Earlier today, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared the beginning of military action against Ukraine, following a strident speech and recognition of two self-proclaimed republics in the country. The United States condemned the actions and is set to announce a new wave of sanctions on Russia.

The Ukraine crisis seems to have pushed China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, into a corner. In his speech on Monday, Putin sought to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, so as to justify future Russian territorial claims.

To this extent, the speech asserted that Russia would instead acknowledge the rebel-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. But while parts of Donetsk and Luhansk were already de facto under Russian control, the speech was correctly read as a prelude to the war that began this morning.

Prior to the speech, there were warnings of a possible alignment between Russia and China after both vowed cooperation following a summit between Xi and Putin, and the two countries inked a gas pipeline agreement. While some analysts have seen Russia and China in monolithic terms – one has even seen rather ridiculous claims that Russia would become a “client state” of China – China is, in fact, put in an awkward position by Putin’s actions.

Alignment between Russia and China is not impossible down the line, following the further deterioration of relations between China and western powers. But at present, China does not want to weather the blow to its international credibility that would come from backing Russia’s claims. It also would be hesitant to risk relations with its most important trading partner, the European Union. To this extent, China is put in a tenuous position regarding its stance on Taiwan due to Putin’s actions and his speech.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People wait at a bus station to go to western parts of the country, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 24, 2022.

More broadly, one of the conceptual hurdles for China is that Putin did not arrive at a wholly positive or negative appraisal of the principle of self-determination. Putin claimed that Ukraine did not meet the criteria to qualify as a nation-state and was, in fact, an invention of the Bolsheviks. He instead asserted that Donetsk and Luhansk did meet these criteria, as a result of which Russia would be acknowledging both as republics, though this is probably still in line with claiming both as part of an expanded Russia.

Putin’s claims notably drew more on the history of imperial Russia than they did the Soviet Union. This is far from the first time that Russia has found the advocacy of self-determination by the early Soviet Union to be inconvenient for justifying territorial claims. Nevertheless, one notes the weak historical claim of asserting that Ukraine does not qualify as a nation, but Donetsk and Luhansk do, with Putin offering few grounds in his speech for this, and suggesting that Donetsk and Luhansk have a greater right to self-determination than Ukraine.

As such, China has faced difficulties drawing equivalency to this messy framework drawn up by Putin where Taiwan is concerned. With international condemnation of Putin’s actions, China has even tried to suggest that Taiwan is something like Donetsk and Luhansk for it. The attempt, then, would be to paint Taiwan alongside Donetsk and Luhansk as “separatist bad guys.”

Yet if so, in this framework of equivalence, is China equal to Ukraine? Of course Ukraine is under attack by Russia, and no one appears likely to attack China anytime soon. Rather, it is Taiwan is more likely to be in the unfortunate situation that Ukraine is in now, subject to nationalist, irredentist aggression.

Russia and China is a more natural comparison. Both attempted to build socialist countries in the 20th century. Yet China still finds itself hoping to avoid the blow to its credibility and economy from a full-throated endorsement of Russia.

If Putin had simply asserted Donetsk and Luhansk to be part of Russia and not separate republics that Russia would now recognize, China might have had a slightly easier time navigating the situation. But if that were the case, China’s claims over Taiwan would still ultimately be based on more or less the same logic as Russia’s claims over Donetsk and Luhansk. Nor is China ready to take action over Taiwan–and endure the massive fallout that would come–the way that Russia was prepared to do so with mounting an invasion of Ukraine.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People take shelter in a subway station, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022.

There seems to be no easy way for China to maneuver in these circumstances.,.Perhaps part of the broader issue may be that Putin did not arrive at a wholly positive or negative appraisal of the principle of self-determination but, rather, seemed to endorse it within certain criteria while dismissing it in others. The attendant hurdle for China is that, officially speaking, it still endorses self-determination to some extent, claiming that the people of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong alike are free to determine their future under Chinese rule. This occurs even as some contemporary Chinese leftist thinkers have proven dismissive of the principle of self-determination altogether, claiming that history creates states but also may undo them.

Though one does not imagine Putin to be a particularly sophisticated thinker where theories of nationalism, statehood, or self-determination are concerned, it is probably correct that Putin was aiming to put China in a position where it would be forced to choose sides. It remains a question as to whether Putin knew that China was unlikely to support his claims; Putin may have noted that even if China wanted to avoid the condemnation of the international community and so was unlikely to back him, it was unlikely to be accepted by the international community either. And if China is rebuffed by the international community, rather than welcomed as a partner in taking action against Russia, this would still push China into greater alignment with Russia down the line.

Yet if that were the case, this would be a long to medium-term play, and not a short-term, immediate one. It would be a mistake to already see China and Russia as a monolithic bloc, with the two automatically pushed closer to each other by the opening of hostilities. For one, China cannot immediately backtrack on the statements it has already made on Ukraine, even as it has made some moves that could cushion Russia against economic sanctions..

Tellingly, it is not impossible that China eventually adopts a line similar to Putin–effectively arguing that Taiwan’s existence is due to China and so that it is justified in annulling Taiwan’s statehood. Putin asserting such claims about Ukraine may open the way for the universalization of such discourse; again, it was already a line of argument among Chinese left nationalist thinkers that the emergence of Taiwanese identity was a product of history, Taiwanese identity could also fade away in time.

It is key to note that even if China is currently criticizing, however lightly, Russia’s war of aggression, China has sought to avoid the blow in international credibility from supporting Russia’s claims, while also wanting to use the crisis to bolster claims over Taiwan in some respect. So, then, has China lashed out at Taiwanese expressions of sympathy for Ukraine. As the war develops, it wouldn’t be surprising if these incoherent responses continue.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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