The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put China on the wrong foot and raised a question about the ability of the leaders of the Communist Party of China to handle a crisis of this magnitude. Initially, China had pooh-poohed warnings that Russia was preparing for war and instead accused the United States of stoking tension. Now leaders of China are trying to sail in two boats, sympathizing with the grievances of Moscow regarding the security of Russia and at the same time paying lip-service to the sovereignty of Ukraine. The failure of Beijing to take a stand on the crisis in Ukraine has undermined the hope of China to emerge as a global leader in the coming days.Chinese diplomats have falsely accused the United States of developing biological weapons in Ukraine. This, according to experts, has lowered the reputation of China of siding with an aggressive power.
On the other hand, recent developments indicate that Beijing is trying to step up its high-handed attitude in an effort to strengthen its hegemony in its neighbourhood while the attention of the whole world is focused on the war in Ukraine. But this opportunistic policy has also backfired.
These attempts have varied from stepping up threats to Taiwan to adopting threatening postures against smaller littoral states in the South China Sea. Beijing could have hoped now that the attention of the United States is focused on Europe because of the war in Ukraine, it could be the right opportunity for China to bully the smaller nations like Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei and establish its hegemony in the South China Sea; and also complete its unfulfilled agenda of annexing Taiwan. Beijing’s hopes may still remain a mirage, however, as these smaller nations are offering resistance to the Chinese threat. To the discomfiture of Beijing, Washington, too, continues to remain vigilant in the South China Sea region.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given rise to the apprehension in Taipei that China may try to follow suit and use force to annexe Taiwan. According to reports, China has been sending military aircraft into the air defence identification zone of Taiwan on almost a daily basis. On the other hand, as ground reports from Taiwan reveal, the Russian assault on Ukraine is serving a wake-up call for Taiwan. A report in the Financial Times says Taiwanese people are taking more interest in the effectiveness of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger man-portable missiles, which the people are using effectively to stall the advance of the Russian forces. There is also a debate in Taiwan over reinstating conscription and reorganizing the large but poorly trained reserve force of Taiwan.
The German broadcasting agency DW has said in a report that Taiwan is holding several military exercises. Drawing the instance of Ukraine, President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen has emphasized that the protection of Taiwan, in addition to international solidarity and assistance, would depend on the unity of the people. Taiwan is taking steps to test the combat readiness of troops.Military reservists have been put through a new and more intensive training programme. They are going through live fire drills to ensure that reservists have basic combat skills. Some 15,000 reservists involving 24 battalions have been involved.Experts of the think-tank German Marshall Fund say what Taiwan is doing with reservists is long overdue.
The air force and the navy of Taiwan have carried out a series of military exercises, testing the air defence capabilities of Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese army is also slated to carry out live fire drills in the offshore islands. U. S. Defence officials have urged Taiwan to build asymmetric capabilities, expand in areas such as cyber war and use means to project a smaller force against a larger and better-equipped enemy. Taiwan has been advised to draw a lesson from Ukraine how a small force could thwart the attack of a much stronger enemy.Asymmetric defence, for Taiwan, could mean acquiring large numbers of small and inexpensive capabilities that could make it more difficult for an invader to land on a beach and make headway inland. This could mean use of weapons like coastal defence cruise missiles, short range, mobile air defence systems, smart naval mines and drones.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is also talk of introducing in Taiwan a one-year mandatory military service. Even now all eligible male citizens in Taiwan are required to participate in four months of military training though a conscription army has been abolished. In the meantime, China has also stepped up its violation of territorial rights of the smaller littoral states in the South China Sea. In the middle of March, 2022, a ship of the Chinese navy made an illegal incursion into the waters of Philippines. The Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest against the incursion and demanded that Beijing order its ships to respect the territories of the Philippines and follow international law. Manila said a reconnaissance ship of the Chinese navy crossed into the Sulu Sea and lingered there for three days, cruising off the western Palawan and Mindoro provinces between January 29 and February 1, without permission and in violation of the sovereignty of the Philippines. The incident was particularly alarming as the Sulu Sea is well within the territory of the Philippines and not in the South China Sea where China is locked in a territorial dispute with four other governments. The Chinese ship was, however, forced to leave, as a naval ship of the Philippines approached within one nautical mile of the Chinese ship and asked it to leave the territorial waters of the Philippines immediately.
Recent developments indicate there is little chance that in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine U. S. President Joe Biden will waver from his strategy of turning greater attention in containing the Chinese threat in the Asia – Pacific region. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the White House sent a delegation led by Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Taipei as a visible sign of support to Taiwan. It is believed that the delegation discussed the need for Taipei to strengthen its defences faster and more decisively. The five-member delegation led by Mullen that visited Taipei in the beginning of March 2022 were all specialists in security. Separately, former Secretary of State in the Donald Trump administration Mike Pompeo also visited Taipei during the same period.
The USA has also maintained its naval presence in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine, belying Chinese hopes that America is now a spent force and lacks determination. Guided missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson made a passage through the Taiwan Strait in March, amid protests from China. The U. S. Navy said, however, that the Taiwan Strait was in international waters and the passage of the ship was to demonstrate the commitment of the USA for a free and open Indo – Pacific. Even as a Chinese ship was forced to withdraw from the Sulu Sea by a ship of the Filipino navy, an American military ship manoeuvred near the coast of Philippines off Palawan in a government – authorisedexercise with the Philippine marines.
There is concern in China that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will force Europe to lean more towards the USA. If countries like France and Germany bolster their defences as promised, then the U. S. will have more spare military resources to deal with China, a professor of international relations in Nanjing University has been quoted as saying. Allies of the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Japan and Australia, will also adopt a stronger military posture; all to the discomfiture of China.