to challenge U.S. leadership positions and bolster their influence in key regions.

There exists, a fair amount of scepticism regarding the level of cooperation among SCO member states. The scepticism claims that the organisation is nothing but a type of club for its various heads of state or a conference hosting their annual meetings that do not pursue any specific objectives. Impending challenges, such as the expansion with India and Pakistan becoming full members in 2017, the deepening differences between China and Russia (with China advocating for a stronger economic role within the organisation, while Russia prioritises hard security), and the lingering concerns stemming from the ‘shadow of Crimea,’ are expected to hinder the formation of a Sino-Russian alliance in the foreseeable future.

The inclusion of India in the SCO was a contentious issue, as Beijing feared a potential diminishment of its role within the organisation, while Moscow saw Indian membership as a means to counterbalance Beijing’s ascendancy. The 2017 expansion of the SCO has notably diluted its decision-making authority, setting the stage for strategic competition among China, India, and Russia within the organisation. An instance highlighting the diverging views between Beijing and Moscow on the SCO’s ‘non-security’ role surfaced in November 2016. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had proposed the establishment of an SCO free trade zone to bolster the organisation’s economic dimension, a longstanding objective for Beijing. However, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev expressed reservations, citing the complexities involved in such a regime due to the necessary relinquishment of certain internal decisions. However, it would interesting to note the geopolitical trajectory within the SCO as Russia has now been labeled as China’s ‘junior partner.’

The intertwining of Putin’s Ukraine policy and Xi’s Taiwan strategy reflects a convergence in their use of historical narratives and nationalist sentiments to shape foreign policy. Both leaders prioritise perceived national rejuvenation over the principles of self-determination and democracy, highlighting the pivotal role of leadership personality in international affairs. The concept of “operational code” underscores how decision-makers beliefs influence foreign policy choices.

However, despite these parallels, divergences emerge within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where challenges such as India’s inclusion and differing priorities between China and Russia hinder the formation of a cohesive Sino-Russian alliance. The SCO’s diluted decision-making power underscores the strategic competition among China, India, and Russia within the organisation.

Arth Agarwal is a final-year undergraduate student and Research Intern at the Centre for Security Studies, JSIA. He is a recipient of the Emile Boutmy Scholarship (Issued by Sciences Po) and has written about leadership dynamics in the Global South and the meteoric rise of China.