In the wake of Biden’s seemingly anodyne comment on Russia’s enormous military build-up on its border with Ukraine as a “minor incursion”, a trilateral naval drill was carried out by China, Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean on the following day. Two days later, China’s 39 warplanes entered Taiwan’s air defense zone, marking its largest incursion into the island since the beginning of 2022. It is worth noting that China’s newest round of military intimidation of Taiwan came merely one day after the end of 6-day U.S.-Japan drill in the Philippine Sea, which can be interpreted as either “a show of firepower to the United States and Japan” or a fear of direct confrontation with the U.S-led security system. If anything can be speculated from the juxtaposition of the two ongoing regional security events, despite their geographic separation, it is the underlying chain reaction of the geopolitical challenges in Eurasia, a more presumptuous conspiracy theory – collusion between Beijing and Moscow.
Taiwan and Ukraine, from a historical perspective, occupy similar positions in Chinese and Russian geopolitical strategic experience. For Chinese Communist Party (CCP), capturing Taiwan would not only allow the second largest economy to break out of the First Island Chain and pose direct threats to Japan, but thwart the grand strategy of “Pivot to Asia” of the United States. For Russia, seizing Ukraine would secure its hold on the Black Sea and impede NATO’s eastward expansion by increasing the pressure on Bulgaria and Romania. More importantly, successful annexation of Taiwan and Ukraine would undoubtedly consolidate the incumbent leaders of China and Russia – both of them are straining to seek a longer term, legally and legitimately, than they are supposed to have.
It remains unclear why Russia is making a military move against Ukraine at this point considering the escalation of Russia-Ukraine tensions does not seem to be triggered by any particular event. On the contrary, Russia’s military build-up and its subsequent war with Georgia in 2008 broke out in the aftermath of NATO’s Bucharest Summit where a promising signal was sent to Georgia and Ukraine for their potential NATO membership. In the case of Taiwan Strait, the nearest military conflicts in history dates back to 1995 when the then-President of Taiwan Lee Teng-hui delivered a speech in the United States, accentuating his blueprint for the democratization of the mainland China, which was subsequently “welcomed” by CCP with missiles firings and naval exercises.
No matter it is Russia’s reiterated opposition to the enlargement of NATO or China’s endless intimidation against Taiwan’s independence movement, neither can provide sufficient explanations for the abruptly escalated tensions. One plausible assumption is the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, which left Russia and China with an impression of the waning of the U.S. hegemony and the U.S. would be reluctant, if not incapable, to fight in Ukraine and Taiwan at once.
Moreover, given the strengthening ties between Russia and China in recent years, especially since China, more or less, attempted to bail out Russia with a 30-year gas deal ($400bn) from the international sanctions in response to the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Collusion, thus, is made a presumed outgrowth of the concurrent parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan
Nevertheless, is collusion, to put it more bluntly, a successful military invasion into Ukraine really what Russia wants? There is no doubt that the ultimate pursuit of Putin is a dominant Russia in Eurasia – a recreation of multipolar hegemony with Russia on par with the West. Does that make a rising China a loyal and reliable ally? No, at least not judging by the possible outcome. Successful annexation of Taiwan will not only boost CCP’s hegemonic aspirations, but pose a sharp threat to the ambition of Russia in Eurasia. On the other hand, what will Putin gain from the annexation of Ukraine is nothing more than temporary amelioration of intensified domestic politics and greater legitimacy of his extended presidency. Putin does need both of them. But as a leader who scrambled to recover Russian economy which had been mired in the Shock Therapy, he knows better than anyone about the importance of a robust economy, to the country and his leadership. If the muscle-flexing leader (figuratively and literally) has ever deigned to learn anything from his boastful success in Crimea, it is that Russia can by no means withstand another round of sanctions, not to mention its already shaky economy hit hard by Covid.
It is noticeable that Russia has a track record of benefiting from being a third party in international relations. As long as a century ago, tsarist Russia pitted the two great Asian powers – China and Japan against each other by providing the Qing Empire with military support during the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. During World War II, Stalin used Nazi-Soviet Pact to pit Germany against France and Britain and freed the Soviet Union from the fight. To this day, as aggressive as Putin can be, he is unlikely to be foolish enough to forego that strategic legacy. One good example is Russia’s efforts to sever the ties between Europe and the U.S. through Nord Stream 2. Putin clearly recognizes the fact that it is the U.S. and China that are the protagonists against the backdrop of the global conflict these days. The reality, coupled with the cunning and shrewdness of the traditional Russian-style diplomacy, inevitably pushes him to abide by the strategic ambiguity – moving back and forth between these two competing powers in a bid to again as many interests as possible.
Compared to the collusion theory, the Ukraine crisis is more like a bait set by Russia for China to take. Even a minor success of the invasion could spur CCP, under a presumptuous authoritarian leader who is anxious to seek hegemony, to initiate the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. However, the economic, geopolitical and ideological influence of Taiwan to the U.S. and the world far outweighs those of Ukraine. If CCP took the bait, China will be undoubtedly under siege from the international community. That is when Russia could repeat its diplomatic tricks by playing the role of the ally of the West to maintain the balance of power in Asia. But the real question is: can Russia afford the price to pay before that day comes?