If Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have anything in common, it is a thirst for power and territorial expansion. While Putin sees himself as a 21st-century Peter the Great, seeking to restore the Tsarist Empire, Xi eagerly hopes to absorb Taiwan and expand China’s global impact.
In recent years, Putin and Xi have been drawn together by common goals and mutual adversaries. Last year, Russia and China held joint military exercises; Russia overtook the Saudis as the main foreign source of Chinese oil.
Their economic ties have “cemented”. Even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was imminent, China agreed to buy Russian wheat; Russia has agreed to sell 100 million tons of coal to China. Xi initially approved a negotiated settlement for Ukraine, provided that settlement met Putin’s demands. In a February 4 agreement, China and Russia announced that their friendship “has no limits.”
Given this ascending alliance of convenience, one of the biggest surprises since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the about-face by Xi and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At first, China maintained political and economic support for Russia amid the invasion – a position firmly established in recent months. Xi’s patronage appears to be receding.
No one doubted that China was the world’s biggest supporter of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. Observers have widely acknowledged that Xi viewed Russia’s absorption of Ukraine as analogous to China’s stance toward Taiwan. Putin certainly thought so, insisting on February 21 that “Ukraine has never had a real statehood tradition”.
“Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country”, he added. “It’s an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.”
Putin’s opinion is old. In March 2014, shortly before invading Crimea, Putin claimedKiev “is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Compare Putin’s claims with decades of CCP claims that there is “one China,” of which Taiwan is an integral part. Ukraine and Taiwan vigorously oppose any claim that their territories are an integral part of Russia and China, respectively. They rightly consider themselves independent states by virtue of history and contemporary geopolitical reality.
What changed last week was one word: Zelensky. The courage to resist demonstrated by Ukrainians and embodied by President Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied the world to their side in a way no one could have imagined.
The expulsion of some Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial network was previously considered impossible. That happens. The United States has targeted sanctions against the central bank of Russia. Breaking with a policy of several decades after the Second World War, Germany, heavily dependent on Russian energy, is send lethal weapons in the besieged country. Turkey implements a pact limit Russian warships to the Black Sea. South Korea joined international sanctions.
Such widespread and cross-cultural responses were not on the table a week ago. Zelensky and Ukrainians have put the word to shame by collectively doing what is right.
Xi and the CCP have quickly forced to reconcile with this new reality and with what degree of support the world is supporting Ukraine. By necessity, their attitude towards the invasion of Russia changed. Xi called on Putin to end the crisis through negotiation. He is undoubtedly rethinking any attempt to take Taiwan by force – a clear motivation behind Xi’s initial green light to Russia.
The CCP expressly distances itself from any idea that Taiwan and Ukraine are comparable. chinese ministry now forcefully asserted, “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” adding that “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.”
As NATO allies crush Russian oligarchs, China is now making Russia financing of raw materials more difficult. Developments did not go as China had planned, which means that the CCP no longer wants to appear as the main supporter of an international pariah: Vladimir Putin. China examines the sanctions imposed on Russia and calculates how devastating they would be for the Chinese economy.
The CCP is certainly willing to go to great lengths to absorb Taiwan. However, the Zelensky model increases the likelihood of prolonged and bloody resistance from the Taiwanese if Xi were to eventually invade – and shows the courage that Western defenders of Taiwan could bring. A firm rebuke of China by both the Taiwanese people, the United States and its allies would undermine Xi’s ultimate goals.
Unquestionably, Zelensky’s Ukraine changed the strategic situation in ways that neither Putin nor Xi anticipated. The world is mobilizing to defend oppressed Ukraine with extraordinary measures. For now, it’s unclear if Zelensky can save his country, but it’s entirely possible that he saved Taiwan and indelibly changed the global dynamic.
Keith Nobles (@AuthorNobleslisten)) was a contractor to the military intelligence community from 1981 to 1995, including the last decade of the Cold War.
Jimmy Sengenberger (@SengCenter) is the host of Jimmy at the Crossroadsa webshow and a podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner, and The Jimmy Sengenberger Show on Denver News/Talk 710 KNUS.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.