How Will the Ukraine War Change the New US-China Cold War? --- The Impact of Xi Jinping's Decisions on the Taiwan Strait Situation 1

Yasuhiro Matsuda


Russia's invasion of Ukraine shook the world. Its repercussions reached across the globe to East Asia, with grave implications for US-China relations and China-Taiwan relations. At the sight of an authoritarian power's move to change the status quo by force, quite a few observers intuitively thought of an invasion of Taiwan by China.

This paper will clarify why China supported and acknowledged Russia's invasion of Ukraine, why China not only avoided criticism of Russia but had no alternative option but to endorse Russia, and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will affect the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Through such analyses, this paper aims to understand the possible implications of the Ukraine war for the strategies of Western countries, including Japan, toward China and Russia.

1. Why did China Approve of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine?

In 2021, China was trying to play a North Korea and a Russia card to counter the "China encirclement" by the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. administration. In September 2021, the AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, was established to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. It was decided that the Japan-US-Australia-India Strategic Dialogue (Quad) summit should be held regularly. China regarded all these efforts as moves to counter it. Both North Korea's full-scale resumption of ballistic missile launches in January 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 should be discussed in the context of a further deterioration of US-China relations.

President Xi Jinping invited President Vladimir V. Putin to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics in defiance of the fact that Russia had been subject to sanctions for alleged doping. Xi Jinping appears to have used Putin to counter the diplomatic boycott by the United States while Putin apparently used Xi Jinping to have his invasion project approved.

The China-Russia summit that coincided with the opening ceremony of the Olympics was groundbreaking. The China-Russia joint statement released on February 4 enunciated for the first time that "[t]he (two) sides oppose further enlargement of NATO" and declared that "[f]riendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden' areas of cooperation." 2 This is a message that China intends to share Russia's concerns and to support it. China concluded agreements with Russia to purchase natural gas in rubles, opening the way for Russia to mitigate the damage from future sanctions from the West.

It is unlikely that Xi Jinping was not informed in advance of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to a report by The New York Times 3 based on testimony from senior US government officials, the United States had warned Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, about Russia's military operations by sharing classified information three months earlier than the Russian invasion and repeatedly urged them to dissuade Russia from military action. Reportedly, China provided those pieces of US information to Russia, advising that it would not interfere with Russia's plans. Naturally, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied this media report.

The Xi Jinping leadership appears to have judged that Russia's invasion of Ukraine would be limited and be short in duration and end in a Russian victory, as was the case with a previous Russian invasion of Georgia. This accounts for the delayed exodus of some 6,000 residents of Chinese nationality from Ukraine. 4

However, according to the Russian Embassy in China, in a telephone conversation with President Putin on February 25, the day following the outbreak of the Ukraine war, "Xi Jinping stressed that he respects the actions that the Russian leadership is currently taking under the critical situation." In other words, Xi not only pledged support for Russia immediately before it invaded Ukraine but also endorsed a full-scale invasion in a telephone conversation with Putin on February 25. Intriguingly, this remark by Xi does not appear in the Chinese official announcement. While the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to conceal that Xi Jinping confirmed Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian counterpart made this fact public three days later. 5 China fell into an awkward position of being pointed out by foe and friend alike that it had learned about the Russian invasion in advance. China could not make any plausible excuse.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson repeated ambiguous statements almost every day after the Ukraine war began; the Chinese media continued in principle to report nearly the same content as claims and reports released by the Russian side. 6 Soon a unified Chinese official press narrative came into being that NATO's eastward expansion was the root cause of the Ukraine war and that the United States was responsible for the present crisis. 7

Currently, China seems to be busy with a mixture of different efforts: propaganda efforts to justify Xi Jinping's diplomacy in favor of Russia and to give the impression that the United States is the primary cause of the war; and diplomatic efforts to create an outward impression that Xi's diplomacy is not necessarily supportive of Russia.

China cannot say whether it had or not been informed beforehand of Russia's intention of military action. If it says it had known, it would be to blame for not stopping Russia; if it says it had not known, China and Russia would appear to lack mutual trust. Consequently, the Xi Jinping leadership refrains from criticizing Russia, opposes sanctions against it, and maintains "normal bilateral relations" in trade. It has no choice but to effectively support Russia. China seems to have hoped that its image of getting "involved by Russia" would spread. 8

An educated segment of the Chinese public opposed support for Russia and China's approval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; but their comments were suppressed. 9 Soon after the Ukraine war began in February, a statement by some Chinese scholars condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine was published online but was soon deleted. An article by Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor's Office of the State Council, which argued that the Chinese government should sever ties with Putin as soon as possible, was removed a few days after its appearance. An essay by former Ambassador to Ukraine Gao Yusheng calling for the defeat of Russia and changes in the international system was also deleted the moment it was published.

In May 2022, Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong contributed an article to Foreign Affairs arguing the illegitimacy of Russia's use of force and that the war in Ukraine is unfavorable to China. Its outline is circulating in China also in Chinese. 10 In May, the Chinese authorities began to tolerate the circulation of this kind of discourse. Yet the Chinese public, under the influence of government propaganda, tends to stay pro-Russian; Yan has come under severe criticism. 11

2. China with No Other Option but to Support Russia

If Russia only exerts military pressure on Ukraine or "succeeds" in a limited invasion, it is not bad for China, as such a move would divert US attention from the encirclement of China to European affairs. However, if Russia fails in a full-scale invasion, that will be a different story. Furthermore, the atrocities committed by the Russian military have become widely known, and Putin has now become the "world's most evil man." Major countries are imposing sanctions against Russia as well as the person of Putin, beginning to sever connections with them. Meanwhile, China has to pay an enormous reputational cost for supporting Russia.

Of course, the issue we are facing is not so simple. If Russia were allowed to turn the two eastern Ukrainian provinces into independent states, it would be theoretically possible for the United States to recognize Taiwan's independence. Such a precedent, if realized, would only embarrass China.

China has forfeited huge interests by supporting Russia. Ukraine was an important country for China both militarily and in the light of its economic zone initiative "One Belt, One Road." But China has forsaken it. In addition, China's relations with Europe have deteriorated in recent years over human rights issues. Despite China's recent efforts, the restoration of its relations with Europe has become a distant goal. 12

The Chinese government has, on several occasions, referred to its intention to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. 13 Could it play such a role? Generally speaking, state leaders engaging in wartime diplomacy is thought to be anything but sedentary. Xi Jinping has, however, not made a single foreign trip since January 2020, and the only summit meeting he held in Beijing was one during the Beijing Winter Olympics. To begin with, Xi is a "collaborator" who supported Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine; it is unlikely that Ukraine would agree to mediation by China. Therefore, the statements of Wang Yi and others regarding mediation or arbitration as part of the above-mentioned "efforts by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to give an outward impression that Xi Jinping's foreign policy is not necessarily supportive of Russia." Those statements should be considered just a kind of diplomatic gesture.

China is facing a grave contradiction in its support for Russia. In the future (say, ten years from now), when China embarks on the armed unification of Taiwan, there should no longer exist a Russia to depend upon. If Putin remains in power, Russia will become weaker than it is now due to sanctions; if Putin is ousted, his successor government will take a pro-Western line to lift sanctions. China should in either case lose its "reliable backer."

Nonetheless, China cannot forsake Russia to counter the United States. China is a purchaser of a considerable amount of Russian weapons. The utmost that China could do unfavorably to Russia was abstain from voting on resolutions condemning Russia at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly's emergency special session. The only possible way out for China from this dilemma is Putin's downfall at home; if that happens, there will be no choice but to get along with a new Russian leader. In other words, as long as Russia and Putin are identical, China will unlikely give up on Putin. Some argue that the best scenario for China will be to maintain a certain distance from Russia to improve its relations with the United States --- without abandoning those with Russia. China seems to hope that this tactic would result in the United States calling for China's cooperation. 14

In the first place China's approach to Russia will not affect its political system. However, its approach to the United States would erode and endanger its communist party dictatorship. China has carried on its reform and an open-door policy for 40 years; an increasing number of its citizens have come to consider Western values, such as freedom and democracy, to be good. In fact, those people constitute the biggest security threat to the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Xi Jinping administration advocated an "Overall National Security Outlook" prioritizing the maintenance of the CPC regime and worked hard to intensify control over speech at home and to eliminate "foreign influence." 15 On the diplomatic front, Xi's strategic thinking gave rise to policies to counter the United States and to approach Russia.

3. Today's Ukraine, Tomorrow's Taiwan?

More and more people tend to associate the Ukraine war with a Taiwan contingency. According to a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 59.7% of respondents are concerned about the single-handed defense of the island nation in the event of a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. 16 In Japan, a poll by the Mainichi Shimbun showed that 89% of respondents are worried about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 17

As public opinion dismissing unification becomes mainstream in Taiwan, peaceful unification through negotiations is becoming hopeless. China appears to have shifted to a policy of investing time in building up its capacity and pressing for unification by brandishing military force. 18 Russia, however, was unable to bring Ukraine to its knees with threats and failed in a blitzkrieg. Weapons provided by the United States and others to the Ukrainian army have proved effective, and the Russians are a war of attrition.

In other words, we have learned the lesson that attempts to change the status quo by force will be costly. 19 The Russian economy will suffer massive damage due to severe sanctions imposed jointly by Japan, the United States, and European countries. Furthermore, a narrative that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would constitute "the beginning of the end of the Putin regime" would, if communicated widely, make Xi Jinping cautious about using force, irrespective of the survival of the Putin regime. The narrative would make Xi fear that the Communist regime's credibility may be jeopardized. 20

A distinct similarity of the environments in which Ukraine and Taiwan are placed is that an authoritarian power is capable of using force to change the status quo and individual dictatorships prevail. If a person other than Putin had been in power as Russian president, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would not have occurred. If Xi Jinping's dictatorship becomes further fortified, a similar event is feared to happen in the future.

Yet, differences are more numerous than similarities between Ukraine and Taiwan. While Ukraine is located on the vast plains contiguous to Russia, China and Taiwan are separated by a strait of more than 100 kilometers wide, making it difficult for China to deploy large numbers of ground troops to the Taiwan Island. 21 Also, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan, along with Japan and South Korea, is located in the same sphere of influence connected to the United States by the Pacific Ocean and is a country role model of a market economy and a democracy. Taiwan is of great strategic value to the United States in confronting its largest strategic competitor, China.

Sanctions against Russia also provide lessons for China. The exclusion of Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which handles remittance operations for world financial institutions, was considered hard to implement. However, seeing Russia's naked acts of aggression and atrocities, the international community quickly decided to implement the severest form of sanctions. Even if sanctions cannot immediately stop Russia's military actions, they will have a crucial impact on Russia in the medium- to long-term. Inflation and shortages of goods will happen; many Russians will leave the country in despair over its future; the Putin regime will be disturbed from the inside. 22 Once these sanctions have been imposed, the hurdle for subsequent implementation will be lower.

For the CPC, the unification of Taiwan is not the only state goal. Rather, the "life has become better" feeling entertained by the Chinese people justifies the legitimacy of its rule. If China unified Taiwan by force, but if consequent sanctions would make the mainlanders' lives more difficult, the basis of legitimacy of the CPC rule may crumble. Moreover, if unification by force failed, the economic damage would linger, and Beijing would find itself in a predicament.

A cause for concern on the Taiwanese side is that US President Biden prematurely declared a policy of "avoiding World War III," or of non-intervention in the Ukrainian crisis. This demonstrates that the United States will not engage in a war with a nuclear state to protect a non-allied country. If this is the case, the United States may choose non-intervention in the event of a Taiwan emergency since China is a nuclear-weapon state, and Taiwan is not a US ally.

Meanwhile, China cannot dismiss the possibility of US intervention due to the Taiwan Relations Act that allows for US armed intervention. In 2021-22, President Biden on three occasions suggested the possibility of US military intervention in a Taiwan contingency. 23 Nevertheless, according to a poll conducted in March 2022 by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, the percentages of respondents who believe the United States will intervene in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan plummeted from 65% in October 2021 to 34.5%.

The Tsai Ing-wen administration severely condemned Russia and imposed against it economic sanctions similar to those undertaken by the G-7. As a result, Russia included Taiwan in its list of "unfriendly countries and regions" and retaliated with sanctions on it. Taiwan did not take an ambiguous attitude but followed suit with the G-7. The Tsai administration consistently takes a tough stance toward China and Russia and maintains an approval rating of around 50%. Taiwan's mainstream public opinion does not necessarily vacillate. 24

Furthermore, according to a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation poll, a majority of Taiwan residents (59.1%) commended Ukrainian President Volodymyr O. Zelensky as a war leader defending the motherland. The percentages of respondents supporting the maintenance of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait rose from 16.9% to 22.4%, whereas those in favor of unification dropped from 16% to 11%. 25 According to a poll conducted by the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society and the Taiwan International Studies Association, 70.2% of Taiwan residents said they would fight for Taiwan in an emergency. 26 Another poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation also found that 76.9% of respondents support a proposal to extend the conscription period from the current four months to one year. Taiwan residents are aware that the Ukraine war is not someone else's problem; the awareness of the importance of national defense is increasing among them. 27

Taiwan's 2021 defense budget is approximately NT$453.4 billion (equivalent to US$15.6 billion), accounting for only 2.4% of Taiwan's GDP. On the other hand, it would take China a long period of time to build up enough military power to prevent US intervention and to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. This means that Taiwan has leeway to take measures to change its future. Defense efforts Taiwan could take may include: increase the defense budget, enhance asymmetric warfare capabilities, expand reserve forces, reduce economic dependence on China, seek international security cooperation, and strengthen national defense awareness among its people.

4. What is the "New Cold War" Strategy to Deal with China and Russia?

The Ukraine war is evolving in a world that witnessed the US-China confrontation and the coronavirus cataclysm; it marks a turning point that obliges us to acknowledge that the era of globalization --- future generations might remember it as the "Inter-Cold War" period --- is over. Gone are the days when people could go anywhere, trade anywhere, and invest anywhere.

We must remember this. Russia needed China's backing to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine is rapidly coming under US influence and is resisting Russia. In other words, the Ukraine war is essentially a Cold War between the United States and China. It is an equivalent to the Korean War in the first Cold War era. The United States and China are fighting a proxy war in a third country while avoiding a direct collision of force.

Until a ceasefire is agreed upon after the two belligerents have reached a narrowly set goal where the Russian leadership can declare at home that Russia has won, while the Ukraine government can convince its people that Ukraine is not a loser --- until then, the weakening of Russia and the ravages in Ukraine should continue. As US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated during his visit to Kyiv, future military assistance to Ukraine will "weaken Russia." 28 Yet, that assistance must be done in a way that does not pressure Russia to resort to weapons of mass destruction.

In the face of this "Cold War-style proxy war," what are the options that the international community and Japan should take? It is beyond our control to stop Russia's military invasion tomorrow or overthrow the Putin regime next month. First, make Russia pay a high price through sanctions and propagate the narrative in and out of Russia that "the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the beginning of the end of the Putin regime." The ensuing comprehensive sanctions against Russia would have the dual effects of discouraging China from changing the status quo by force and depriving China of Russian backing for its use of force.

Meanwhile, a waning Russia may deepen its dependence on China and provide the latter with advanced military technology and energy interests that it has so far hesitated offering. China will likely involve Russia in the internationalization of the yuan in order to alleviate the impact of possible future financial sanctions against it. 29 China will seek to pursue an economic development model less dependent on the West. Thus the US-China decoupling will proceed in two interactive ways.

The Ukraine war has demonstrated to the world the horrors of an authoritarian state. Europe is rapidly becoming alienated from Russia. Japan, too, should accelerate not only its defense buildup but also its economic security efforts. Japan, the United States, and Europe should take the lead in creating a cooperative framework and rallying third countries to their side. This is because excessive dependence on authoritarian states is dangerous. As a result, moves toward bloc formation will inevitably intensify. Those moves will not proceed linearly, but their direction is apparent. In addition, a strategic shift in the economy and security would not be effective if undertaken by a single country. It will be urgent to build a multilayered international cooperative system chiefly sustained by the members of the G-7.


The foregoing analysis has clarified the following points. First, China's support and approval of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine stems from the Xi Jinping leadership's anti-US and pro-Russian diplomacy. On the other hand, there are, within and outside the regime, deep-seated concerns about and opposition to Xi Jinping's diplomacy, which appears to be in support of Russia. Xi Jinping, who seeks to overturn precedents and win a third term as CPC president at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China scheduled for the fall of 2022, needs to be without fault in his domestic and foreign policies. This is why the Xi Jinping administration has no alternative but to justify its decisions associated with the Ukraine war by propaganda efforts to ascribe the root cause of the war to the meddling of the United States and NATO.

Second, China has effectively run short of options other than supporting Russia. Russia's challenges to the international order and its innumerable atrocities have roused anti-Russian sentiment in the West more than ever, and China's gesture of keeping a subtle distance from Russia is to little avail. The rigid Xi Jinping diplomacy has deprived China of further opportunities and options to ease or to improve relations with the United States and Europe. Xi should have had the option to stop Putin's war. China's strong show of support for Russia that made the Russian invasion of Ukraine possible was a strategic mistake of Xi Jinping.

Third, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had a short-term effect of increasing calculable risks and costs of a PRC invasion of Taiwan. A Taiwan contingency is essentially a medium- to a long-term issue. Nevertheless, or rather because of that, Taiwan, the United States, Japan, and others will take drastic measures to prepare for a future crisis. The Ukraine war has had the effect of making the "next war" taken as a more real possibility not merely among the elite but also among the general public in those countries.

Fourth, Western nations, including Japan, are now left with few options in their strategies toward China and Russia. Half-hearted sanctions against Russia could make Russia and China bolder in their future actions. The West is obliged to step up sanctions against Russia, bearing in mind that economically, the sanctioning side will also suffer grave damage.

The globalization that the Ukraine war has finished off may be remembered by posterity as a good period that lasted about 30 years. Fragmented economies are inefficient, and everyone wants to return to the old days. However, the Ukraine war has endowed the international community with a more powerful centrifugal force. It has also accelerated the new US-China Cold War. The two camps will play a game of mutual distrust over a future Taiwan Strait contingency.

(Professor, the University of Tokyo)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

current topics