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Expert: Sanctions on Russia also affect Taiwan situation

Below is an interview of University of Tokyo professor Matsuda Yasuhiro conducted by Ukai Kei.


Q: How does China view the current Ukraine situation?


Matsuda: It would not have been so bad for China if Russia had simply made a display of military pressure, distracting the U.S. from its efforts to encircle China. I would think that China is perplexed by Russian’s full-scale invasion.


When President Vladimir Putin visited China for the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China signed an agreement to purchase natural gas from Russia in rubles. The Feb. 4 China-Russia joint statement was the first to express opposition to the eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The statement said, “There is no limit to the friendship between our two countries, and there are no areas where we will not cooperate.” The message showed China shares Russia’s concerns and supports Russia. The statement led to a situation where Russia will be fine even if it is sanctioned in the energy sector. China may have tried to dissuade Russia if it had known in advance that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion.


Q: Some may view China and Russia as working in concert.


Matsuda: Putin is the greatest villain in the world today. Everyone has begun to cut ties with Russia, but China has been forced to play a supporting role to its detriment. It cannot be helped if people view China as playing a part in the invasion. China can never abandon Russia completely because it wants to counter the U.S. Although Ukraine is an important country in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative promoted by Xi Jinping, China has abandoned that nation.


China and Russia are basically the [world’s] two leading authoritarian countries. People think that China will take the same actions in Taiwan [at some point].


Q: How will the Ukraine situation affect the Taiwan issue?


Matsuda: There is no longer any hope for a peaceful unification [of Taiwan] through negotiations. It is believed that China has switched tactics and will now urge Taiwan to integrate [with China] over time against the backdrop of military force. If Russia had succeeded in a brief decisive battle and the Western countries had been unable to stop it, Xi might have been tempted to do the “same thing in Taiwan.” Russia was not able to subdue Ukraine through threats, and a brief decisive battle was elusive. Average Ukrainians taking arms to protect their country from a powerful enemy have become heroes for the Taiwanese people. It is a very bad situation for China.


Q: There may be economic effects, as well.


Matsuda: The sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard, and Russia has become isolated in every sector. We can expect that if Russia tries to change the status quo by force, it will not go as planned. Even if Russia were to succeed in expanding its territory, it would pay a disproportionately high price for it. In that case, Xi would have to be cautious about his policy toward Taiwan. “An improved standard of living” is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s justification to rule. Even if Taiwan were integrated into China by force, the grounds for the CCP’s legitimacy may be destroyed if people’s lives were to become harder as a result.


Q: The U.S. has avoided intervening militarily.


Matsuda: What the Ukraine and Taiwan environments have in common is that they are places where authoritarian powers can change the status quo by force and they are countries where an individual dictator is on the rise. Ukraine and Taiwan are different in many ways, however. Ukraine is a large plain adjacent to Russia. In contrast, it is difficult to send a large number of ground forces to Taiwan because it is separated from China by a strait more than 100 km wide. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is under U.S. influence and is a model of a market economy and democracy. Taiwan also has high strategic value.


President Joe Biden has chosen to “avoid World War III,” which means he will not engage with nuclear states to protect non-allied nations. China is also a nuclear state, so the U.S. may not intervene in the event of a Taiwan contingency. China cannot ignore the risk that the U.S. may intervene, however, because the U.S. has a “Taiwan Relations Act” that allows armed intervention, and President Biden has “repeatedly said by mistake” that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan. [Biden’s remarks] convey to China that this is actually the U.S.’s real intention.


Q: What should Japan and the international community do?


Matsuda: First, we should make Russia pay a high price for its actions by imposing sanctions, and we should spread the narrative inside and outside Russia that “the invasion of Ukraine was the beginning of the end of the Putin administration.” We should accelerate actions to enhance economic security because it is dangerous to be overly dependent on Russia. Japan, the U.S., and Europe will play a central role in creating a cooperative framework, and they will call on other countries to join it. It is unavoidable that nations will form blocs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will come to be seen as a turning point comparable to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

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